This Year in Ballet Books

Photo by Jordan Matter of Dancers Among Us.

If you’re strapped for last-minute gift ideas for the bunhead book-nerd in your life, or if you are one yourself (guilty!), take a look at some of the new ballet books published this year.

For the Photography Lover:

  • Misty Copeland: Power and Grace, by Richard Corman and Cindy Bradley. Copeland jumps off the glossy pages in striking black and white photography. The book includes her own quotes championing hope and strength in the face of adversity.
  • Ballet: Photographs of the New York City Ballet, by Henry Leutwyler and Peter Martins. The Swiss photographer’s photos go beyond capturing gorgeous poses. Rendered in rich color, the power of a leg, the swirl of a skirt—the lushness of NYCB dancers’ movement is on display.
  • Matthew Brookes: Les Danseurs, by Matthew Brookes and Marie-Agnès Gillot. Matthew Brookes’ photos show the stunning strength and grace of the Paris Opéra Ballet—displayed through intimate close ups and remarkably captured movement.
  • Roberto Bolle: Voyage Into Beauty, by Roberto Bolle, Luciano Romano and Fabrizio Ferri. The eminent Roberto Bolle appears as a powerful athlete and a vulnerable artist, framed by the splendid backdrop of Italy, his home.
  • Carlos Acosta at The Royal Ballet, by The Royal Ballet. Set for release in the U.S. in spring 2016, this book chronicles the virtuosic star’s career at The Royal in honor of his farewell season. (You can pre-order on Amazon!)
  • Balancing Acts, by Lucy Gray. Told through intimate photos and inspiring personal accounts, this book follows three former San Francisco Ballet principals as they juggle the roles of ballerina and motherhood.

For the History Buff:

  • The Ballet Lover’s Companion, by Zoë Anderson. Beginning with the Romantic period and ending with works of modern day masters like Wheeldon and McGregor, Anderson catalogues 140 ballets, offering insightful information about their choreographers, premieres, seminal performances and more.
  • Dance to the Piper, by Agnes de Mille with a new introduction by Joan Acocella. Agnes de Mille—choreographer of quintessentially American ballets like Rodeo and Fall River Legend—originally published her memoir in 1951. The book gives a fascinating account of her work and life during the boom of Broadway and ballet. With a new introduction by Joan Acocella, it’s worth a revisit.
  • When Ballet Became French, by Ilyana Karthas. In the mid-19th century, ballet’s epicenter moved from Paris to St. Petersburg. In this fascinating book, Karthas explores how France reclaimed ballet in the early 20th century—the turbulent pre-/post-war years between 1909 and 1939—using the period’s own ballet writing and comprehensive analyses of French culture and national identity.

For Health and Wellness:

  • TuTu Thin: A Guide to Dancing Without an Eating Disorder, by Dawn Smith-Theodore. Written by an eating disorder expert and former dancer, this book is a must-read for any young ballerina, whether she’s grappling with body-image issues or not. Smith-Theodore addresses eating disorders and how to prevent them with solid, sound expertise.

For the Story Lover:

  • Unlovely, by Celeste Conway. In this novel’s romantic seaside setting, a young dancer begins preparing for the role of Giselle, but the glow of summer love between her and the boy she falls for slowly gives way to darkness and unknown horrors.
  • Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker, by Lauren Kessler. This is the true tale of one woman’s love for dance as it’s lost and found: Kessler’s account of how her childhood dream was crushed and how she reclaims it through a quest to perform The Nutcracker once more.

For the Russophile:

  • Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, by Janice Ross. What would Balanchine’s life have been like if he had stayed in his home country? Through the historical account of his contemporary, Leonid Yakobson, we may glean some idea. The Soviet choreographer is little known in the West, but his works endure; Boston Ballet will perform his Pas de Quatre in March 2016.
  • Alla Osipenko, by Joel Lobenthal. Soviet ballerina Alla Osipenko challenged the notion that dancers should be seen, not heard, by speaking out against her government’s oppressive status quo. However, this biography reveals that those who rebelled in Soviet Russia, even revered ballerinas, paid a price.
  • Olga Pavlova: A Ballerina For Our Time, by Karen McDonough. This biography goes inside the prestigious—and highly competitive—Bolshoi Ballet Academy, following Pavlova’s rise from school to stardom.

For the Deep Thinker:

  • The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life, by Sarah L. Kaufman. Written by the dance critic of the Washington Post, this meditation on grace will get you thinking. Through dancers and other performers, Kaufman explores the concept of grace, onstage and off.

 

But why pigeonhole ourselves? History buff, Russophile…in 2016, I’ll be working my way through them all.

 

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

Latest Posts


Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

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South African–born choreographer Andrea Schermoly is no stranger to challenges, and she's often on the move. Among an extensive portfolio of productions created for companies worldwide, she has also tackled reimaginings of Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring and Judith as one of three artists in residence at Louisville Ballet.

Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

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Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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