Carolina Ballet soloist Sam Ainley, shown here as a teenager, was initially not jazzed about dancing as a Big Mouse in his childhood Nutcracker. But he learned to appreciate the role. Photo Courtesy Ainley.

What 4 Pros Learned Dancing "Nutcracker" Roles They Weren't Excited About As Kids

You have your heart set on a role. Casting goes up. You're crushed. Not only were you passed over for the part you were hoping for, but you're definitely not excited about the role you received.

You're in good company—nearly every dancer has gone through this. We spoke with four professionals about their less-than-desired Nutcracker roles growing up, and asked them to reflect on what they learned from the experience.


Katherine Lawrence, Ballet West principal dancer

Katherine Lawrence, in a green and pink tutu, and Chase O'Connell, in white tights and a green tunic, balance on their right leg with their left leg lifted behind them in attitude.

Katherine Lawrence and Chase O'Connell in Ballet West's Nutcracker.

Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

When I was 8, I began performing in the party scene with Connecticut Ballet. This was exciting, because party scene roles were usually for older kids. Because of this opportunity and others I received over the next few years, I believed I was on the trajectory to be Clara.

Then, when I was 12, one of my good friends was cast as Clara and I was cast as a Soldier. I was pretty devastated. My mom was in the hospital at the time the casting went up, but afterwards she took me on a trip to the beach and had a long talk with me about how all roles in Nutcracker were important. This helped me a lot. During rehearsals, I began to learn how to perform in a unit and experienced the camaraderie of the corps de ballet. By the time we came to the performances, I was really enjoying the role: the sense of moving together with other dancers, staying in line together and staying strong together. Now, when I watch classics such as Giselle and La Bayadère I feel that the strength of the corps is what really reflects on the quality of the company.

Sam Ainley, Carolina Ballet soloist

Sam Ainely, in a pink tunic and white tights, partners a ballerina in a purple tutu on pointe.

Sam Ainley partners Alyssa Pilger in Carolina Ballet's Nutcracker.

Jason Pescasio, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

When I was 13, I was cast as a Big Mouse in Sacramento Ballet's Nutcracker. I was extremely disappointed, because I was hoping to be a Party Child again, like all my friends. All of a sudden, I was in rehearsals with only a few older, upper-level boys who I'd never talked to before. Some of the other mice were danced by apprentices from the company.

Sam Ainley, in a mouse headpiece, white sleeveless T-shirt, black shorts and black ballet shoes, listens to rehearsal notes in a cluttered dance studio.

A teenage Ainley rehearses his role of a Big Mouse for Sacramento Ballet's Nutcracker.

Courtesy Ainley.

I was very nervous at my first rehearsal; I was quiet and stayed in the back of the studio. The role consisted of many different types of jumps, most of which I had never attempted. The older boys taught me some of the more advanced choreography before the director came to the studio for rehearsal. It was at this point that I realized how much I enjoyed jumping. With the help of the director telling me "Up!", the height and technique of my jumps began to improve. After my third rehearsal, I thought, This is working! The coordination of jumping felt extremely natural, and I began to integrate these lessons into my daily technique classes. If I hadn't received a role I didn't want, I may not have discovered my love of jumping so early in my training.

Elizabeth Powell, San Francisco Ballet soloist

Elizabeth stands onstage with her feet together in sus-sous on pointe. She wears a white tutu and crown, and there is fake snow falling around her.

Elizabeth Powell in San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker.

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

For my very first Nutcracker at Boston Ballet as a student, I really wanted to be cast as a Toy Doll. In the production at that time, each of the dolls represented one of the dancers from the Act II divertissements. You could not only feel like you were representing a ballerina, but you also got to be carried by the big mice in the battle, so there was interaction with company members. I really hoped to be the doll representing Flowers or Arabian. Instead I was cast as the Baby Mouse.

Elizabeth Powell, as a child, poses in a fluffy black mouse costume and headpiece. She wears makeup of a mouse nose and whiskers on her face.

Powell as the Baby Mouse from Nutcracker.

Courtesy Powell.

But in this role, I found some of the things I was looking forward to in the Toy Doll part. The Baby Mouse also got to be in the battle scene and be carried around by big mice. What was even more exciting was that there was only one Baby Mouse, so it was like its own little solo part. Moreover, I was just thrilled and grateful to be in Boston Ballet's Nutcracker. It's a big production and lots of kids who tried out weren't selected. I had auditioned the year before and wasn't cast, so it was a lesson in gratitude. I ended up loving the part.

Chandler Proctor, Tulsa Ballet demi-soloist

Chandler Proctor, in a black tuxedo costume, splits his legs into sissonne during the Nutcracker's party scene. He is surrounded by other dancers in black dresses and tuxedos.

Chandler Proctor (jumping) in Tulsa Ballet's Nutcracker.

Andrew Weeks, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

When I was 14 at the International Ballet Academy in North Carolina, I wanted to perform in the Russian dance in Nutcracker—I liked roles with jumps and turns. Instead, I was cast in the Snow Scene pas de deux. I wasn't really interested in partnering at the time and didn't think this role would be exciting. I also didn't have much pas de deux experience and felt like the casting was a mistake. I struggled in rehearsals and couldn't do any of the lifts.

A young Charles Proctor, wearing a white jacket and tights, stands behind a teenage student ballerina in a white tutu and holds her waist so she can balance on pointe.

Fourteen-year-old Proctor partners his classmate in the Snow Scene from the International Ballet Academy's Nutcracker.

Courtesy Proctor

I went home one day and expressed my frustration to my dad. He suggested we start working out together and lifting weights to help build my upper-body strength. He bought some weights and we worked out every day and I got stronger. I started to get better at lifting my partner. I remember the feeling of accomplishment on the day I finally was able to do the arabesque press lift. My coach also helped me not to be shy about partnering and taught me that, together, my partner and I should dance as one person. As a male dancer, partnering is a very important skill and this role helped me learn that.

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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."

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

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