Tulsa Ballet soloist Maine Kawashima and corps de ballet dancer Sasha Chernjavsky in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Limoncello in November 2020

Bethany Kirby, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

An Infectious-Disease Physician on What Vaccines Mean for Ballet

As the coronavirus pandemic grinds into its second year, the toll on ballet companies—and dancers—has been steep. How long before dancers can rehearse and perform as they once did?

Like most things, the return to normal for ballet seems to hinge on vaccinations. Just over 22 percent of people in the U.S. are now vaccinated, a way from the estimated 70 to 85 percent experts believe can bring back something similar to pre-pandemic life.

But what would it mean for 100 percent of a ballet company to be vaccinated? Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini is about to find out—and hopes it brings the return of big ballets on the big stage.

"I don't think companies like ours can survive doing work for eight dancers in masks," Angelini says. "If we want to work, dance, and be in front of an audience consistently and with the large works that pay the bills, immunization is the only road that leads there."

While Oklahoma began offering vaccines to anyone who wants them on March 29, all of the dancers in Tulsa Ballet and Tulsa Ballet II have already had at least their first shot. The dancers were eligible early as teachers or substitute teachers in Tulsa Ballet's school. Angelini expects to be able to have the entire company working in one studio by the end of April—when every dancer is two weeks out from their second dose.

Angelini has worked with AGMA's Wendy LaManque and board-certified infectious-disease physician Dr. Lauren Brett Jaggers throughout the pandemic to devise safety plans, such as pods, temperature checks, masks, cleaning protocols and an air-filtration system. Tulsa Ballet says it hopes to phase out masks once all dancers have been fully vaccinated for two weeks.

Angelini expects that next season will look a lot like pre-pandemic times. He anticipates he'll be able to fill the theater at 50 percent capacity and offer an additional performance of each program in order to accommodate more people. He even plans a premiere of a new Nutcracker with the orchestra, and costumes for the children that include masks, as they will likely be unvaccinated.

Tulsa ballet's Regina Montgomery, Giulia Neri and Maine Kawashima rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Limoncello

Bethany Kirby, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Although there can be no definitive answer as to how things will progress, Angelini's plan aligns with what should be possible when an entire company is vaccinated, according to Jaggers. To help get Tulsa Ballet to 100 percent participation, she was on hand to answer any questions the dancers had.

What will happen in companies where dancers don't want the vaccine? LaManque says that many performers are eager to have it so they can get back to work, but there might be some who have religious objections, medical conditions or other reasons not to get it. For companies that are signatories of AGMA, it is not solely up to those individual companies on how to handle situations involving dancers who choose not to receive a vaccine. "Because vaccination policies are a mandatory subject of bargaining," says LaManque, "companies must bargain with AGMA over their proposed vaccine accommodation policy."

Pointe caught up with Jaggers to learn what dancers should know about the vaccine.

​Why is it important for dancers to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

We all have to do our part to reach herd immunity, and that takes every member of our greater communities at large taking the vaccine. On the whole, dancers are young and healthy, and yes, the risk of complications of COVID to them are less than other populations. However, it is certainly not zero percent. In fact, my home state of Colorado recently released hospital data, and 17 percent of hospitalized patients with COVID are aged 20 to 39. That is almost 1 in 5. "Less at risk" does not mean "no risk." I have seen many people under the age of 40 die this year. And many more who have been debilitated for months on end with what we are starting to refer to as "COVID long-haulers."

Dr. Jaggers, a white woman with short, blonde hair, smiles for a casual headshot. She is wearing a black, V-neck T-shirt.

Board-certified infectious-disease physician Dr. Lauren Brett Jaggers

Courtesy Jaggers

A significant part of the patronage of many ballet companies are those over the age of 60 and, therefore, at highest risk of death and complications if infected with COVID. Though a dancer may not get ill from COVID, if they are carrying the virus and expose their patrons to the illness, it is a losing situation for all involved. In addition, the dancers work side by side with choreographers, ballet mistresses, company directors, costume departments and the like, most of whom are older and, therefore, at risk for complications from COVID as well. The more people that are vaccinated, the less likely it is anyone becomes ill.

Tulsa Ballet II dancer Natali That in rehearsal for Joshua L. Peugh's The Lost Nutcracker

Bethany Kirby, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Once back in the studio, what safety protocols should dancers take if they are/are not yet vaccinated? Is it safe for groups of dancers that are fully vaccinated to rehearse together without masks?

Every company is unique, and protocols must be tailored to each company, but, generally, if the entire company is not vaccinated, then it's likely that keeping masks on and other safety measures that have been in place need to stay in place.

With regard to Tulsa Ballet, we have taken the approach that if everyone is vaccinated, it will be safe to not wear masks, as it is a smaller company. But every company is different. And every state and city seem to have their own specific mask mandates (or lack thereof). The CDC has said that small groups can gather together if fully vaccinated. At Tulsa Ballet, the dancers had been living in their own essential bubbles since all of this began. They were not spending time with other family members, traveling or eating out. We had to have "buy in" from all the dancers from the beginning. This is one strong consideration I had when we discussed making the transition from pods, to vaccinations, to being able to dance without masks. But again, the company knows that my recommendations can change based on emerging data or state/local laws.

Now, as Tulsa Ballet reaches the point of two weeks after full vaccination with the Moderna vaccine, I feel they are able to rehearse without masks. If they had had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, my opinion may not be the same, given it is less effective against mild disease cases. The CDC has reported that the J&J/Janssen vaccine had high efficacy at preventing hospitalization and death in people who did get sick. [Editor's note: There is currently a pause in administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.] In addition, the CDC says that fully vaccinated persons do not need to quarantine after exposure to a case. (However, any infected individual can spread the disease to non-vaccinated people.) This is another fact we emphasize to the dancers as an encouraging reason to get vaccinated, so one positive case in the company will not completely shut everything down for 7 to 10 days of quarantine. One thing I have continuously said to the company, and Marcello, is that we learn more every day and recommendations will continue to change.

When dancers came to you with their hesitation to receive the vaccine, how did you allay their concerns?

This one was tougher as there is so much misinformation which is easily accessible. I think an important first step is to acknowledge their fears and concerns. We are all living through a scary time. Then I asked them to form specific questions or concerns they wanted me to address. Sometimes they didn't even know what they were worried about. Sometimes they had very specific questions which were easily refutable with scientific data. Some people have already made up their mind, and no matter what you share with them, they will never change their minds.

Vaccination is how companies will survive going forward, so the more coordinated and consistent the messaging that comes from public health advisors, as well as the ballet community at large, the sooner we will have curtains rising again.

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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."

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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Ballet West principal Katlyn Addison in a still from In The Balance. Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)

For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.

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