A promotional photo for Val Caniparoli's Jekyll & Hyde at Finnish National Ballet

Juha Mustonen, Courtesy Finnish National Ballet

Val Caniparoli Pulled Zoom All-Nighters For His Upcoming Premiere at Finnish National Ballet

Back in April, it seemed like everyone in the performing arts was either coping with company shutdowns or watching future work evaporate before their eyes. As seasons were canceled or pushed off into the unknown future, choreographer Val Caniparoli took a deep breath and focused on a glimmer of hope: Finnish National Ballet had commissioned him to develop a full-length Jekyll & Hyde, and was determined to move forward with its November world premiere. So, Caniparoli hunkered down in his apartment while honing his vision at all hours to build this psychological thriller into a reality.


Before the Pandemic

Caniparoli had been deep inside the creation of his premiere, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for many years. While his ballet—which features scenic and costume design by David Israel Reynoso and music compiled from five Polish composers—is scheduled to debut in Helsinki on November 6, much of the designs, storyboard and research had already been accomplished before anybody had heard of COVID-19.

"There were a few companies interested in having me create this work, including Kansas City Ballet," says Caniparoli. In May 2019, he received funding to workshop his ideas for Jekyll & Hyde and approached KCB. Artistic director Devon Carney agreed for him to workshop his ideas with six dancers over two weeks. He and his frequent assistant Maiqui Mañosa used the time to develop a scene in a mental institution that includes 16 patients dancing on hospital beds.

A man with white hair and a black V-neck T-shirt is shown from the chest up and looks directly at the camera.

Val Caniparoli

Chris Hardy, Courtesy Val Caniparoli

Caniparoli had been in Finland to cast Jekyll & Hyde for one week prior to everything shutting down. "When I left Europe at the beginning of March, I heard FNB had stopped performing and shifted programming to the fall. But they never gave up or said they wouldn't perform Jekyll & Hyde—though, I wasn't sure it would happen because the world was in disarray."

FNB artistic director Madeleine Onne was prepared to press forth. "There is nothing called 'It won't work' in my world," says Onne. "One just has to find the solution." With management by her side, she drove the company forward in executing their plans for the upcoming season. "We were focused on this premiere, as the making of costumes and sets had already started. We have a two- to three-year planning frame and all is planned in detail leading up to a premiere. So, we wanted this to work."

Man by Day, Choreographer by Night

Shortly after Caniparoli returned home to San Francisco, the city declared a shelter-in-place order. Accustomed to frequent travel for work, he was now stuck in his two-bedroom condo for the foreseeable future. But over 5,000 miles away, Onne suggested Caniparoli continue his choreographic process via Zoom. However, there was a catch: Finland is 10 hours ahead of San Francisco, and Caniparoli's assistant was locked down in Philadelphia. This unconventional solution was transforming into something much more unusual.

In May, Onne asked several dancers to come into the studios so Caniparoli could stage the scene in the mental institution. Not only was Caniparoli creating virtually for the first time, he was working the night shift, with six hours of rehearsals starting at 1 am San Francisco time.

"I was a mess," says Caniparoli. "I'm a late-nighter, but how do you sleep? Plus, we were doing production meetings at 11:30 pm and I was still receiving calls during normal hours. I couldn't stop the stuff I had to do during the day, so I was a walking zombie."

Nonetheless, he pressed forth and honed his focus. A typical overnight rehearsal would include navigating the bed choreography from his couch, frequently adjusting the camera to capture movement out of frame, and dealing with inevitable Zoom delays. Luckily, there were several willing and able dancers to assist in streamlining Caniparoli's efforts.

"I hadn't ever worked with a choreographer via Zoom before," says one of those dancers, company member Emrecan Taniş. "But Val has good communication skills and came to rehearsals very prepared."

Caniparoli felt his situation better aligned him with the story of Jekyll and Hyde. "Doing this at night made me darker," he says. "It shifted my mood. Everything I was doing with the meetings, the pandemic, and being alone made me really hunker down and solidify the storyboard. It got leaner and it improved. I've never been more prepared for a new work in my life."

Zooming in for the Landing

In August, after five months of sheltering in place, Caniparoli finally returned to Finland to focus on finalizing his world premiere. "It all happened very fast. The decision was made that I could fly, but I had to get a negative result from a COVID-19 rapid test the day I traveled. From there, I spent the next two weeks in my hotel room under quarantine and back on Zoom for rehearsals."

Unable to risk going back home before the premiere, Caniparoli will stay in Finland through the first week of November. While FNB focuses on preparing for and performing its current season, which includes a delayed production from this past spring, Caniparoli continues to hold daily rehearsals for Jekyll & Hyde. He is also conducting Zoom rehearsals with Cincinnati Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theatre while continuing to arrange future work with companies around the globe.

So far, Jekyll & Hyde's November premiere is still on schedule. Candidly, Caniparoli states that he won't again create virtually unless absolutely necessary, adding that it takes him much longer to choreograph via Zoom than in person. "At 69 years old, I am really proud of myself for working in this virtual way," he says. "It was a necessity and we made it work. But I love being in the studio with the dancers."

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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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