Former New York City Ballet corps member Lara Tong on her graduation day from Columbia University.

Courtesy Lara Tong

Life After the Corps de Ballet: Retiring with Little Fanfare, but Carrying Big Rewards

Corps de ballet dancers make up the backbone of any major ballet company, but often their retirements go unnoticed. A name disappears in the playbill, with little public recognition. These vital members of the ballet community offer valuable and often unheard perspectives. Pointe caught up with three retired senior corps members, all in different phases of their post-ballet lives, to learn about their transitions out of dance and their reflections on the careers they left behind.


Amir Yogev

A ballerina in a pink sparkly dance dress and a male dancer in gray pants and a silver button-down shirt, hold hands and jump in pass\u00e9.

Jordan Elizabeth Long and Amir Yogev in Balanchine's Who Cares?

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

Although his final season with Miami City Ballet was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, Amir Yogev feels grateful that he danced in the all-male adagio of Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes for his last show. "[It was a] moment frozen in time where I could truly take in the audience, be with my MCB family, and dance in a free and expressive way men seldom get to experience in ballet," he says.

Yogev's early career was affected by another major national emergency: Just three years after joining MCB, he was laid off due to the 2008 financial crisis. In hindsight, Yogev credits this hard moment with pushing him to find a spot with Pennsylvania Ballet. He danced with PAB for seven seasons, finding value and fulfillment as he grew into his role as a senior corps member. "It's easy to find your weaknesses and shortcomings, but being thrown into featured roles early on gave me the space to find my confidence," says Yogev. Two of his favorite memories include performing in William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and taking on the title role in Trey McIntyre's Peter Pan. In 2016, he rejoined MCB, this time under a different director and with years of experience.

Two male dancers in blue shorts, a blue long-sleeved shirt with a large gray stripe, and blue and gray striped legwarmers, do piqu\u00e9 arabesque with their arms in high fifth. Three men in similar costumes stand casually behind them onstage.

Yogev (right) in Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes

Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy MCB

When Yogev's husband got a job in New York in 2019, he knew it was the right time to move on. Retiring during a pandemic comes with challenges, but Yogev, who is in school with hopes to pursue a business degree, finds some solace in how his current state of limbo reflects that of the world. He admits he will miss the camaraderie with his co-workers most of all. MCB dancers recently sent him a video with messages reflecting on his long career. "There is a mutual understanding and community in the corps that higher ranks don't always experience," says Yogev. "I would have never imagined the career I had."

Lara Tong

Lara Tong, in a purple dance dress, jumps with her right leg in pass\u00e9 and her left arm high in front of a purple stage backdrop.

Lara Tong in Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht Ballet

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

"It was a privilege to be able to get paid to be onstage and be surrounded by beautiful music," says former New York City Ballet corps member Lara Tong about her seven-year career there. Tong relished performing Balanchine staples such as "Emeralds" and Serenade, and taking on more featured roles in Walpurgisnacht Ballet and Swan Lake.

However, Tong envisioned a second career in medicine, and realized that staying longer at NYCB meant less opportunity to pursue that path. So in 2016, Tong decided to leave the company to finish her degree at Columbia University. She finished her last Lincoln Center season with George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. "I really enjoyed every single one of my last shows, soaking everything in," she says.

During her time at the School of American Ballet, Tong dealt with an almost career-ending injury, which spiked her curiosity in the body and medicine. She reflects on various doctor visits with different degrees of success, remembering one instance when a physician told her to give up and go home. "It made such a difference to see a doctor who was empathetic and emotionally aware of how to support their patient," she says. With this in mind, Tong sought out volunteer opportunities in the medical field during her off seasons with NYCB. She spent time at various hospitals and completed clinical research, confirming her desire to work in medicine.

Tong recently graduated from Columbia and will start medical school this fall. She credits her husband for supporting her through this transition and for encouraging her to explore her options, post-dance. Tong hopes to bring the same focus she possessed as a dancer into her career as a physician, helping patients in their most vulnerable moments. She looks back at her time with NYCB fondly and with pride, especially as one of the few Asian-American dancers in the company. "Hopefully the next Asian girl in the school will feel better about her chances of getting into the company...because someone else did it. There's hope."

Charlene Aldred

Charlene Aldred stands in profile doing tendu derrierre with her right leg back, and wears a lime green saucer tutu.

Charlene Aldred in William Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Charlene Aldred (formerly Cohen) was thriving at San Francisco Ballet, dancing triple bills almost every night. But the all-consuming nature of the job was taking its toll, and she longed for more autonomy and a normal schedule. In 2013, after seven seasons for Miami City Ballet and six with SFB, and with a vast amount of repertoire under her belt (including principal, soloist and corps roles), she knew it was time to move on. "It started feeling like a sacrifice," says Aldred. "When I hit my 30s, I just wanted to have a little more free time." For one of her last shows she danced a soloist part in Raymonda Act III and a principal role Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. The performance was attended by her family and friends, and afterwards they celebrated with a large 1950s-themed retirement party.

During her dance career Aldred found a second passion in the Gyrotonic Method, a movement system that combines motion, breath and mental focus. It was a saving grace when her workload felt overwhelming. After her retirement, she started teaching at a local studio, and within a month had a full client load. Seven years later, Aldred owns her own Gyrotonic studio, The Seed Center, and works with a variety of clients, including many SFB dancers. Aldred credits her time as a dancer in preparing her to run her own business while simultaneously raising two boys under the age of 3. "Dance teaches us how to deal with stress, how to keep moving, keep working, and to not be bogged down by things," she says.

Wearing workout clothes, Charlene Aldred lays on a Gyrotonic reformer with her legs scissoring in the air and her feet in foot straps.

Aldred practicing Gyrotonic at her studio, The Seed Center

Courtesy Aldred

Aldred is still close with her SFB family and often jokingly reassures them that life after ballet is "quite nice." Looking back, her advice to younger dancers would be to know their worth by advocating for themselves, something she wished she had done more. Still, she values all the memories, friendships, and lessons a life in ballet has given her. "I've come to realize I'll always be a dancer. No matter what you do, that never goes away."

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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."

Students of International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

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