Suzanne Farrell partnered by Peter Martins in "Diamonds." Dance Magazine Archives.

Defining "Ballerina"

The word “ballerina," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated in the late 1700s and was the feminine of ballerino, Italian for “dancing master," which descended from the Latin ballare, “to dance." More recent definitions include Merriam-Webster's “a woman who is a ballet dancer" and American Heritage's “a principal woman dancer in a ballet company." The word, one might say, dances about, never landing in a precise fifth position.

It is not incorrect, if we go by Merriam-Webster, to call a corps girl a ballerina, and those who don't know much about ballet blithely apply the term to anyone who wears pointe shoes. Yet the more one knows about this art the more reverence one brings to the word, perhaps because it is the last vestige of those vaunted titles of yore—“prima ballerina" and “prima ballerina assoluta"—mantles of esteem that were earned like a knighthood and bestowed by queen, country or company director. Such titles are now defunct, having been replaced by the gender-neutral, everyone's-equal “principal dancer." (The Paris Opéra Ballet is the exception, calling its principals étoiles, or “stars," but then, France was the birthplace of ballet and is a law unto itself.) Today, no queen is handing out diplomas in ballerinadom. It is an invisible crown that comes to a dancer on invisible hands.



Galina Ulanova takes a bow after "Romeo and Juliet." Dance Magazine Archives.

There are different views, of course, as to which dancers are wearing that crown. Last July, an article in The New York Times created a tempest among balletomanes when it attempted to define the American ballerina (“ornery, direct, unaffected") as opposed to the idealized Old World model, and went on to state that there were currently “11 prodigious American young women dancing in six American companies, who deserve to be called ballerinas." A correction was issued four days later when it turned out that one of the women had been born in Britain. Which goes to show how tricky it is simply to categorize ballerinas, let alone trying to define one. And yet, every little girl who ever owned a certain type of jewelry box, one that opens on a tiny ballerina pirouetting in a pink tutu, feels the meaning of the word, that this dancer is somehow more special than the rest: a precious gem, a jewel of the culture.

Certainly the first ballerinas—emerging in the early 1700s—were glittering prizes, often kept and protected by kings, aristocrats and men of high culture. Celebrities at home and abroad, love objects in the boudoir, these women had a freedom unique for their time and were the focus of aesthetic debate, romantic fantasy and adoring fans (and so it continues in 2013!). Indeed, just as thoroughbred racing has its foundation stallions—the first great steeds from whom the whole breed descended—you could say that the art of ballet has its foundation ballerinas. Françoise Prévost's noble emotions, Marie Camargo's feisty virtuosity, Marie Sallé's dramatic naturalness: These 18th-century originals were the classical templates upon which future dancers would work their innovations. In 1832, for example, Marie Taglioni's poetic rise to pointe in La Sylphide ushered the supernatural into ballet and Romanticism with it. In 1841, the artless and ethereal ballon of Carlotta Grisi, in the premiere of Giselle, brought the era of Romantic ballet to ravishing full moon.


Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. Dance Magazine Archives.

These epochal moments in which the woman, the role and the ballet fuse into a single phenomenon lead like stepping stones through the centuries, as if ballet is continually reborn with each new ballerina and those properties specific to her. In this century one thinks of Anna Pavlova in The Dying Swan, Galina Ulanova as Juliet in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet of 1940, Margot Fonteyn's Aurora in The Royal Ballet's 1946 Sleeping Beauty, Suzanne Farrell as the solitaire Diamond in Balanchine's Jewels of 1967, and Gelsey Kirkland's Giselles in the 1970s with American Ballet Theatre.

But what properties spell the difference between a beautiful dancer and a ballerina, for there are many beautiful dancers who don't wear the crown? And technical mastery does not a ballerina make; ballet is not, after all, gymnastics in toe shoes. Each fan of ballet will have her own answer to this very subjective question. Some point to the aura or atmosphere that attends a ballerina—the perfume of her inflections, the projection of a larger spirit or deeper spirituality. Others look for command, the way a ballerina possesses the steps and the mark she leaves on them. And still others want strangeness, something they've never seen before, a wayward energy that carries the ballet to a place beyond.

Beyond is where a ballerina breathes. She goes beyond prettiness and perfection to make a language of ballet—not a language of words but of visions. When she is onstage you see more because she shows more—concentration, transformation, illumination, connection. Maria Tallchief, performing the Berceuse (lullaby) in the Balanchine-Stravinsky Firebird portrays the fiery bird of Russian folklore with a creaturely quiet born of her own Native American heritage. Tallchief's Firebird pulls us into its deep-woods trance, a soundless ripple moving through the shoulders, the head dropping forward into dream. This is virtuosity turned inward, a slowed down heart in a silent glade, magic à terre. Gelsey Kirkland, on the other hand, dancing Theme and Variations with Mikhail Baryshnikov, in a “Live From Lincoln Center" broadcast, is so luminous, swift and committed she's like a hummingbird darting between shadows. She is heat, flight and isolated longing—a fairy tale in a prism. And Wendy Whelan, dancing the pas de deux in Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain, her hair loose and her legs bare, is the ballerina stripped down, contemporary, a millennial single. She expresses all the awkwardness, sadness and sexual vulnerability of Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City."

Back in the 1970s, discussing a dance star he'd had the chance to hire but didn't, Balanchine explained that she was wonderful dancing with others but that he “wasn't interested in seeing her dance alone." It's yet another definition of a ballerina. Whether twirling in a pink satin box or plunging into a cutting-edge pas de deux, she is powerfully, inspiringly and unforgettably alone.

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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 Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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Birmingham Royal Ballet in Cinderella. Roy Smiljanic, Courtesy British Ballet Charity Gala

Darcey Bussell Is Putting on a Benefit Gala Starring 8 UK Dance Companies—and You Can Stream It From Home

Planning a major gala during a global pandemic is no easy feat—but don't say that to Dame Darcey Bussell. In an amazingly short time, the former Royal Ballet principal and "Strictly Come Dancing" judge has curated a historic evening to support the dance industry in her home country. The British Ballet Charity Gala will bring eight major UK dance companies together for a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 3, before it is streamed in the UK, U.S. and Canada on June 18.

The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.

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