Boston Ballet principal Derek Dunn at age 12 in a variation from Flames of Paris at the 2008 YAGP finals. Courtesy YAGP.

13 of Today's Top Stars Share Their YAGP Photos and Videos

The Youth America Grand Prix New York Finals are starting up again this week, running April 12-19. This year, YAGP is celebrating its 20th anniversary. April 18-19 marks the competition's annual Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala, featuring 13 pros who are also YAGP alumni. We've rounded up photos and videos from those stars' YAGP years and shared them with you here.


Taylor Stanley

First up is New York City Ballet principal Taylor Stanley at age 16. Stanley placed in the top 12 for senior men at the 2008 YAGP New York Finals. From beginning to end, this variation from Coppélia showcases Stanley's flexibility and ballon, but we especially love his at leap at 0:21 (and the audience's collective gasp).

Skylar Brandt

American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt has had a long history with YAGP; she took home silver medals in both 2004 and 2008. Here she is in a variation from Swan Lake in 2008 at age 14. Despite her young age, Brandt looks completely in control onstage; her sense of musicality and charisma are on full display.

Tyler Donatelli

Courtesy YAGP

Here's a shot of Houston Ballet soloist Tyler Donatelli at age 13 in a variation from Harlequinade at the YAGP 2010 New York Finals. Donatelli came in first place in the Los Angeles regionals that year, though she didn't place in the Finals. But the following year she came in third in the New York finals, and the year after that she won a silver medal.

Cory Stearns

American Ballet Theatre principal Cory Stearns is serious and stoic at age 14 in this variation from Swan Lake at the 2001 YAGP finals. His performance earned him a scholarship to The Royal Ballet School in London, where he stayed for two years before returning to New York to join the ABT Studio Company. Check out the old school YAGP poster in the background!

Rebecca King

Courtesy YAGP

YAGP is in Finnish National Ballet first soloist Rebecca King's blood; her mother, Shelly King, spent 12 years as the competition's director of operations. Though she grew up competing, In 2007, at age 19, King returned to the U.S. from Ukraine, where she'd be dancing with Donetsk National Ballet, to compete in YAGP once more. She caught the eye of a European headhunter who sent her video to Prague State Opera Ballet, setting her on her current path.

Hee Seo

ABT principal Hee Seo took home the silver medal in 2002 at age 15—see her in a variation from The Sleeping Beauty above. The next year, Seo competed again and won the Grand Prix. Today, Seo is committed to giving back. Four years ago, she created the Hee Seo Foundation to work with YAGP and help young dancers in her home country, Korea. In addition to giving grants and helping place students at company-affiliated schools, Seo teaches free master classes for students all over Korea.

Derek Dunn

Former comp star and current Boston Ballet principal Derek Dunn won the Youth Grand Prix Award in 2008 and gold medals in 2010 and 2012. At the 2012 competition Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch discovered him and offered him an apprenticeship. In his 2016 Pointe cover story, Dunn said that winning YAGP at age 12 opened his eyes. "I discovered how much I loved ballet," he said. "I realized that I am good at this."

Catherine Hurlin

Courtesy YAGP

A pint-sized 11-year-old Catherine Hurlin won the Hope Award at the 2008 YAGP New York Finals. Today, she's a recently promoted soloist at ABT with a long list of roles already in her repertoire. Between the space buns and the CATS-esque unitard, we truly can't get enough of this photo.

Kimin Kim

At age 19, Mariinsky Ballet principal Kimin Kim is fully in command of his technique in this variation from Diana and Actaeon. Kim joined the Mariinsky in 2012, and three years later, at age 22, was the first foreigner to become a principal there. Kim dances with boundless energy here; check out his pass across the stage at 0:46.

Katherine Williams

Recently promoted ABT soloist Katherine Williams took home the Youth Grand Prix in 2003 at age 14. See the young ballerina's precision and focus in the above variation from The Sleeping Beauty. In 2005 Williams placed among the top 12 senior women; she joined ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School the following fall.

Indiana Woodward

Here's a 15-year-old Indiana Woodward, now an NYCB soloist, in a variation from The Nutcracker at the 2009 YAGP finals. A year later she started studying at the School of American Ballet and learning the Balanchine style. Today, the roles of both Sugarplum Fairy and Dewdrop in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker are part of Woodward's repertoire.

Christine Shevchenko

Here we have a 14-year-old Christine Shevchenko competing in YAGP in a variation from Paquita. After training in both rhythmic gymnastics and ballet in her native Ukraine, Shevchenko moved to the U.S. at age eight and studied at The Rock School before joining ABT's Studio Company in 2006. In addition to competing in YAGP, in 2003 Shevchenko became the youngest recipient of the Princess Grace Award, and took home top medals at the Jackson International Ballet Competition and the Moscow International Ballet Competition.

Calvin Royal III

Here's ABT soloist Calvin Royal III in 2006 at age 16 dancing a variation from Swan Lake at the YAGP finals. In September of the same year, Royal began studying at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, where he trained under the Ethan Stiefel Scholarship until joining the ABT Studio Company in 2007.

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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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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

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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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