Dusty Button photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

The Road Less Traveled: Boston Ballet's Dusty Button Plays By Her Own Rules

This is Pointe's February/March 2015 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

On a rainy October morning, Boston Ballet's Dusty Button sails through a pas de cinq rehearsal for Swan Lake. The variation is long and thankless, full of uncomfortable jump sequences and tricky transitions from pirouettes, yet Button, newly minted as a principal dancer, glides through it sunnily in a trial pair of Bloch pointe shoes. Unusually, she is not winded and is able to joke with assistant artistic director Russell Kaiser as he gives her notes.

“I think I just did a four-step soutenu," she laughs good-naturedly, hands on her hips. “Well, you are always overachieving, Dusty," teases Kaiser, giving voice to what could be the understatement of Button's last few years with the company.

Two catchphrases screen-printed onto the coverups of Button's dancewear line, Ribbon&Rosin, say it all: “Work until your idols become your rivals" and “Remember why you started." At 25, she appears to be following her own advice. After dancing at Birmingham Royal Ballet, Button was hired into Boston's corps in 2012, where she was promoted to soloist and then principal within two years. But her path to the top has been anything but traditional, and shows a keen entrepreneurial instinct that leverages growing up as a competition kid. In addition to designing her clothing line, she is a budding choreographer who teaches at dance conventions on the weekends. Her Instagram feed, at last count boasting 46,400 followers, and her brand-new website, worldofdusty.com, make it clear that she has a vision for branding herself that is more like a young Hollywood starlet than a ballet dancer. From the competition circuit to The Royal Ballet School, Button has grown from a precocious, talented student into a strategic artist and businesswoman.


Dusty Button and Bradley Schlagheck. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.



Button, an only child, was raised in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She spent most of her childhood winning national titles at competitions such as Showstopper and New York City Dance Alliance. But in addition to jazz, hip hop and tap, she was also schooled in the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus. RAD prepared her for a year-round invitation to The Royal Ballet School's Upper School in London at 15, but the prohibitive cost kept her in the U.S. Instead, after being scouted at Youth America Grand Prix, she was offered a scholarship to American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and moved with her mother to New York City.

After a year and a half, she was invited to fill in for an injured member of ABT's Studio Company and was soon asked to officially join them. But in a surprising move, she turned the offer down in order to enroll at The Royal Ballet School, this time on a mix of scholarship and sponsorships. Button wanted more training due to a late start in pre-professional ballet.

Towards the end of her year at RBS, she auditioned for Boston Ballet. “I saw this dynamic girl who had a jazz background," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “I liked her but didn't have anything to offer her." After her year-end RBS assessments, which were open to company directors, the 18-year-old received a contract with Birmingham Royal Ballet.

During her three years at BRB, Button excelled, earning lead roles in both story ballets, such as David Bintley's Cinderella, and contemporary repertoire. But she felt frustrated by the seniority-based hierarchy. On a quest for new challenges and a home where she could progress more quickly, she took what many dancers might deem a huge risk: She left at the end of the season without first signing another contract, and returned to the U.S. ABT heard she was back in town and offered her some freelance work. Yet she zeroed in on Boston Ballet. Having not received a contract years before, she saw the company as a challenge and auditioned again.


Dusty Button in Miko Nissinen's "Swan Lake." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.


“When she came back, her strength was elongated, and she was more developed as both a dancer and a human being," says Nissinen. After finishing up with her commitments at ABT, she joined Boston mid-season.

Ballet master Larissa Ponomarenko helped Button find her footing after joining the company. “When I think of Dusty, I see a vibrant human being who is eager to succeed with anything she touches," says Ponomarenko. “She always gives a hundred percent of herself." Button seems to have easily blended into BB's diverse repertoire, performing both her dream role of Gamzatti in La Bayadère and leads in Alexander Ekman's Cacti and José Martinez's Resonance. “There's no limitation to what she can do," says Nissinen.

Having reached her professional dream of becoming a principal, says Button, “my goals are now related not only to my career but the lifestyle surrounding it. I want to build a life I never need a vacation from." With this in mind, it seems fitting that she and her husband, both self-described Anglophiles, would make a home in a New England penthouse condo that dons more than a few Union Jacks among Ducati motorcycles and a Ferrari.

Button seems to bring a contemporary dancer?'s mindset to everything she does. She often looks for inspiration outside the studio, such as watching motorcycle racing with her husband. “?As dancers, we are constantly surrounded by people who think the same thoughts, and it?'s easy to become routine,?" she says. “?What was the last new thing I learned? What can I do more of today than yesterday??" Button?'s ambition to be different drives her, she admits, “?to see my path clearly as the one opposite of the most traveled.?"


Dusty Button in Balanchine's "Rubies." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.


While this type of independent thinking has helped shape her into a dynamic and versatile dancer, it's also caused controversy. When she first joined the company, she preferred to do her own contemporary warm-up and run through her choreography before performances in lieu of company class. When Nissinen asked her to be in class more, Button felt she needed to understand his reasoning and asked if her choice was affecting her technique. She applies a similar interrogatory process to coaching. “You have to take what they are saying, but you can't just be a carbon copy,"she says, seemingly unaware of the raw talent that has allowed her to show such personality in the face of authority.

Nissinen'?s explanation that her new rank came with new role model responsibilities made sense to her and helped her reframe her approach to the daily practice. ?"When she first came, she wasn?'t always in class,"? Nissinen explains. ?"But we are serious about class here. We play team basketball. Once she understood the philosophy, she embraced it wholeheartedly.?" Now, she dances full-out from the first plié, adding a level of difficulty to every barre combination?: an extra fouetté turn during rond de jambe en? l'air, or dancing adagio on demi-pointe. Stripping down to just a leotard and tights in the center, she repeats her grand allégro combinations with the men, flying just as high.

At Boston Ballet's BB@home black-box event last year, Button showcased her choreography, its vocabulary an exciting mix of her contemporary and ballet heritage. She hopes to eventually create full-length works for ballet and contemporary companies around the globe. As she propels herself forward at warp speed, Button continues to show a nascent ability to reinvent herself. With new footholds in choreography and business, in addition to a principal featured role in Lady of the Camellias this spring, Button is redefining what it means to be a ballerina in the new millennium—and her enterprising spirit is proof that there is reward in such bold self-creation.

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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 streams internationally 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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