Hannah Bettes. Photo by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

Hannah Bettes: The Former Competition Star Is Flying High At Boston Ballet

This is Pointe's October/November 2018 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Hannah Bettes has had a very big year. The Boston Ballet second soloist was nominated for a Princess Grace Award, and she made her debut in three major classical roles—Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, Effie in La Sylphide and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, her most challenging classical role to date. "You're carrying a full-length ballet, and you have to have the stamina and stay composed and in character, even if you're dying!" Bettes says.

When Bettes, 22, made her professional debut with Boston Ballet four years ago, she was already a highly recognized teen in the competition world, bringing with her a raft of prizes. But she also brought stylistic versatility and a palpable hunger to learn. While she possesses the quintessentially elegant classical line—high extensions, dazzling turns and slender feet that curve into perfect crescent moons—Bettes can easily skew off-center to sidle into the slinky undulations or sharp slices of Boston Ballet's contemporary repertoire.

The wide-ranging rep is one of the aspects of the company she likes best. "Having to keep switching your approach keeps things interesting. Technically, I've been able to progress faster."

Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen believes she's ready for more. "I see a big personal and professional growth," he says of her recent career momentum. "She grows more self-assured every month."

From Comp Kid to Budding Ballerina

The daughter of a nurse anesthetist and a sales rep, Bettes was a self-described tomboy. While her younger sisters were into ballet, "I thought it was stupid and girlie," she says with a laugh.

But in second grade, her best friend started dance classes and pulled Bettes along. Teachers quickly noticed her natural facility. She took classes not just in ballet but jazz, tap, contemporary and acrobatics, and she was soon asked to join competitive dance teams. "I think all that made me braver, and now I have a more in-depth understanding of how to change my approach to different movement and the importance of adaptability."

The DeLand, Florida, native never took competing too seriously. "But I had people telling me I had potential," she adds, "and my mom said that if I chose to do dance, I should do it 100 percent." When she began leaning toward ballet, she started training at Central Florida Ballet. Then, at 14, she moved to Tampa with her grandmother for intensive training at Next Generation Ballet. There she studied with renowned teachers Ivonne Lemus and Peter Stark, whom she still considers her "dance mom and dad."

Stark, now associate director of Boston Ballet II, immediately saw Bettes' potential. He convinced her that ballet competitions could help make connections and open doors. He also felt they would channel Bettes' drive. "She has a Type A personality, very straightforward, strong," he says. "She needed to be pushed, and she thrived on being uncomfortable and having new opportunities."

Bettes with Robby Doble and Patrick Yocum in William Forsythe's "Pas/Parts 2018." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

But Stark also says Bettes' "very down-to-earth family" never made a big deal about her talent, encouraging her to pursue competitions for the experience. And so she did, somehow managing to keep it all in perspective. Bettes recalls, "The stakes never felt too high, I never had the nerves, I was very prepared. I think that helped me enjoy it." Perhaps that mind-set also helped her win. Prizes have included gold medals in the junior and senior divisions at Youth America Grand Prix, as well as medals at the World Ballet Competition and the Beijing International Ballet Invitational. In 2012, she won second prize and the Audience Favorite award at the Prix de Lausanne.

As part of her Prix de Lausanne scholarship, Bettes chose to study at London's Royal Ballet School. But after two years, she was ready to head back to the States. "I knew I wouldn't be able to survive the atmosphere in the company, the pressure on the dancers," she says. "It's more competitive, harsher." She also wanted to be closer to family.

Boston Beginnings

Bettes was invited to take a company class at Boston Ballet through Jeffrey Cirio, who was dancing there at the time. Nissinen offered her a corps contract, bypassing the customary entrée via Boston Ballet II (the company does not have apprentice ranks). "I thought she was an exceptional talent," recalls Nissinen. "She has an incredible ballerina body, great feet, high extensions. She's very supple, and a very, very good turner."

For Bettes, the company felt like the right fit: "On my first day here, a dancer gave me a hug and said, 'Welcome to the family.' That really stuck with me. After the experience at The Royal, where the atmosphere was heavier, this felt light, like I could breathe."

"Hannah has prima ballerina qualities."

—Mikko Nissinen

Even so, says Stark, "I think the first two years were a struggle to learn the culture and how to be a member of a company." Bettes says that while her time at The Royal Ballet School taught her how to blend in, often a real challenge for competition dancers, she now struggles with how to blend in without losing her individuality, which is prized at Boston Ballet. "I have a hard time meshing the two," she confesses. "I need to be who I am but still function as part of the bigger organism."

Her adaptability has been an asset. During the company's spring programs, Bettes danced the challenging second pas de deux in Balanchine's Chaconne one night, seamlessly blended into a corps of sylphs in La Sylphide the next, then portrayed the dramatic featured role of Effie in the Bournonville classic the following evening.

She has also worked one-on-one with contemporary dancemakers, including resident choreographer Jorma Elo and William Forsythe, who cast Bettes as a lead in his Artifact 2017. "With Bill, it's all about the individual in the bigger picture," she recalls. "As he's creating ideas, you get to be part of the conversation, and you don't experience that too often." She describes the Act II pas de deux in Artifact as one of her all-time favorite roles, but also one of the most challenging. "You're going, going, going, flinging your body into very extreme movement. You really have to trust your partner."

Bettes as Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty." photo by Brooke Trisolini, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

"Hannah is very real and very honest, mature and balanced," says Boston Ballet principal Derek Dunn, with whom Bettes has partnered in several works. "She also has that extra spark you can't teach. She's really comfortable onstage, and she's fearless—she isn't afraid to go to extremes and take risks."

Because of her hypermobility, Bettes works hard to strengthen muscles around the joints to protect against unsafe hyperextension in some of the more extreme repertoire. She's been known to occasionally pop a shoulder out of its socket. "The physical therapists at Boston Ballet have been a lifeline," she says.

Finding Balance

Bettes lives with one of her best friends, company artist Sage Humphries, just outside of Boston. "I'm not a big city person," she says. "I like the quiet. And I like commuting to work on the train. It gives me an hour to clear my head." Free time is often spent watching movies, reading, grabbing dinner or clubbing with friends, or visiting the Museum of Fine Arts. She also enjoys traveling—"it's a way to experience lives outside yourself."

She also is working toward a degree in political science, a longtime interest. She began taking online classes through a partnership with Northeastern University that Boston Ballet offers dancers. Life beyond ballet might include work in the foreign service and, she says, "more than anything, I want to be a mom."

But for now, Bettes' career trajectory seems on a solid ascent, and she hopes to some day become a principal. Rather than setting her sights on roles, she's focused on developing artistic depth and integrity. "I want to become an artist who radiates relevance, who is vulnerable and seeks to express real emotions," she wrote in her Princess Grace Award application essay. Nissinen says, "It's a question of her personal progress, a little bit of luck, and staying healthy. She's a young, super-talented dancer with a very promising future. The sky's the limit."

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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

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

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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.

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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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