Dancer Dusty Button prepares for Swan Lake debut

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As the Swan Lake theme rings out from a piano, Principal Dancer Dusty Button arches her back and curves her arms into the form of delicate wings. Button seems to float across the studio as she rehearses for her full length debut with Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake.

The cool evening light passes through the tall windows of Boston Ballet’s studios. Button has been onsite rehearsing for nearly eight hours. But the ticking clock does not stop either Button or her partner, Principal Dancer Lasha Khozashvili, from a productive and lively rehearsal with Ballet Master Larissa Ponomarenko.

“Let’s run through it backwards,” Button says to Ponomarenko, hoping to begin with Act IV. Immediately, Khozashvili begins running through his steps in reverse motion, and the three start laughing and telling stories. When the piano chimes in with their cue, however, the giggles cease. The dancers are completely focused on their pas de deux.

Button is calm and confident about the task at hand, despite the inevitable hype surrounding a ballerina’s debut in the lead role of Odette and Odile. During her 30-minute break from rehearsal, she set aside her tutu and spoke with the NewBostonPost. Button offered us an insight into her preparations for Odette, the girl-turned-swan, and her counterpart Odile, the evil sorceress black swan.

NBP: Odette and Odile are basically the epitome of the classical ballerina. When you think ballet, you think Swan Lake, and when you think “ballerina,” you think Odette. Is this true for you?

Button: I understand that for most, this mentality is true. But ironically for me it is not, however, the first role that comes to mind when I am asked to name my favorite. I think that, while all ballerinas are beautiful, ballet as an industry has yet to reach its full potential. So when I think “ballet” or “ballerina,” I see a blank canvas rather than a role that is relative to the industry. As artists, I believe that it is up to us to paint this canvas and redefine what “ballet” is to us, rather than what is was or is to others.

NBP: How would you describe Odette and Odile?

Button: I believe my Odette to be fragile and naive to the dangers that surround her presenting themselves as something else. She is guarded, which signifies that she is aware of the possibility of being hurt; but there lies the battle between vulnerability, naivety and strength. I believe my Odile to be strong, powerful and confident. Odile holds the power to take what she wants without the innocent concern of what bridges she burns in the process.

NBP: Which do you relate to more?

Button: I identify with both characters equally. Prior to meeting my husband I was Odette, fragile and naive. Having spent years beside someone who opened my eyes to the power we all have access to, I am more of an Odile. Having lived as both, I now identify with both every day. When I am home, I am a vulnerable Odette; yet when I leave home, I am a strong and confident Odile in the eyes of the public.

NBP: So what does your Swan Lake preparation look like?

Button: First impressions are important for selling a character, and because of this, I focus daily on my entrance into the second act. As this is the first that the audience sees of Odette, I place great importance on the character being strong here. I work daily on the technique involved throughout the ballet. But this becomes second nature after years of training, and we can almost set autopilot to build the technique while our souls have no autopilot. And that is what must be committed to portray these roles.

I leave work at work as I end each day, and don’t pay it another thought while at home. I find that this disconnect is important to keep my mind eager to work each day, and it allows me to still view ballet as a passion, rather than a job.

During the weeks leading into the premiere, I am certain to intake necessary carbohydrates, vitamins, maintain my appearance, and care for my body, so that when the curtain rises I am my best self. Before each show I eat a great meal, warm up over a Red Bull, and just before the curtain rises, make a call to my husband for a ritualistic reminder to perform for my audience and not for myself: “Dance like it hurts to stand still,” he says.

NBP: Let’s talk about those 32 fouttés, which are such an iconic moment in Swan Lake. How do you do all of those turns and then keep on dancing?

Button: “Fouetté” is a classical ballet term meaning “whipped turns.” … We are best prepared on stage when thinking ahead of the next step, or next section of steps. So by this point in the story, I am mentally on the next section. And with so much dancing left, it keeps my focus forward, leaving no mind left to dwell on being tired. Anyone can have a good or bad day when it comes to turning – the turns are not the most important part of the show for me so I don’t worry about them very much. At the end of the day the most important part of the show for me is selling the character.

Because I’m so focused on all of the emotion — and then we have the entire fourth act afterwards — you get to the point where you’re involved in so much of the acting that the turns can either be good, or you have a bad day. But you don’t want to be a robot onstage. If I do a perfect 32 fouttés but the story’s not there, people don’t want to see it … I’m so involved in the story that I don’t even think about the turns … Of course you’re going to be tired, but you work through it.

NBP: In a story like this, the relationship between the hero and the heroine are crucial. Tell me about Odette and Odile’s relationship with the hero Siegfried.

Button: Odette’s relationship with Siegfried is a vulnerable and romantic type of love, as she knows of her curse rendering her with a barrier that remains while she desperately wants to erase it. Much like in cinema [when] we feel for the characters who are vulnerable because we all have a heroic side, I feel for Odette. Odile’s relationship with Siegfried is a manipulative one, as she uses lust to bait him into marriage with the malicious intent of stripping Odette from the love she so desires. I feel Odile’s attraction to Siegfried is purely one of greed — simply to pull him from Odette — rather than one of personal or mutual satisfaction.

NBP: So, what about your own relationship with your dancing partner, Lasha?

Button: As artists we all face challenges when performing, and I feel it is how we handle these challenges while partnering that defines us as a “partner.”  Whether dancing with me or another artist, Lasha is a selfless partner and always prioritizes the aesthetics of his partner over his own if a sacrifice must be made. This trait renders dancers with confidence during a performance rather than reservations … I know that if he needs to miss a step in order to make something happen for me, he’ll be there.

NBP: So, fast-forward to your first full length performance as Odette and Odile — how are you feeling?

Button: These are the types of roles that I have been training for since I was a kid so I feel prepared, but more than anything I feel excited. Full length ballets are my favorite type to perform because I am not focused on various pieces as I would be in a triple bill.

NBP: It sounds so intimidating, thinking of every dancer who’s danced this role, but you seem comfortable and excited.

Button: Of course there are technical things that you can always work on, but the ballet industry has not reached its potential. With each generation, it’s evolving. It’s never going to be the same as it was before, and people shouldn’t expect that. People should expect the 2016 version of what Swan Lake is going to be. You don’t want to see the same swan every night! If you look at me and you look at Misa [Kuranaga, Boston Ballet’s Principal Dancer], we’re both two different people. But people would enjoy both shows because you get a completely different look. We’re good at different things.

NBP: My last question is perhaps the most important question: If you had to wear either Odette’s or Odile’s costume around Boston for a day, which would it be?

Button: I would never wear a tutu around Boston. But if I had to choose one, I would choose the black one. White is more traditional and, since I am not a traditional ballerina, it seems more suiting.

Boston Ballet will perform Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake at the Boston Opera House, April 29-May 26. Tickets are available on the Boston Ballet webpage.