Around the Studio Blog

One of our dance parents, Olga Cannistraro, a Boston writer, learned that our Operations Manager, Dustin Rennells had quite an interesting and exhausting life.  She sat down with him to hear about how he got connected with Tony, and then reconnected in 2015.

Dustin also works 40 hours per week at Persona Jewelry in Boston’s Beacon Hill, in addition to his full time job with Tony Williams Dance Center in the evenings and weekends. He serves as the Creative Director at Persona creating stunning window displays and sourcing jewelry for their store.

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This past summer he auditioned, and was in the final rounds for a major network cooking show.  Sadly he won’t be seen on television, but it would have been exciting!

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For six years, Dustin was on the board of Miss Boston & Miss Cambridge Scholarship Organization, a local pageant headed toward Miss America.  He became involved when his younger sister used the organization to raise scholarships for her college education and saw how empowering that self-sufficiency was. He was later on the board of Miss Massachusetts.

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Original article follows:

So you think you can run a dance company?

By Olga Cannistraro

You could say Tony Williams has been lucky.

He’s danced with great ballet companies. He got to know the best dancers and choreographers of his time. He’s created a long-running show. And he’s brought many kids’ stage dreams to life.

Yet his own dream of establishing a permanent professional ballet company has been slow in coming about.

It would move within reach by bits and pieces. First the school. Then the Urban Nutcracker. Then studio space, and a company with a uniquely Bostonian, nostalgic, and family-friendly repertoire. Then, for a few years, Tony’s dream seemed to be slipping away.

By the end of 2014, it was a question of what to do with the Urban Nutcracker and, with it, the creative side of his career..Tony knew he hadn’t finished his work. He also knew he couldn’t do it alone.

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In early 2015, Tony got together with Dustin Todd Rennells to “ask for advice.”  (Dustin had worked with Tony from 2006-2009 on various Urban Nutcracker projects before moving on to a career as a chef and event planner in Boston). When Dustin got a whiff of Tony’s 20-point life plan, he gave it an instant reality check:

“Just so I understand, Tony, is there a full-time job offer in there somewhere?”

Dustin has never had a “blind” job interview. Jobs always came to him in the form of old friends and friends of friends asking for help.

“…which is true, but I just don’t want it to sound like I’ve been handed things. I’ve worked many hours to get good at certain skills. Eventually, someone would notice me and put me in touch with someone else who needed my skills. Then that person would gave me a trial, and that’s how I got clients and jobs.”

Tony’s timing was impeccable. Dustin had just stopped teaching cooking classes at Boston Adult Ed. A three-hour class that took a full day of shopping, cooking, and cleaning. He was ready for a change. He still maintains a full time creative director position at local jewelry store, Persona Jewelry. And even though Tony’s project sounded more like two and a half full-time jobs, Dustin had a plan:

“I am good at detailing everything. I don’t panic. I just break it into 10 steps and focus on the end result of each step. After you’ve gone through the last step, you are done.”

Offer made and accepted, Dustin set out to work. In three months, Tony Williams Ballet was launched. Check. In the fall, the school got six new student scholarships through Boston Dance Alliance. Check. By November 2015, the Urban Nutcracker had all new sets and costumes. 1,200 individual costume pieces completed in less than 3 months. The following May, TWB premiered Ballet Brilliante with several new works and an old favorite, Ben’s Trumpet. Check. Check. Check.

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In 2016, Dustin launched a parent forum to improve classes and recitals. The 2016 recital was the most efficient to date, with no one dropping out during rehearsals. The upcoming school year was next on the list. Dustin added a new ballet class for teens who had reached the highest level and helped the ballet staff put together a formal syllabus for all ballet classes

He had the faculty lounge remodeled. Added much needed barres to classrooms. Repainted and redecorated the entire studio in a dramatic, “Home of the Urban Nutcracker” key.  All of that on top of the daily to-do of running the school: students, parents, schedules, orders, bills, emails… Up to six hours of emails every day. Emails that need to be printed out and posted on the bulletin board, because nobody actually reads emails.

Ninety-five percent of Tony’s original two-year plan was completed during the first year. Midway through his timeline, Dustin was ready for a new set of goals. Grow the company to 10 members. Increase enrollment. Translate the website into Spanish. Tear down the wall between Studio 1 and Studio 2 to host larger events. (In case someone wants to donate a quick $50K.) The 2017 Nutcracker is just around the corner. There will be surprises in the plot…

The biggest surprise is him being around to make it all happen. Leaving the office only to find a quiet place to focus on the costumes or emails.

Some of Dustin’s abnormal productivity has an easy explanation.

1. He doesn’t sleep.

“5-6 hours a night is normal for me. I have slept in the studio on Labor Day weekend, just before the fall classes started. Also during the Nutcracker and while sewing the costumes. There is a shower in case anyone was wondering.”

2. He doesn’t take days off.

“During the weekend between Ballet Brilliante and the recital prep, I folded 3,000 paper flowers for a friend’s wedding. I like to keep borderline overwhelmed. If I took the weekends off, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I think my body would just stop if I didn’t have at least ten things to do.”

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3. He doesn’t cook. Pretty sad for a chef, but—

“Because I’ve cooked for so many people I seldom cook for myself. Too much preparation and cleaning. I prefer simple and fast. Not so much fast food, as a quick Whole Foods salad bar or soup. I never remember to get food in advance, so when I’m hungry I need it now. I love the new Mexican place, Chilacates, near the studio. It’s amazing, and they know my order when I walk in!”

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(Dustin as a chef instructor at Boston Center for Adult Education).

Okay, you get the picture. Compulsive workaholism aside, though, Dustin is a man of structure. And his methods are pretty fascinating.

1. Build procrastination and unexpected delays into the schedule. Yes, it can be done. Listen to this:

“I always set two goals. First, an arbitrary goal of when I’d love to have the project done. The second goal is about a week before the project needs to be completed. I give myself an earlier deadline because I know I might wait until the last moment to get started. I may choose to remember that I have wiggle room— but it keeps my mind thinking faster. I learned this from my mother. All our clocks were set ahead to different times. Bedroom clocks were 20 minutes ahead. Bathroom clocks—15 minutes. Kitchen clocks—10. And the car—5 minutes ahead. We were still late sometimes, .but without it, we would never be on time. It’s helped keep me ahead of the curve my whole life.  Nothing is ever rushed, and somehow everything comes together.” 

2. Relax while working. Another paradox. Mindfulness Nazis won’t like this, but healthy multitasking  gets the job done:

“I watch TV while I work on projects. I’ve seen every episode of Criminal Minds. The Nutcracker costumes took me all 10 seasons of Friends. I always watch Friends from start to finish, when I sew costumes… I regularly walk from my freelancing office in Beacon Hill to my house in Charlestown.  I use the time to think of projects, and details or make up new plans.  I don’t like riding the subway because I can’t focus as well…   Also, I do not separate work, family, and social life. They are all the same life. I have friends who I work with and I work with people who are like family to me. I don’t work to make a lot of money. I work to make things better for people I care about.”

3. How did we get here?

“I get frustrated with myself when things are not up to my own standard. But I am never angry with other people, even if they are angry with me. I like to put myself in their shoes and understand how they got there. Then work backwards to find a solution. Most people like information and want their point to be heard. Once they feel heard, you can get to the root of the problem.”

4. Sanity above all.

“I get paid to listen to Tony’s vision, and make it happen. I take care of all the mundane details, so that he can focus on the artistic elements of his school and show. I’ve learned that the best way is to be direct and say what I am thinking. People either really like it or the opposite. When things get off course, I keep my sanity by focusing on one thing that’s going well. For every big project, I ask myself what would happen if I didn’t show up. How else could this get done? My goal is to make the business better and the people happier.