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With KC Ballet’s spring debut, director William Whitener talks about his career

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This Thursday, the Kansas City Ballet kicks off its final show at the Lyric Theater with a diverse program of three one-act ballets, including a world-premiere choreographed by artistic director William Whitener.

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After these final downtown shows, the company moves its performance location to the Kauffman Center, a venue that promises a sea change in Kansas City’s performing arts landscape. It seems an appropriate time, then, to speak with Whitener about his long and varied career—one that’s spanned over four decades—in the world of dance, and about his company’s present and future directions.

During a recent interview at the Ballet’s temporary home on Broadway (before it moves into the new Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity this summer), Whitener talked about his sound Seattle roots, where his dance career began with early creative movement classes, then figure skating, tap dance and acrobatics instruction.

As a seven-year-old boy, Whitener also became involved in local theater, where he “was a reliable child performer—remembered my lines, went to the right spot, met the director’s requests, showed up on time, all of that…I was the boy actor you could call at that time.”

But catching the notice of a local dance critic who “recommended that we focus more strongly on classical ballet training”, Whitener dropped tap, acrobatics and ice skating and began studying dance at the Cornish School (now the Cornish College of the Arts), a renowned local arts school that was then open to both children and adults.

Later, still attending public high school, he managed to graduate a semester early “and started the next day at the New York City Opera Ballet, which was at the time being choreographed by Robert Joffrey,” the famous dancer whose own company was then in residence at New York City Center.

Thus began a prolific 20-year professional dance career spanning the nineteen-seventies and -eighties, highlights of which include performing for Bob Fosse on Broadway; serving as a lead dancer for the Twyla Tharp Dance Company; appearing in the inaugural production of Dance in America for PBS and in the film Amadeus; and serving as assistant for dance great Jerome Robbins.

Of this heady period, Whitener says fondly “I was dancing in New York when we had a number of first rate choreographers who were in the prime of their careers—Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, director/choreographer Michael Bennett, Merce [Cunningham]…[Martha] Graham was still creating, Twyla [Tharp] was coming up, so that’s just plain old good timing, you have nothing to say about that, it just happens…”

So, after two decades spent performing for many of the twentieth century’s dance world luminaries, how exactly did Whitener’s move to choreography and company direction come about?

“That was in the works,” responds Whitener when asked this. “…I had varied experiences while I was still dancing…I was choreographing while I was dancing, I was guest teaching while I was dancing…I worked in opera as a choreographer, and a lot of different things. Then I worked with ice skaters again…”

This led to several of what Whitener refers to as “fixer” jobs, in which was brought in to help revitalize dance institutions that, for one reason or another, were in dire straits of various degrees. The first of these jobs was with the Concord Academy, a prep school in the Boston area, where “They needed to have a dance department revitalized and I did that and within a year I was invited back to Seattle as a guest faculty for a two year program…at the University of Washington.

“So I was a guest faculty there for two years, and during that period was approached by Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, and took their offer…to become their artistic director succeeding the founder…(we) had tremendous success in Montreal with Les Ballets Jazz, funding was up, things were good and rosy.” This led to the artistic directorship of another Canadian company, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where Whitener helped right the venerable institution after a series of misfortunes.

All of which led him to Kansas City in the mid-nineteen-nineties. Brought here to succeed Todd Bolender, a protégé of George Balanchine who, beginning in 1980, helped to formalize the Kansas City Ballet’s repertoire and to begin cultivating its national reputation, Whitener says “…the artistic taste was not anything that needed to be addressed—[it] was a very tasteful company, very stylish, well-trained. That was all in place, but the money wasn’t in place in ninety-five.

“The school couldn’t really thrive at all—we had very limited space, it was a rented building with a number of other companies. They were in a rut, but not artistically—there were wonderful dancers and there was terrific choreography…”

One laudable aspect of Whitener’s lengthy artistic directorship of the Ballet, and one I’ve covered in previous stories, is his absolute democratization of the company—there are no prima ballerinas within its 25 dancers, no full-time soloists. All ballets are double-cast, so each company member receives a fair shot at a lead role. And the repertoire is designed to give all genres of choreography fair play.

“This company is a little different from most ballet companies because we do such a variety of stuff…Working here has really been great,” dancer Aisling Hill-Conner has remarked on this aspect of the company.

As Whitener said about his diverse programming choices, “Well, we don’t want to give that up, because that has been our identity since Tatiana (Dokoudovska, KCB founder )and Todd’s era—the different kinds of dance that have been shown in this community.

This trademark variety of Whitener’s is definitely on display for the Ballet’s upcoming spring program: It will open with the title piece Moves, a Kansas City premiere by dance great Jerome Robbins, which is performed in total silence.

Of Moves, which he danced at the Joffrey Ballet, Whitener says “Because it’s in silence, it pulls from other places in the dancers soul, and requires intense concentration…You can’t count on the music, you count on each other...Jerry Robbins is one of our most celebrated choreographers and theater directors because he gives you the whole experience—it’s recognizable, it’s full of life in its many guises, and there was no one like him.”

Next is the world premiere of Whitener’s, Mercy of the Elements, which he’s set to music from a rarely performed Rimsky-Korsakov quintet. “It’s a showcase for the company and a way of putting out best foot forward in terms of classical ballet. The roles are tailor-made for the 17 dancers, and it lets me show what I can do with an ensemble, and small groupings…”

Last is the finale from Twyla Tharp’s The Catherine Wheel Suite, for which Whitener was a cast member when the modern dance piece premiered in New York in the early nineteen-eighties. With an original score composed by David Byrne, it is performed in period nineteen-eighties costumes.

Of these final Lyric Theater performances, which will run through Sunday, May 8, Whitener says “This is a show that I think people will be sorry if they miss.”

And big things are in the works as the Ballet moves its performance space to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts this fall, most notably a world premiere ballet based on the Mark Twain literary classic Tom Sawyer.

Of the Ballet’s, and, by extension, Whitener’s own future in the dance world he’s spent a lifetime laboring in, he says “the sky’s the limit in terms of what we could do if we wanted to continue doing new work, so that the art form can continue to thrive and grow.”

For tickets and more information to the Kansas City Ballets spring 2011 program at the Lyric Theater, call (816)931-2232, or visit the company’s website at kcballet.org.

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