Kansas City Ballet Artistic Director William Whitener calls his departure from Kansas City and return to New York as his preparation for his third act. The first act was the transition from young Seattle dancer to the great dance centers of the world, to Broadway and film. Act II saw Whitener bring his experience in the world of dance here to Kansas City Ballet for 17 seasons, reaching a glorious peak during the 2012-13 season with Kansas City Ballet’s move into their two outstanding new dance facilities: the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity, KCB’s stunning new dance center and home, and the Ballet’s new stage… the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
However, the predominant theme, no matter what, has been Whitener’s ability to honor and celebrate the art form called dance.
“I started dancing at 7 years old and took ballet, tap, acrobatics and flamenco. I turned my focus on classical ballet. While I have worked in musical theater, I have shared with audiences the potential of an incredible art form. Dance has many shapes. Of course, I have focused on ballet for years. Dance, especially ballet, requires diligent practice and artistic expression of both the body and the mind. Nothing is truly out of reach. Ballet is high level physicality and expression. It is art.”
At 11 years of age, he was the recipient of a Ford Foundation scholarship to study with the San Francisco Ballet School. As a child, he performed with the Bolshoi Ballet in their production of Ballet School. As a teenager, he was trained by Robert Joffrey, who invited him to join the New York City Opera Ballet and, subsequently, the Joffrey Ballet in 1969.
Whitener joined the original Broadway cast of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ in 1978. Later that year, he began an eight-year association as a leading dancer with the Twyla Tharp Dance Company. In 1987, he assisted Jerome Robbins with the reconstructions and staging for Robbins’ Broadway. He has choreographed works for many ballet companies, Broadway productions and opera companies. He’s also served on the dance panels for groups such as National Endowment for the Arts, Pew Charitable Trust Fund, Bush Foundation and the New England Foundation for the Arts.
He was appointed artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet in November 1996 after Todd Bolender retired from his 17-year tenure as artistic director. The two worked together in the transitional period. “Todd Bolender was one of the reasons I came here to interview in 1996. I knew Todd had an artistic sensibility that was compatible with mine so we built a positive transition together. That was key for all of us.”
Whitener says that developing dancers is really the highlight of his time here. “As an artistic director, I want to see a fulfillment of talent. Sure, putting the repertory together to stage work or make new works; all those elements are satisfying. The creation of the ballet Tom Sawyer was a major part of my creative life; we made history as it was based on an American masterpiece with an American choreographer, American composer and an American ballet company. It was a first. I was particularly happy with the response from boys and men who otherwise would not attend ballet, but found Mark Twain’s story something they could strongly relate to … That’s a huge highlight as you break through to a potential and new audience.”
In March, Kansas City Ballet will perform Whitener’s ballet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – based on William Shakespeare’s comedy about the romantic misadventures of two mortal couples and the king and queen of the fairies. Set to Mendelssohn’s score, Kansas City Ballet’s production features the full company of dancers, 11 students from Kansas City Ballet School, the women of the Kansas City Chorale and two actors who recite excerpts from the play. “It’s a story told with classical ballet. The characters come to life with our dancers. It’s a performance truly based on collaboration within our community.” The program also features the return of Toni Pimble’s Concerto Grosso, plus Jessica Lang’s pas de deux, Splendid Isolation III. All of the ballets are performed with music by the Kansas City Symphony.
In May, the season comes to an end with an eclectic combination of ballets, including the return of African-American choreographer Donald McKayle’s, Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City. “We let our hair down with the new work. Kansas City’s own Bobby Watson comes aboard as well as some stunning visuals. It’s that early jazz vintage where we celebrate why Kansas City was considered the ‘Paris of the Plains’.” The performance also includes Common People, choreographed by Margo Sappington and set to the spicy vocals of actor William Shatner with music by Ben Folds. The performance concludes with a world premiere by internationally acclaimed choreographer Karole Armitage, staged to the music of Bobby Watson with visuals by French filmmaker Gilles Papain influenced by Jackson Pollock’s painting, Autumn Rhythm. “We are showing off our diversity and range with great techniques and styles.”
Programming is a joy and a task he never takes lightly. “When I program a season, I look at the balance and the music. I look at the percentage of dramatic works to pure dance works. And of course it all happens because of the dancers. I look at works that suit them. We are in the business of developing dancers. We look at ways to fulfill their promise. It goes back to the way I was developed as a dancer with Bob Fosse and Twyla Tharp. I was nurtured for my individuality and my point of view. I attempt to carry that into my work wherever I go,” Whitener says.
The move into the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the opening of the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity are other moments of pride for Whitener. “Student and professional dancers now have wonderful homes prep and performance homes. These buildings are so welcoming and the stage is set for all dancers and students of all ages to create marvelous art. Moments of transcendence occur on the stage.”
Ballet companies, by their nature, are collaborative enterprises. “I started my time in Kansas City working together with the Kansas City Chorale, and the Kansas City Symphony has always been an anchor for us. I have used classical and jazz singers, actors and more. I have expanded that thinking to grab local and national prominence so as I leave, I really believe the next artistic director can only continue to raise the bar.”