Kansas City Ballet Celebrates 60 Years of Dance

How Four Extraordinary Artistic Directors Steered the Company to Success

The Kansas City Ballet, one of the diamonds in Kansas City’s crown, turns 60 this year.

Last season, the Kansas City Ballet reached more than 90,000 people through outreach, dance education and training, and performances combined. Last June, the company hosted the annual national DanceUSA Conference, which gathered over 500 industry professionals from across the country to Kansas City. Most recently they were invited to perform Devon Carney’s new “The Nutcracker” last November at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

The road to the company’s success is long, winding, and dominated by four extraordinary artistic directors: Tatiana Dokoudovska, Todd Bolender, William Whitener, and Devon Carney.

Individually, each of these remarkable leaders has brought vision and talent to the company. Together, they have built The Kansas City Ballet into a company with a national and international reputation for excellence in dance.

In the forward to Wyatt Townley’s book celebrating the company’s 50th birthday, choreographer Jacques d’Amboise wrote, “How do you start a ballet company? You must be energetic, determined, a visionary, a teacher, a choreographer, a director, a manager, a fundraiser, an inspiration, a diplomat, and let’s face it, you need two things above all: a heavy dollop of madness and a silver bucket full of luck.”

He was describing Tatiana Dokoudovska, who founded the company in 1957 with the goal of bringing a regular ballet presence to the Kansas City area.

Tatiana Dokoudovska was born in 1921 in France, where her Russian parents had fled during the Russian revolution. Dokoudovska was raised in Paris, where she took ballet from her mother’s godmother, exiled Russian ballerina Olga Preobrajenska. In 1939, Dokoudovska joined the American Ballet Theatre in New York; she danced with the company for two years, most often partnered with Jerome Robbins. When the company disbanded during World War II, she danced at Radio City Music Hall. She eventually became an American citizen and in the summer of 1954, she took a summer stock job with Starlight Theatre in Kansas City.

According to Townley, Dokoudovska fell in love with Kansas City.

“I found here a world I thought had been destroyed during World War II. I thought I was in heaven — the grass, the trees, the beauty and refinement. One Sunday I walked to the Nelson Art Gallery and threw a coin into the wishing well in Rozzelle Court. I wished that I could stay in Kansas City.”

Her wish came true. Dokoudovska did a promotional television interview for Starlight. The director of what is now the UMKC Conservatory saw the interview and offered her a teaching contract. Three years later, she founded the company that would become the Kansas City Ballet.

“She was a force to behold,” says Lisa Merrill Hickok, who danced the role of Clara in the first full-length “Nutcracker” ever staged by the company in Kansas City in 1972. “With her jet-black hair pulled tightly into the flattest bun you’ve ever seen, her striking creamy skin, dark piercing eyes that saw everything, and dressed in her all-white teaching outfit, Tatiana set the mood from the moment she walked into the room.”

There are many stories about Dokoudovska’s drive. Her perfectionism. Her stern discipline. Her uncompromising demand for excellence. But there was another, softer, side to her.

“I began performing with the Kansas City Ballet while in college,” Jeanie Murphy, who danced with the company from 1972 to 1979, recalls. “There was no Kansas City Ballet school then. Instead, students studied with Miss Tania (Tatiana) through what was then known as Center Division at UMKC. Miss Tania knew that money was tight, so she arranged for me to have a half scholarship to help cover my class tuition. She then asked me if I would be available to help her with some projects around her office. She needed her files cleaned out and rearranged. Each time I finished one small project she would find another. When the work was done it turned out that the amount she paid me was exactly what I needed to cover the other half of my class tuition. I’m not sure there ever really was a half scholarship.”

“I learned so many things from her that have applied to my life in every way,” Hickok says. “Her work ethic. Her devotion to her students. Her deep love of ballet as an art form. Her insistence on perfection. The beauty of the lines she portrayed in the mirrors as she demonstrated each exercise. She was exquisite. She was inspirational. She was tough. And she inspired all of us to love ballet, love dance, love ourselves, love our city and bring that joy to every step we danced.”

“I will be forever grateful for her presence in my life,” Murphy says. “She was truly one of a kind.”

Tatiana Dokoudovska retired in 1980. By then, the company had gone through the growing pains of establishing itself in the Kansas City community. Now it needed to establish itself as a force both nationally and internationally. The board of directors began looking for an artistic director of international stature.

They found Todd Bolender.

The Bolender years

Bolender was born in Canton, Ohio, in 1914. In 1936 he moved to New York, where Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine recruited him for their first company, the American Ballet.

Bolender worked with Balanchine for over 30 years as a principal dancer and occasional choreographer. He choreographed all over Europe. He worked on Broadway. Then in 1981, Kirstein recommended Bolender for the new artistic director position at the Kansas City Ballet to board member Elizabeth Wilson. Bolender came to Kansas City with two conditions: The company would create a school and the performances would always have a live orchestra.

It was during Bolender’s tenure, in 1986, that the Kansas City Ballet was renamed the State Ballet of Missouri, a joint venture with Dance St. Louis. The idea behind the partnership was to provide more opportunities for the dancers and to make the art more accessible to the community.

“Todd’s mission was to share as much high-quality dance with our community as possible,” says Kim Cowen, who danced with the company from 1991 to 2012 and is now the director of the Kansas City Youth Ballet. “He worked unselfishly to make that happen. It was never about him; it was always about the art.”

Like Dokoudovska, Bolender had a reputation for demanding perfection.

“As a director he was demanding, relentless, unforgiving, but also modest and inspiring,” Cowen recalls. “He expected 110 percent at all times and brought everyone around him to a higher level just by walking into the room. I would say most dancers felt two ways about Todd: admiration and fear. He very rarely said “Good” but when he did it felt tremendous!”

But also like Dokoudovska, Bolender had a softer side, which showed most often in his mentorship of young dancers.

“Todd always had the time to listen and give you advice,” Cowen says. “He knew when it was the right time to push and when it was best to stay quiet. He was a gem, and I feel so blessed that I knew him at a time when I was so impressionable. What a wonderful role model.”

Bolender retired in 1995 but remained with the company in an emeritus capacity until his death in 2006.

“For over 20 years, Todd was a mentor, a friend and a father figure,” says Christopher Barksdale-Burns, who danced with the company from 1988 to 2009. “He showed me how to be a better dancer, singer, actor and person. He was supportive of me and protective of me to a fault and I will be forever grateful. I miss him every day.”

When Bolender retired, the board of directors began looking for his successor, someone, like him, who had a background with Balanchine.

But when they found William Whitener, whose lineage is more Tharp than Balanchine, more eclectic than classic, they took the leap.

Whitener takes the helm

“I met Bill (Whitener) when I was 15 years old,” Cowen recalls. “He was a modern dance teacher trying to convince a room full of wanna-be ballerinas that other dance disciplines would enhance our careers. I have always remembered what he said on our first day of class. ‘You can not do ballet forever. It is very hard on your body. When you get older, modern dance can provide opportunities to dance longer.’”

Whitener was born in Seattle in 1951. When he was 11 years old, he received a scholarship to study with the San Francisco Ballet School. By the time he was in his teens, he was studying with Robert Joffrey. By the time he was 18, he was dancing with the Joffrey Ballet.

His resume is impressive and varied. He was in the original Broadway cast of Bob Fosse’s “Dancin’’ as well as the film “Amadeus.” He has choreographed for Ann Reinking, Tommy Tune, Faith Prince and the figure skater John Curry. He has taught at Harvard and performed for President Reagan.

“When Bill first arrived in Kansas City there was uncertainty among the dancers,” Cowen recalls. “What was he looking for? Would he like us or was he going to let all of us go? But he considered the history of the organization and continued to carry on the traditions of the Kansas City Ballet while slowly putting his own stamp on it, providing a fluid transition and an important balance for the artists and the audience.”

Times were tough at the beginning of Whitener’s tenure. Dance St. Louis decided to terminate its relationship with Kansas City Ballet after the 1996-97 season. The resulting budget cuts resulted in a reduction of the company’s season from three repertory programs to two, and the replacement of live music with recorded music.

In response, Whitener created programs that were budget-friendly but kept his dancers dancing. The loss of one of the repertory programs made it difficult to employ dancers for a full season.

“But Bill would never lay his dancers off in the middle of the season for six weeks,” Cowen recalls. “So, he created ‘In the Wings,’ a choreographic workshop to take its place. Not only was this a way to keep us dancing but it also allowed us to prepare for our futures in the world of dance.”

In 1998, two years after Whitener arrived, Jeff Bentley became the executive director. Bentley and Whitener together ushered the company into its next phase, including changing its name.

“It was my first day on the job,” Bentley recalls. “Arriving at the Westport Allen Center, climbing up the staircase to the second floor, the first person I saw was Flo Klenklen, the director of Kansas City Ballet School at the time, wearing a bright red T-shirt with the words ‘STATE BALLET OF MISSOURI’ emblazoned across the front. My only thought was — and it came right out of my mouth to Flo — ‘where is the hammer and sickle?’ I think it was at that moment when I decided we need to return to the name that celebrated our city, Kansas City Ballet.”

During Whitener’s tenure as artistic director, the Kansas City Ballet made its debut at The Kennedy Center, moved into its permanent home, the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity, and became the resident ballet company of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

“It is quite stunning how much the art community in Kansas City has grown,” Cowen says. “There are quite a few very special people who have transformed it into what it is today. I believe Bill is one of those people.”

“Bill always put audience education first,” recalls Logan Pachiarcz, who has danced with the company since 2000 and is now the co-artistic director of the Kansas City Dance Festival. “Bill encouraged his dancers to blossom in a way that suited them both mentally and physically.”

“Bill has seen me at my best and been there to pat me on the back,” Cowen says. “He has seen me at my worst and helped pick me up and pushed me to improve. He has always seen the good in me even when I had lapses in character. He inspired me to work harder, smarter and with joy; you only get out what you put in.”

Whitener left the company after the 2012 – 2013 season; enter Devon Carney.

Enter Devon Carney

Carney was born in New Orleans. He was a downhill ski racer and a gymnast but when he took a ballet class, he fell in love and was soon taking gymnastic classes just to help his jumping in ballet. In 1978, Carney joined Boston Ballet; he became a principal dancer there in 1986. His resume highlights his experience as a dancer, choreographer and teacher.

He will lead the company into the next big anniversary. And there seems to be little doubt that his tenure will be as successful as the three he succeeds.

“When I first met Devon Carney, I knew we had an open spirit in our midst,” Bentley says. “A generous, joyous artist who would bring that sense of exuberance to the difficult business of molding our company to his artistic intention. And if I ever had a doubt — I didn’t — his amazing work on our new ‘The Nutcracker’ followed quickly by his even more amazing work on our first ever full-length ‘Swan Lake’ would have dispelled it. At this point in my career, I feel lucky to have this friend and colleague.”

More than 580 dancers have performed with Kansas City Ballet since it was founded in 1957. Many more have sewn costumes, built sets, driven students to ballet class and raised money.

“Steps change; casts change; names change; but after 50 years of determination and dauntless dreaming, the Kansas City Ballet is alive and kicking,” Townley wrote in her 50th- anniversary book. “May this book serve as a tribute to the spirit and dedication of all who forged the way here: the hands that sewed the tutus, the feet that bled, the choreographers who pulled movement out of air, the supporters whose generosity paved the way from the invisible to the visible and back. There are thousands such people, making the art available to millions over the past five decades.”

“The next 60 years?” Jeff Bentley says. “Well, just keep using the same work ethic, the same commitment, the same creative energy, the same selfless love of an art form and the people that practice it — then what is supposed to happen will happen. And then the 120th anniversary will be celebrated!”

Krista Lang Blackwood

Krista Lang Blackwood is an award-winning educator, performer and freelance writer. When she's not teaching or performing, she combs the greater Kansas City region for off-the-beaten-path arts and culture offerings, usually in the company of her husband and precocious, French-speaking son. 

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