beyond the barre with whitney jensen

The first time I saw Whitney Jensen, we were twelve. Waiting in the wings backstage at YAGP, she was one of those girls whose port de bras continued into her normal human life, resulting in a resting posture that was elegant as all heck. She was this gorgeous, leggy thing, with a head of glossy platinum hair that looked right at home beneath a palatial tiara. Everything about her sparkling black tutu radiated professionalism, and mine was, well…pale green. Fast forward several summers- I was invited to train with Jensen’s coach/Master of Elegance ,Valentina Kozlova, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Whitney’s grace was every bit as present in her personality as it was in her performance. From New York to Boston to Oslo, Whitney seems to bring a sweet spirit, confidence, and special flair with her where ever she goes. Read on to find out about her competitive roots, time off, and what it’s like to date a dancer…

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“Player”, Norwegian National Ballet, photo by Erik Berg

Hello dear! Let’s bring it back. What is your earliest dance memory? 

My earliest dance memory would be when I was probably 3 years old. My mom owned her own Dance Studio and my older sisters were taking classes every day. I remember being in the studio watching them in class thinking I wanted to be just like them. 

So you started training right away?

When I was about 5 my mom closed her studio and I started taking classes at The Dance Club. When I was 8 I wanted to focus more on ballet so I also began taking extra ballet classes at Utah Regional Ballet. When I was 11 I studied at Ballet West for one year.

And that’s when you moved to New York City to study ballet more intensively, yes?

My move to New York City began gradually. Once I began training with Valentina, I was still living and going to school in Park City, Utah. I would travel to New York City on the weekends for a few private lessons and return home to Utah on Monday evenings. After a while this got very exhausting and was difficult for me to keep up with school work. I then began independent studies on my own and my trips to New York turned into weeks instead of days. By the end of the year I remember asking my parents if I could just stay in New York. They were hesitant, but since I had two older sisters living in New York at the time, my parents agreed that I could stay in the city.

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performing the Black Swan variation, age 12

It must have been quite the experience, moving from Utah to NY at such a young age!

Living with my second oldest sister in New York City as a 12 year old is still one of my most favorite times. I learned to be independent, accountable, diligent and disciplined. I definitely grew up quickly. The following year my sister decided she would pursue her dreams in California and I felt prepared to live on my own. I don’t quite know why my parents allowed this, but I do think they had trust in me. I was focused and knew what I wanted. I also knew if I wasn’t obedient and doing what I should be that I would probably be sent back to Utah and wouldn’t be able to continue the training I needed.

Sounds like you were very driven. Was that a result of your relationship with Valentina?

My coach Valentina was someone I looked up to and wanted to be when I was training. Every little thing about her inspired me to become a professional ballerina. She knew me better than any of my other teachers. She knew all of my weaknesses and strengths and helped me to identify those on my own and how to work with what I have. Most importantly, she challenged me to be better than the previous day.

Her attention to upper body and port de bras is what sets her apart from most coaches, and I was a sponge. I mimicked her in the mirror until I looked exactly like her. I think that is why our relationship as coach and student worked so well. I trusted her and saw my improvements immediately. One piece of advice that I always keep in my mind when I work every day is the importance of the back. It completely changes your appearance from someone who looks timid, to someone who is commanding and confident. 

I always credit my lack of performance nerves to attending competitions as a student. Do you feel that competing had a similar effect for you? 

Competitions definitely contributed to my lack of performance nerves. Don’t get me wrong, I still have butterflies but I have managed them due to the amount of pressure that competitions provide. I was 6 when I first started competing, and my mom is the one to credit for helping me conquer nerves. She would always tell me, “Don’t be nervous, you are here to share your gift. Think of it like they are taking a break from the competition and you are the guest artist!” Since she said that to me, I would tell myself the same thing in my head right before I would go onstage. I would imagine the announcer saying “We will take a short break and Whitney Jensen will perform as our guest.” For some reason that took the pressure off of me to feel I had to be technically perfect and I could just perform and tell a story. 

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with her mother at Radio City Music Hall, where she performed as Clara

That’s brilliant! What a smart mama. So your first professional contract was with Boston Ballet. After climbing the ranks rather quickly, you made the decision to leave the company in 2015. What spawned this dramatic life change?

My decision to leave Boston Ballet the year after I was promoted to Principal was not something that I decided impulsively. I had been thinking about it for a few years. I guess I felt that I needed to be challenged in a different way. Personally, I wanted to be seen through a new pair of eyes perhaps. To reinvent myself and not be stuck in a box. 

After leaving Boston Ballet, you went back home for a while. What was this time like for you?

I moved home to Utah to gain a sense of clarity. I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to be in a company at that time. I needed a break. Since I was 12, I had been told what to do to make it as a professional. I just followed along and did as I was told. It wasn’t until I left Boston Ballet that I felt I had made a decision on my own. It was the scariest most exhilarating feeling! I had no idea what would happen but I knew without a doubt I would be okay and things would work out. I was probably the most calm I had ever been since moving to Boston.

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in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun with Sabi Varga at Boston Ballet, photo by Rosalie O’Connor

It sounds like that time may have been exactly what you needed, because last year you landed a contract with The Norwegian National Ballet is Oslo, Norway. Congrats, lady! That’s a pretty big leap, what brought you all that way?

During my 6 month break I knew I couldn’t stop dancing so I relocated back to New York  and lived with my oldest sister and her amazing family. I needed to have the time to be near family and make my own schedule. I took class every day at Steps and rented space to work on my own. Somehow I manage to work hardest on my own. I would say this is because of how Valentina coached me. She emphasized how crucial it is to know yourself and push yourself because its not for anyone’s benefit but your own. My favorite moments as a professional dancer are working in a studio by myself.

However, I was missing the company life. The structure of being in a company is important but I mainly missed being on stage more often. Guesting here and there just wasn’t enough for me. I had tried to audition in Oslo a few years back but there were no availabilities. I understood that European companies are different because they deal with permanent contracts as opposed to yearly ones, so it’s more a game of timing than anything else. I was encouraged to send my cv and performance video to Oslo by a friend of mine who was in the company. Once I sent the email I felt calm, but honestly had no expectations. Within a few days I received an email back from the director Ingrid herself, and within 2 months I was on my way to Oslo. It all just fell into place.

Was it a difficult transition? 

The transition was difficult, but like anything foreign it was exciting.

What is the company like?

The company is refreshing. The dancers are kind people and welcomed me individually on my first day. I have to say that I had never seen that before and was incredibly impressed.

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off duty in Norway

How lovely! So how is life in Norway now? 

As this is my first time living abroad there are of course challenges. The time difference between my family and loved ones is probably my biggest challenge still. I am between 6 and 8 hours ahead of everyone! Except my brother who now lives in Paris! Thank goodness my best friend is close! European dance life is just different. I would say the biggest difference is you really have to motivate yourself. Also, people aren’t into social media as much over here. It’s definitely refreshing. 

Speaking of social media (ha)…I think I saw on Instagram that you recently performed Micaela in Liam Scarlett’s Carmen, is that right? I just did Micaela here (in Viktor’s version). I found it to be such a wonderfully complex character, so sweet and softly sad. What was your experience with this dancing this role?

Performing Micaela in Liam Scarlett’s Carmen was enjoyable. I had a great partner who is one of my friends and we laughed a lot. As a character, it was a bit harder for me to relate to Micaela. I wanted her to be a bit stronger and maybe not always be at Don Jose’s beck and call, but I did have a great time performing the pas de deux, which has some beautiful music. 

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rehearsing Liam Scarlett’s Carmen at The Norwegian National Ballet, photo by Erik Berg

I know what you mean. In Viktor’s version, Micaela also gets to sort of narrate the story, and that gives her character a lot of strength, which creates a nice balance. You also just performed Alexander Eckman’s Swan Lake (in PARIS!). It must have been such a crazy experience- dancing in water?!

Alexander Ekman’s A Swan Lake is one of a kind. Obviously! We are in water! It is exhausting! Some challenges were of course being in water for hours. The water gets cold, your body gets stiff. Being on your knees and gripping your legs when you slide required us to  be really grounded. It is definitely one of the most tiring shows I have ever done! Then again,  I would remind myself “This is your day at work! You are in water with some amazing music, fun movement, inspiring dancers and you get to be apart of it!”  Being in Paris was also just a highlight on it’s own.

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preparing for Alexander Eckman’s Swan Lake in Paris, photo by Anne-Sylvie Bonnet

Ah, it’s the best city. In your off time (because you just have so much free time, right?), you work with a group of dancers who perform as the Cirio Collective. Can you tell us a bit about this? 

Cirio Collective was started by Jeffrey Cirio and his sister Lia Cirio. At the time all the dancers asked to be apart of Collective were with Boston Ballet. The first summer we worked in Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod and grew extremely close. Almost like a family. For two weeks we would work in a studio helping Jeff create an entirely new piece to then perform at the end of the two weeks.

What is coming up next for you all?

This year will be my 3rd summer with Cirio Collective and the company has grown in dancers, musicians, choreographers and even clothing designers!! We are going to be back at Martha’s Vineyard and the Cape as usual but with an added week in New York City for a few performances at the Joyce Theater! I think everyone is super excited to share this unique group and ideas that Jeff and Lia want collective to be about. It’s important to recognize that Cirio Collective is not just another summer dance company. I think Jeff and Lia’s goal is to be different. Create pieces in 5 days with a specific goal. Collaborate with different kinds of artists. It’s different and I think art is meant to be viewed in different ways. Hopefully New York audiences will embrace that. 

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rehearsing with Cirio Collective co-founder, Jeffrey Cirio, photo by Jordan Jennings

The Joyce Theater! That’s very cool. And your relationship with Jeffrey goes beyond Cirio Collective (wink)…

Dating Jeffrey Cirio (Principal with ABT) is really great since we understand each other. Being long distance is definitely our biggest challenge but I know that what makes it work for us right now is that we are best friends. Of course we want to be in the same place but right now we work hard to make it work. And at the end of the day (literally) I get to talk to my best friend:)

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So in terms of going “beyond the barre”, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I have been thinking a lot lately about what I want to do when I am done dancing, or for my “next life” There are a few things that really interest me. Fashion is definitely on the top of my list a long with real estate. It is so random but I feel like I could be good at either of those! I mean, I guess I also always saw myself coaching as well. The ballet world is changing quickly and it is important to keep some very important traditions and legacies alive. I feel I have a responsibility to continue the knowledge I was given from Valentina. But I really don’t know yet! In ten years I see myself married with a few children living somewhere warm near the beach…happy. 

Well that sounds heavenly. Okay, lighting round!

Favorite Ballet? Romeo and Juliet

Dream Role? Juliet

Dream Partner? Would have been Baryshnikov ;)

Classical or Contemporary? I have to have both!

Favorite Restaurant in New York? Sanctuary T.    Boston? Tatte.     Oslo? I don’t know yet!

Most memorable mishap?  I fell in every program except one my 3rd season in Boston! 

Career highlight? Dancing Theme and Variations and being coached by Pat Neery

Advice to a younger you? Relationships with the people you love are the most important thing. Live in the moment. Ballet is an incredible gift but it is fleeting.

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Thank you so much for sharing, Whitney! Sending light and love to Oslo. xx, STB. 

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