James Whiteside and Devon Teuscher in White Swan Pas de Deux, photo by Erin Baiano.
Last week I caught up with American Ballet Theater (ABT) principal, James Whiteside, between rehearsals at the Vail Dance Festival. James filled me in on his longtime love of ABT, his tap background, and his upcoming travels to Tokyo.
Kirsten: How long have you been at American Ballet Theater now?
James: This will be my fifth season with ABT.
K: How did you come to your decision to leave Boston Ballet?
J: Well I had always had my eye on ABT, ever since I was a teenager. It was the first big ballet company I saw and I was immediately obsessed.
After being in Boston for 10 years, I wanted to be inspired by new dancers, new work, new challenges, and New York City itself. So I auditioned on a day off during Nutcracker season in Boston, which is insane. Sometimes we do over 40 performances of Nutcracker, so I took the red-eye Fung Wah bus, back when that was still a thing, and I took ballet class with ABT. They offered me a soloist contract.
K: What was your transition into ABT like?
J: It was foreign and familiar all at once. The ballet world is very small, so I knew a lot of the dancers from- this, that, and the other- from guest performances, from summer programs, and stuff. But the rep at ABT is completely different from the rep at Boston. We did a lot of Balanchine, a lot of neoclassical work, a lot of contemporary work [at Boston Ballet]. ABT does big classics. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, etc. So I had to learn all of ABT’s rep in an extremely short time, and I did an obscene amount of debuts that first year. Then I was promoted to Principal in the Fall.
K: Do you feel like you’ve adjusted to New York life?
J: I’m from Fairfield, Connecticut, so I spent a lot of time in the city as a kid, going to Broadway Dance Center, seeing Broadway shows with my dance teachers. I’ve had my heart close to New York City for a long time. So it feels more like a homecoming.
K: So now your address just matches your…
J: …my soul.
K: [Laughs] Now, this isn’t your first time in Vail.
J: This is my third year in Vail. My first year I only did one ballet. Last year I did a lot, this year I’m doing a lot, and I’m coming back next year.
K: So it just progresses more and more as you keep coming back?
J: Yeah, they make you work! Damn! It’s really, really ambitious. Incredibly ambitious. In a way, it feels like our New York season: putting together a large amount of things in a short amount of time. It’s crazy, this festival has gained so much visibility in the dance world. It’s become the dance festival.
K: What keeps you coming back to the Vail Dance Festival?
J: My favorite thing about this festival is the location, the setting, the nature.
K: It really is beautiful. Has the altitude been an adjustment?
J: Oh, of course. Everything is harder here, without a doubt.
K: So what are you performing in Vail this year?
J: I have danced the White Swan Pas de Deux with fellow ABT Principal Devon Teuscher. I have also danced Michelle Dorrance’s 1-2-3-4-5-6, where I had to do a lot of tapping, so that was fun. I tapped as a teenager, so it was nice to revisit it. I did a new ballet [Farewell] by Matthew Neenan on Saturday night. I danced with an old colleague of mine, Misa Kuranaga. We danced together a lot in Boston. It was so nice to dance with her again, she’s an extraordinary dancer.
I’ll be dancing in the new Michelle Dorrance ballet- I keep calling it a ballet, but it’s a dance. [Laughs] I don’t know what it’s called, but it is epic, and ambitious and daring and I just can’t believe we’re doing it tonight. I’m a little stressed out.
K: [Laughs] That’s kind what the festival is about though, right?
J: Amen to that! It all will come together, I know it will.
K: Definitely will. So that’s a big piece…
J: Yeah, it’s about 30 minutes long. It’s a big cast from all different backgrounds. We’re tapping, we’re…not tapping.
K: [Laughs] All of the in between…
J: Yes. [Laughs]
K: So what’s up next after Vail?
J: My summer has been completely booked with festivals and galas. It’s been exceptionally fun. It’s been like a tour- I feel like I’m on a rock concert tour. I’ve been a lot of places, I’m going a lot of places.
The next stops on my “summer gig tour” are Sun Valley, Idaho, which has a similar beauty to this, actually. And Tokyo.
K: No big deal. “Oh yeah, Toyko.”
J: Oh yeah, Toyko. [Laughs]
K: Have you been before?
J: I’ve been to Toyko before, yeah. It’s just so strange and wonderful. Just so different.
K: Dream destination for me.
J: And then I have my Fall season with American Ballet Theater. I have some personal projects in the works, which if you follow me on my various socials, you’ll learn of.
K: So back up for a second, though, what are you going to be doing in Tokyo?
J: In Tokyo, I am choreographing and dancing in a Disney ballet DVD release of Beauty and the Beast.
K: What? Stop! That’s awesome.
J: Yeah, it’ll be Misa and me.
K: That’s really exciting. And what are you doing in Sun Valley?
J: In Sun Valley I’m dancing [George] Balanchine’s Rubies Pas de Deux with Tiler Peck. I’m also doing a solo I created to Louis Armstrong’s You Rascal You, which I made a short film for years ago that people really liked. The premise is that I have killed my wife’s lover. I’m really excited about it, I’m dancing around in the streets. You can view it on Youtube.*
K: Great! Are you looking forward to getting back to New York after that?
J: Yes. But I actually haven’t had a day off since June, so next week from Wednesday to Wednesday, I’ll be in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
K: Ah, I love Provincetown! So beautiful.
Thank you for chatting with me, James! Enjoy some well deserved rest in P-town.
*Editor’s note: I watched James’ You Rascal You video immediately after transcribing this interview and- oh my goodness- go watch it right now. Please.
Since arriving in Vail a week ago, I have been wanting to chat with Lauren Lovette. She’s a bit of a wunderkind, an enigma of what seems to be pure joy mixed with a whole lot of talent. I must admit, I was hesitant to introduce myself, not only because Lauren has been busy here in Vail- multiple performances in each program, world premiere choreography, the usual- but also because I love her dancing and was afraid of having a Wizard of Oz situation. You know, the awful let down when the curtain is lifted and someone who seems magical is just smoke and mirrors? Guys, chatting with Lauren was completely the opposite.
I was walking home from the amphitheater between rehearsals and the NOW: Premieres performance when I saw Lauren sitting on a bench by herself. My feet started walking past, but my breath stopped, and I decided to say hello. With her new piece premiering in just a few hours, I figured Lauren might wave me away with her friendly smile and leave it at that. Instead she told me to sit down and chatted me up for over an hour.
I decided to transcribe this impromptu interview in two parts, and include the audio file of our conversation, should you prefer listening to reading. Here, in part one, we discuss her introduction to dance, the surprising nature of her promotions, and how she’s opening herself up to new opportunities…
K: So, how long have you been in New York? A long time…
L: I’ve been in New York for eleven years? Maybe almost twelve?
K: Wow. So you’re, like, an official New Yorker.
L: I think I’m a New Yorker?
K: I think you’re a New Yorker.
L: I don’t know, though, because I’ve been on the Upper West Side almost the entire time I’ve been there, and I got there when I was fourteen, so I feel like in some ways I don’t know the city at all. But yeah, I’m a New Yorker.
K: You’re a New Yorker, that counts. Where are you from originally?
K: Wow, so that’s a big difference then.
L: Yeah, I’m from L.A. kind of area, Malibu Beach.
K: Was it hard to leave?
L: Yeah, yeah. It was really hard to leave. I was homeschooled my whole life, actually. SO I never left home. I was with my family all the time. And then I left for a summer program when I was thirteen, and the next year they asked me to stay and that was that. My parents said they would take it as a sign if I got a full scholarship, and my family doesn’t come from money either, so it was almost cheaper for me to leave. They paid for my room and board, my tuition, everything.
K: Kinda hard to say no…
L: It was hard to say no, so I just left. But it was a hard day. My mom, at the time, worked for American Airlines, so it wasn’t so bad. They could come in with free flights. But they haven’t been to New York in a while and I miss them.
K: Did you know about New York City Ballet as a kid? What was your childhood with dance like?
L: Not really. So, I got into dance because my cousin danced. I think I picked it up from her, I really idolized my cousin. She was four or five years older than me. My parents, since we were homeschooled, they kind of let us go and play with our cousins a lot. My family and friend like were one. [laughs]
I would hang out at [my aunt’s] dance store and that’s sort of how I got into it. I was dancing around the store and somebody saw my feet and told me I should dance. I think I gave some long explanation about how my parents couldn’t afford it or something, I don’t know.
K: How old were you?
L: I was ten. And [this woman] talked to my aunt and worked it all out that I would have free classes for a week, a month, and then a year after that.
K: And this is just someone who saw you?
L: Mhm. I have the dancer kind of bendy feet, and I think she saw my body type and was like “You look like you’ve got the long legs, you look like a dancer,” and I was Jeannette’s cousin so I think she thought I might have some talent because my cousin was really talented. I don’t know. But that was the first time anyone every told me I could be good at anything, so I was very excited about that.
K: And you obviously were already interested.
L: I was interested, yeah, I liked to move. I would always stand on my toes, even without shoes- I remember that. I would go all the way up to the tips of my bare feet. So that when I got my first pair of pointe shoes it felt good. [laughs]
K: [laughs] Yeah, you were like, “Wow, this is easier.”
L: Yeah instead of bad I was like “Wow, so much easier!” [laughs] So I think it was meant to be in that sense, but I hadn’t really thought about New York City Ballet until later. I just had videos from the library so all I saw was Julie Kent and ABT, and I wanted to be like Julie…
But there was this girl- my whole family moved to North Carolina when I was twelve, almost thirteen- and I saw this local student there who was amazing. She always went to SAB [School of American Ballet] every summer. It was the first time I’d ever heard of it. I wanted to be like her so I thought “Okay, I’ll audition.” I didn’t get in the first time I tried, I was really sad. But then the next time I did and the whole thing just happened. So I didn’t even really know what it was I wanted, I just knew I wanted to be like Sally. [laughs] And then I got to New York and I was like “Oh, this is really hard! This is crazy and everybody’s really good and it’s cutthroat.” But I liked the work so…
K: Spoken like a true dancer.
L: Yeah, dancers love it. They love the impossible. Come on, correct me a million times!
L: I think I was asked to stay around the same time I learned about New York City Ballet. So I was almost living in New York before I knew anything about what I was doing. Which I think is kind of better sometimes, because I feel like you can get kinda lost in how you envision your life to go, and then the every day you kinda lose. So I knew I loved ballet, and I knew I loved working in the studio, and I knew I loved New York City, and it didn’t matter what happened after that, so I kinda just kept going.
K: It wasn’t as much about a goal as it was the present moment and just doing what you wanted to do.
L: It was the present moment. Then I just got a ton of free tickets to see New York City Ballet every night, which I took big advantage of. I went all the time. I liked to go by myself. I would sit by myself and imagine myself doing what they were doing.
K: So from your experience at SAB, how was it getting into the company? What was the transition like, what was the time like?
L: It was crazy. I did my workshop performance and six girls from my class got chosen into the company, and I wasn’t one of them. They asked me to come back another year and didn’t let me audition for companies. So it was this weird time where I didn’t know if I wanted to dance, or if I was any good. I wasn’t good enough for New York City Ballet- I thought- because, you know, six girls got picked over me. I thought maybe I must be really weak.
I auditioned for Chautauqua [Institution Summer Dance Intensive], so I ended up going there [for the summer]. I choreographed there, I liked the choreography thing. I thought, “Well maybe I’ll do a little bit more of that or just move back home and just be with my family.”
But I went back for another year at SAB, just to finish it. When I went back to the school year and I was with all of the younger class. It just felt like failure a little bit. But I choreographed that fall, too, for their choreographic workshop. I think in hindsight it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me, because I went to Chautauqua and got to make two different works on a real stage with costumes and live music and all of that, it was really valuable. And then back at SAB I got a little blurb in the paper and Peter Martins saw my choreography. I think in hindsight everything went as it was meant to go, but at the time, I was really depressed and sad.
And then it was actually the day before Halloween- I remember, I had my costume all ready, I was gonna be a butterfly in class- and I got this call to go to a meeting. It was me and three really tall blondes. And I thought, “What’s this all about? This is crazy we don’t look anything alike.”
K: [laughs] Strange group!
L: [laughs] Yeah I was like, “I’m really the odd one out here!” But they gave us apprenticeships for Nutcracker, because they needed girls. It was…weird. I don’t know, I was excited, but also just…every promotion I’ve always felt this way that I’ve been sort of out of my body. Like it’s happening and I always imagined it would be this big moment, and it never felt that way. It’s always been very practical.
So I got asked into the company and I thought, “Okay what does this mean? I guess I have rehearsal tomorrow,” which I did. I didn’t need my Halloween costume anymore. [laughs] I was like, “Okay! I’m in New York City Ballet!”
K: That’s crazy, so the next day you started?
L: Yeah, they don’t prepare you or warn you, really. They just kinda throw you in. So, we were called like, “second apprentices” by some of the girls for a while, because I was behind the other girls that got in. But still in the same year, so…
K: How competitive is it actually?
L: I mean it’s not Black Swan, but it is hard. There were nine of us, nine girls as apprentices that year. So every time the schedule comes out, you look at it and you’re like, “Is my name on there?” We had every height of girl you could be, every kind of dancer. Girls that were better at long, slow, adagio things, quick movers, just every kind of dancer.
Apprenticeship is already hard: you don’t know your surroundings, you’re at the bottom, you think everyone is talking about you- they’re not- but you think that they are. You’re very self-conscious, and then you’re trying to guess what your boss wants. It was stressful and hard and some of the older girls would say, “Oh, you’re not allowed to wear warmups,” or “Oh, you’re not allowed to sit down”, which isn’t necessarily true. [laughs]
K: [Laughing]Power trip…
K: You find out later on…you’re like mmmm? Like you’re not going around saying that to people now…
L: No, not now. So I mean, the company changes every year based on how the older dancers treat the younger ones. I’m always really nice to the younger dancers if I can be, just to make them feel welcome. But that first year was hard. I think I had a head on most of the time, like some kind of costume with a giant face covering my face? [laughs]
K: That’s what I was gonna say when you were talking earlier about, you know, trying to guess what the director wants and it’s like you’re not able to really be yourself as much.
L: No, you’re trying to be something that you don’t know yet.
K: Yeah, exactly. It must be nice to now be able to be free.
L: Yeah, it is. And that’s how I felt when I got my corps contract. It was the best. You can only do so many ballets as an apprentice or else they have to hire you, full on. And they usually don’t have the money for that, so they limit what you do. You understudy a lot, but you usually don’t get put in. When I got my corps contract I thought, “Now I can dance any ballet. I can dance all day long. There’s nothing to stop me. I can do anything!” It was very freeing, just to have the validation, and the job security. [laughs] Like, okay, it’s not just a year- even though our contracts are still yearly it’s better than an apprentice contract.
All nine of us got in that year, which didn’t help with the whole “What does my boss want?” question. We were still all so different! But yeah, it was really exciting. We were all living in the same house in Saratoga, so it’s a good thing that we all got in, or else it would’ve been very sad.
K: Are a lot of you still in the company?
L: No, actually, I’d say maybe half of us are gone now.
K: Oh no, that’s sad!
L: I think maybe happier, though? A lot friends went to school. Dancers are some of the smartest people ever. Some went to Barnard some went to Harvard, Princeton, one is training for NASA. It’s crazy, dancers can do anything.
K: It’s so true.
L: So, yeah, I was still searching in the corps, for who I was. Not really sure if I liked being a ballerina, not sure if I loved the job. And then I got my soloist contract, and that was when it really felt right, because I don’t like staying in line [laughs] I’m not good at it. I’m not good at looking like other people. I try really hard, but it’s just not my gift. As soon as I was free of that, I felt like a whole nother dimension of my dancing could shine through and I could just be myself. It was a very validating moment in my career.
K: Did you see it coming at all?
L: No. I mean, I was doing a lot, I remember I had three debuts in Sleeping Beauty in a week, and I was learning two new ballets, [George Balanchine’s] Dances at a Gathering and [Peter Martins’] Zakousky for the Moves Tour, our small company tour. I was just flooded with work, I remember.
K: You weren’t really thinking about whether or not you were gonna get promoted.
L: No. I was just worried about what was in front of me. I barely had enough rehearsals for what I was doing. I think I learned Zakousky in two days. I liked it, but I was also really tired at the time. I find that before every promotion, you’re kind of put through the fire a bit.
K: And you’re kind of doing the work of both…
L: Yeah, you’re doing all of your corps ballets and you’re doing special highlighted things, it’s just a tough time. I think that’s when you know, I always tell younger dancers, I’m like, “If you feel like you’re gonna die, if you feel like you’re being worked to the bone and you’re not sure how you’re gonna do another day, you’re probably on the verge of something really great.” You just can’t give up, and you can’t let the attitude go bad. I remember when I got my soloist contract, my boss said he liked my attitude the most. He said he watched me from his office. So even when we don’t know he’s watching, he has a video camera of the stage. He said I always did every rehearsal full out, and he liked my spirit and my energy at work. So, that was a nice thing to hear from my boss.
K: That’s a great thing to hear. That’s super validating. All the work that you’re doing, all of the integrity…
K: Yeah, totally matters.
L: I tell other dancers that too when they start to get down I say, “Don’t. Enjoy the work, keep it up, You’re on the verge of something great. If you let it sour you, right at the cusp of something, then it’s not good.”
K: So did you feel sort of the same thing when you got your principal contract? That “through the fire”, or…
L: You know, it was weird. My principal contract happened in a way…I don’t know how to describe it. It was not what I pictured it to be. I’d had a lot of big moments, I had just done La Sylphide, my first full length ballet, and I felt like a ballerina, but my foot was in a lot of pain.
So I was dancing with an extra bone in my foot for like seven years I think it was, or six years- knowing about it. I was getting to this point where I felt like I wasn’t able to push the way I wanted to.
K: Because of the pain?
L: Yeah, I was in a lot of pain, I didn’t feel like a principal. I was taking it easy a lot, really going for it on stage but not warming up well because it hurt so bad. So I was really going through a lot at that time and a lot of personal stuff, too, in my life. I wasn’t really thinking about getting promoted, I was thinking about healing. I did La Sylphide and I was thinking if there was ever a moment where I might get promoted it would probably be after that, like, “Your big show! Maybe!” [laughs] But I didn’t get promoted, and I had my surgery scheduled right after that big performance, so I thought, “Alright, well, I’m not gonna get a promotion, that’s cool. That’s fine, it’s not the right time. I’m gonna go into this surgery, hopefully I’m gonna come back okay.” I had never had an injury before that put me out for a long period of time.
So I did this performance, got surgery on my foot and then two weeks later while still in a boot, I got a call to have a meeting with Peter. I thought, “Oh no, maybe it’s about the injury”, and then nobody was in the office. So I found somebody who said, “Oh yeah, go down to the stage.” The final performance of the season had just wrapped up and I hobbled across the stage in my boot, and my boss was just standing there in the wings talking to someone else. He turned around and went, [in her best Peter Martins voice] “Oh!”, slapped my on the back, “Uh, I’m promoting you!” And I thought, “What? I’m in a boot!” And he said, “You’re not surprised!” And then he left! He said, “Get a drink on me”, and then he just left and I thought, “That’s the weirdest thing, like is that real? I thought this would be a big moment like maybe he’d tell me all the great things about my dancing or what I’ve done or how proud is or just something…but instead it was like I’m doing this thing, you’re not surprised…bye! Go heal for six months. [laughs]
So it kinda did some weird things to me mentally, I didn’t know how a principal should be. I didn’t really see it in myself yet, and I knew I’d have to come back after all this time offstage and with a new title, be that thing, which I was already unsure about. So it worked out in the end…
K: Yeah, I mean, it definitely worked out!
L: It was just a different way around the issue. It never happens the same for anybody, so, that was just mine.
K: So when was that?
L: That was 2015. And then for about a year my foot was still hurting me after the surgery. I struggle with stage freight a lot and anxiety, so I was having a hard time. And then more personal stuff in my life was happening, so it was just tough.
And then around Christmas, my boss came up to me and asked me to choreograph, asked me to make a ballet. He said, [again in her best Peter Matins], “New Lovette: 2016. What do you think?”, and I just stared at him like, “Okay! Sure!” [laughs]
It was genius. It was exactly what I needed, that I didn’t even know I needed. Something to get me out of my head.
Stay tuned to hear the rest of our conversation, in which Lauren discusses choreographing, her experience in Vail and finding inspiration, coming soon.
In between rehearsals at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, I sat down for a chat with American Ballet Theater (ABT) Principal Isabella Boylston. On the grassy lawn seating that will fill with eager patrons later this evening, this busy ballerina filled me in on life in New York, her experience with the Vail Dance Festival and what’s up next.
Kirsten: You’re originally from Sun Valley, Idaho. How long have you been living in New York?
Isabella: I moved to New York in 2005 to join the Studio Company, so that’s 12 years.
K: So do you feel like you’re a New Yorker now?
I: Oh fully, yeah. Definitely a New Yorker. Although I also grew up in Colorado, so I miss nature and trees…
K: This is like coming home then!
I: Totally, it feels like a homecoming.
K: And this is not your first time in Vail, right?
I: No, I’ve been at the Vail Dance Festival for the past 5 summers, and last year I was actually the Artist In Residence.
K: Very cool. What comes along with being Artist In Residence?
I: Honestly, just a lot of performing. [laughs]
At this point my eyes widen and I shoot her my crazy-person-face.
K: Even more performing than you’re doing here this year?
Isabella laughs and nods like she can’t believe it either.
I: Yes, even more performing. It’s an honor to be featured in that way.
K: Definitely. What are you performing at this year’s Vail Dance Festival?
I: I’m doing [August Bournonville’s] Flower Festival with Jeff [Cirio] and [Christopher Wheeldon’s] This Bitter Earth pas with Calvin [Royal]. Bitter Earth is a pretty poignant piece. I like to think of it as a reflective piece almost looking back on past events that were difficult for me, maybe challenges in love, that kind of thing. Every time I do it, it feels a little different just based on where I am in life. We’ve always been lucky enough to perform it with Kate Davis singing live, which totally enhances the mood. She has this crystal clear, transcendent voice and it always feels very emotive to do it with her.
K: So inspiring. And how has it been working with Jeff and Calvin?
I: Oh, just great. I know them both so well, we are all close friends. Calvin and I had never danced together until Vail last year when we did Bitter Earth for the first time; Jeff and I just did La Fille together last season.
K: So besides the homey feeling you get coming back to Colorado, what excites you about the Vail Dance Festival?
I: I definitely think one of the highlights is getting coached by Heather [Watts] and Damian [Woetzel]. They are so nurturing and I always leave with a lot of fresh ideas. And of course it’s super inspiring to be around all of these insanely talented dancers. It kind of feels like a family because a lot of us return year after year, so it’s like a little reunion.
K: Aw! That’s really sweet. So what’s up next for you this summer?
I: Oh! I’m actually putting on my own little festival in my hometown, Sun Valley, Idaho. There’s a beautiful amphitheater there, and I have been really inspired by everything Damian has done here in Vail. I mean, it’s much smaller scale, it’s just two performances…
K: But you’ve gotta start somewhere!
I: You’ve gotta start somewhere. I have incredible dancers coming, a lot of them from here actually. I just picked pieces that I really like and we have a lot of live music, too. Then we’re also doing a free education day, enrolling up to 200 kids in free dance classes, which is really fun.
K: I love that! Bringing affordable dance education to kids is so important.
I: So important. I mean, I wouldn’t be here without scholarships.
K: It’s also a great way to open people up to ballet in a new way, especially those who might not think ballet is accessible to them.
I: Yeah! Exactly. So in between Vail and my festival in Idaho, I’ll be traveling to Argentina to do a couple of guestings there.
I pause. Another wide-eyed look.
K: No big deal. Just hopping over to Argentina real quick.
I: [laughs] I know, I know, no big deal. I’m so busy this summer.
K: When do you get time off?
I: After my show in Sun Valley I’ll have a week off before starting back at ABT in September. It’s whirlwind summer.
K: Sounds like it! Hopefully you have a little time to relax while you’re here?
I: A little, yeah. Barton [Cowperthwaite] and I hiked the Booth Falls Trail a few days ago, it was so beautiful. But it was also a workout, ha! You should do it though, it was really fun.
Thank you so much, Isabella, for the chat and the hiking recommendation- I will definitely be carving out time to take on Booth Falls, so expect a full report soon.
*Editor’s note: I hiked Booth Falls. I huffed. I puffed. I conquered!
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…
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:)
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!
As the opening of our performance season approaches, rehearsals are ramping up. In a rare moment of downtime, I corresponded with Balanchine répétiteur Elyse Borne to get her take on working with FBP and Mr. B…
Hello! Let’s just dive in: What makes Allegro Brillante different from other Balanchine ballets? Why is it special?
Allegro is not exactly different but incorporates the speed, clarity, technical difficulty, musicality, and neoclassical style so closely identified with Balanchine.
Your schedule is so busy! You’re always traveling somewhere new to set another ballet. Where else have you staged Allegro in the past?
I have actually staged Allegro for FBP before! I’ve also done it in San Francisco, Vancouver, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Singapore etc…..
That’s right, this wasn’t your first visit to Providence. What was your experience like working with the dancers of FBP this time around?
I had a great time with your dancers. They learned the choreography at breakneck speed and expressed a real interest in executing the ballet correctly.
“I love walking into a studio where no one knows the steps and seeing it all come to life in just a few hours.”
If you could describe Allegro Brillante in 3 words, what would they be?
I would describe Allegro as fun, gut-buster, and energized!
What is your favorite part of the staging process?
I love walking into a studio where no one knows the steps and seeing it all come to life in just a few hours.
After retiring from NYCB, you were ballet mistress at Miami City Ballet for eight years and then San Fransisco Ballet for six. You’ve been in the ballet world for your entire career, but now staging ballets, you have such a unique job. How did you become a répétiteur?
I always had a propensity for learning quickly so this was a natural inclination. I gained a lot of knowledge being a ballet mistress and still face challenges with relish when I have to learn a ballet I’ve never staged. I feel honored and privileged to be allowed to stage Balanchine and Robbins.
What is it about the Balanchine style that you enjoy so much?
I think I must have grown up with Balanchine style in my blood. It is so natural for me. Dancing at NYCB was a dream come true.
You premiered in The Nutcracker with Mikhail Baryshnikov. What was that like? Do you have any favorite memories of working with Mr. Balanchine or at NYCB?
My scariest and favorite experience at NYCB was doing the Sugar Plum Fairy with Baryshnikov. Alone everyday for 5 days in a studio with the 2 of them, Balanchine and Misha. Awestruck and nervous and excited all at once. My memories go on and on. I think I will have to write a book! I was so lucky to work with such a genius.
…and we would love to read your book. Thank you, Elyse!
We are headed to The Vets this week, and already I feel the familiar excitement of performance time. Choreographer Dominic Walsh returns to Providence tonight, so it seems an appropriate time to look back on this interview from a few weeks ago, when he was in town setting his works. In the clip, Dominic sheds some light on the inspiration behind his reinventions of Le Spectre de la Rose and Afternoon of a Faun. Being able to learn about the birthplace of his creativity and take special note of those influences now, while preparing his pieces for the stage, has been so rewarding. I especially love seeing the Rodin sculpture of Nijinsky that inspired the iconic first pose in his Faun. Dominic makes such a poignant statement about creation:
“That time of The Ballets Russes was so exciting; They were breaking barriers. There was this dedication to exploration and excellence. So I think to reinvent these works is one way to contribute to the roles and responsibilities of the cultural institutions, and therefore our community.”
Very well said. If you have a minute, check out his interview below. The extended version is even juicier, if you’re interested.