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[VIDEO] Five Questions For Kansas City Ballet’s William Whitener

Julie Denesha
Kansas City Ballet Artistic Director William Whitener

This marks Artistic Director William Whitener's final season with the Kansas City Ballet. After 17 years with the company, he's preparing to return to New York. Whitener answered a few questions before the final performances.

Describe your first day with the Kansas City Ballet.

"You're asking about the first day at the Ballet?" Whitener asked. "I was just thinking about that overnight. We were at the Westport Allen Center which is just by that Sunfresh on Westport Road. It was a grade school. So the big dance studio, or the largest of very small studios, had been, I think, the basketball court for grade school kids or perhaps later the faculty lunch room. We were constrained. It was not nearly big enough.

"We begin our days with a training session, a ballet class, it's an academic class. A technical class, where the fundamentals are practiced rigorously, and that's always the way of warming up but also improving your technique.

"Looking back on that first day, I realize I made that class very difficult, like overly so (laughs). And people's eyeballs kind of popped. And some came up to me afterwards, some of the women and said, 'Well, that was good that you set the bar that high for the first day back.' Because they had been off all summer, and generally you would in the fall, first day, limit some of the more technically demanding steps, but I kind of threw them all out there. I am not even sure why I did that (laughs). I was probably a little nervous. But also, in retrospect, it did send the message that we're going to move this up, and you're at a terrific technical level but now let's start high and go from there."

What it was like to follow Todd Bolender at the Kansas City Ballet?
"Todd Bolenderwas a very distinguished artist. I knew him in New York City. I'd been in one of his ballets when I was in the Joffrey Ballet. I was 17-years-old, and he made a piece called Time Cycle, which he had produced she he was directing in Germany. So, this was at the Joffrey Ballet in 1969, and I got to meet him I didn't have a very big part, in fact I had the smallest part because I was the new kid in town.

"I immediately liked him. I saw that he was quite pensive. He was a very thoughtful man, and of course we knew that he's had an extraordinary career, particularly with Ballet Caravan, and then New York City Ballet, two companies that were started by George Balanchine. Todd was a muse for George Balanchine, and that is a really high distinction in the field of dance.

"Later I could identify with him because I had been a muse for Twyla Tharp, and some other choreographers at the Joffrey. And that is a very particular kind of relationship that a dancer develops with a leading choreographer. You are indispensable, really. You have to kind of read their mind, be one step ahead of the choreographer and provide elements of surprise in their creative process, so that it can live, and breathe, and become something whole.

"So Todd and I had this in common and that's something that we didn't even really talk about that much, perhaps a bit. But we knew that that's a particular kind of dedication to the art of ballet, and a very privileged position to be in as a dancer.

"So, we shared a lot in common, and Todd continued to live here after I started directing, and we were able to continue and develop our relationship as colleagues and friends. And therefore the transition between his period of time here and mine was very smooth, warm and productive."

What would you like to be remembered for at the Kansas City Ballet? What are your hopes for your successor?
"Well, in terms of what I'd like to be remembered for, I think Tom Sawyer will be remembered as a three-act ballet that was created here on this company. I made it a couple of years ago. What's unusual about it is, first of all the score is an original score by an American composer Maury Yeston. We based it on Mark Twain's famous novel. American company, I created it. We actually think it is the first all-American, full-evening narrative or you could say, story ballet, with an American score.

"There had been other one-act ballets that had been infamous, Agnes de Mille's Rodeo,with the Aaron Copeland score, and Fancy Free,which is on the Ballet 2013-2014 season. Jerome Robbins' great work with Leonard Bernstein's music. Those are one-act ballets, story ballets about American culture.

"So Tom Sawyer is significant both historically and in regards to the ongoing repertory of the Kansas City Ballet. It made the national news and was acclaimed in The New York Times, and so on. This is really helpful to not only put us on the map, but give us a spot in history. I guess if I had to pick one thing, that's my proudest achievement. 

“And you were asking about a successor. I would hope that my successor has a similar experience to the one I just described with myself and Todd, that there's not just a passing of the torch, but I can serve in an advisory capacity.  I won't be living in Kansas City, but the world's quite small now (laughs) in terms of getting in touch with each other.

"I would hope that that transition will be thoughtfully created and open and about the largest topics which are obviously, the future of dance, how dance fits into the American culture, and specifically here in Kansas City. What are the challenges? What are the achievements we've accomplished and how can we build upon the tradition that's been established?

"I stood on Todd's shoulders. The successor will stand on both of our shoulders."

What is your favorite record in your extensive record collection?

"My record album collection has been contributed to the Marr Sound Archives at UMKC. And I combined my collection with Todd Bolender's collection, so it's huge (laughs). I'd kind of hoped that we could keep it all together so people could see what our musical tastes were, but it had to be categorized so jazz records went to one section, classical to another.

"But I was thinking about do I have a favorite record album. As a kid, sure, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," because of the cover for one thing. "

"But I have a Bobby Watson recording and I don't quite remember when I bought it.  And we are working with Bobby Watson right now on Energy Made Visible, a new work at Kansas City Ballet.

"I'd like to pull that out again and listen to it. Phil Woodsis on that collection and Bobby. How did I know about Bobby when I bought that record when he created it. I am not sure, so I'd like to play it and see what has intrigued me, and circle back to my first exposure to his music."

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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