Choreographer gleans wisdom from modern masters of his craft

William Whitener has been artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet since 1996. Before that, he directed the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal.

During his professional career, he danced with The Joffrey Ballet, the New York City Opera, Twyla Tharp Dance and as part of the original casts of Bob Fosse's "Dancin'" and Martha Clark's "The Garden of Earthly Delights." He also assisted Jerome Robbins with the reconstructions for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway."

Each teacher taught him something slightly different. Here are some memorable experiences and seeds of wisdom he picked up through the years from some of the dance world's most notable pioneers:

l Michael Bennett, who directed and choreographed "A Chorus Line," once taught two weeks of jazz classes at the Joffrey Ballet Company. Whitener had not previously taken any lessons in jazz dance, but he did the best he could.

"I thought I was doing pretty well, but I knew there were other people who had much more experience in jazz dance. I thought I'd passed, but not been stellar," Whitener recalls.

After the final class, Bennett asked Whitener to stay behind.

"He took me aside and said, 'You improved the most of anyone.' And I've always remembered that because it didn't mean I was the best one in the room, but it meant I'd applied myself and I must have been listening and really trying hard," Whitener says.

"I've always remembered it, and I hope I've applied that as a teacher, coach and choreographer for other young dancers.

l After working with Bob Fosse in "Dancin'" in 1978, Whitener ran into him several years later while performing with Twyla Tharp Dance. Fosse came to a rehearsal where a new dance was unveiled. Afterward, Whitener confided he was fighting injuries and thinking about calling it quits.

"He turned to me and said, 'Dance 'til you drop,' which is pretty much what he did. That IS what happened to him," Whitener says.

l It's difficult for Whitener to pick out any one thing Robert Joffrey taught him because Joffrey developed him from the time he was a teenager.

"I think one of the most important things was his enthusiasm, which was infectious and his attention to detail and cleanliness, meaning a show needed to be really clean," Whitener says. "He always had impeccable production values. And we were expected to match the production value with our energy, with a very clean and direct energy."

Whitener does remember one thing Joffrey always said: "The most important thing is how you begin and end a dance variation. You'll be forgiven for almost anything from within that variation if you start and finish strongly."

Whitener agrees.

"The audience is forgiving if you re-assert yourself. Audiences don't even mind if you fall down. Everyone's fallen down, so long as you stand up and put even more energy into what you're doing," he says.

l Whitener danced with Twyla Tharp for eight years and characterizes the experience this way: "She taught through example. ... She's a highly articulate woman and uses words as well as she devises steps and movement. There isn't any one thing that I remember because there were so many fascinating things that she had to say about dance. ... She was the only director I worked with who was in the performances. That's another whole dynamic. That's an exchange of physical energy that then becomes part of live performance."

  • Jerome Robbins was "highly specific about not only movement but gesture and pantomime," Whitener says.

"He expected and demanded that the dancer be very specific with the material. And I think everybody did, all the people I've mentioned wanted that, but there was, for instance, a possibility of altering your interpretation to some degree from one performance to the next in Twyla's work, whereas in a Robbins' piece it was expected you would reproduce what he'd required. So it was a different way of working."

  • Kurt Joos, who created a dance called "The Green Table," said this when a young Whitener asked him what he should be thinking about as he investigated his own potential as a choreographer: "Better a brave failure than a safe success."

"Those are really great words that I've held onto," Whitener says.

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