Whitney Jensen had her eye on the prize last July at the Varna International Ballet Competition. A student at Valentina Kozlova’s Conservatory of Dance in New York City, she became the first female and first American in the competition’s history to win the junior division’s Special Distinction Grand Prix award. She also took home the Ballet International Award, given for highest achievement in ballet classics. “I wasn’t expecting to win at all,” says Jensen. “I was just hoping to make it to the second or third round!”
Natural talent runs in the family—her two older sisters are both Broadway dancers. But Jensen’s determination has also guided her growth. Born in a Salt Lake City suburb, she began dancing at her mother’s studio at 6, training in ballet, jazz, tap and hip hop. At 8, she began focusing strictly on ballet with Jacqueline Colledge; at 11, she switched to Ballet West Academy. That same year she competed in Youth America Grand Prix, where she saw a Kozlova student perform.
“Valentina’s training had a certain finesse I’d never seen before,” explains Jensen. “I knew it could get me somewhere.” Jensen spent that summer studying with Kozlova, and the following school year she flew to New York every other weekend before moving to the city at age 13. “I love Valentina’s focus on artistry every day in class,” Jensen says.
A typical day for Jensen begins when her alarm goes off at 5:30 am. She heads out to a 6:30 scripture class at her church at Lincoln Center, then does school work online for three or four hours before a private lesson with Kozlova at 12:30. “I like privates because they are so personal and specific—we can spend hours on a tendu, an arm movement or head movement!” Jensen says. From 2:00 to 5:00 pm, she has a break used for studying, then returns to the studio for classes and rehearsal from 5:00 to 8:45 pm.
Jensen lights up when rehearsing contemporary work, like the new piece set on Kozlova’s students by former Ailey dancer Carlos Dos Santos. But she loves ballet’s historical roots and dreams of dancing in the classics. Her favorite variation, the Black Swan, was among her winning repertoire at Varna.
Both Kozlova and Jensen see great benefits in competitions. “When I compete, I reach a goal faster and feel more fulfilled than when I’m just taking class every day,” says Jensen. But like many teachers, Kozlova worries that competitions can focus too much on tricks at the expense of artistry. “The judges at Varna, especially Vladimir Vasiliev, were surprised to see an American dancer with such Russian artistry and port de bras,” says Kozlova.
After Varna, Jensen was invited to perform the Sugar Plum Fairy for the Hungarian National Ballet’s Nutcracker. “It gave me a feel for what it’s like to be a professional,” she says. Although Jensen has an offer to join the company when she turns 17, and probably many more offers to follow, the teenager clearly states that she’s not quite ready to go pro. “I’m still young and have a lot to work on. I’m nowhere near perfect!”
Jen Peters dances with Jennifer Muller/The Works and writes on dance in NYC.