Ballet Stars
Jensen with Silas Henriksen in Petite Mort. Courtesy Norwegian National Ballet.

As told to Gavin Larsen by Whitney Jensen

My first time dancing Petite Mort—or any ballet by Jiří Kylián—I was 17 and in the corps of Boston Ballet. I didn't know it then, but the stager, Roslyn Anderson, was nervous about me doing it because I was so young. I was super-naïve and had never seen the ballet before, but I just tried to listen to Roz and emulate what she was describing. She said that she knew I could do it when I applied every single one of her corrections after our first rehearsal.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Erik Berg, Courtesy Norwegian National Ballet.

One of the first things you notice about Ingrid Lorentzen is her laugh—the Norwegian National Ballet director exudes warmth. It's obvious why, in 2012, she was appointed for the job, despite the fact that she was a leading dancer at NNB with little management experience. But Lorentzen knew it wouldn't all be smooth sailing. "I started my first speech by telling the company: 'I'm going to disappoint you all,' " she remembers with a chuckle.

That lucidity, along with her open-minded philosophy, has contributed to lifting the profile of Norway's national company, founded in 1958. As director, Lorentzen has challenged her 65 dancers with boundary-pushing new productions, from Alexander Ekman's water-filled A Swan Lake to ballets based on Scandinavian plays. Programmers have taken notice: This creative vibe and NNB's close relationship with Jirˇří Kylián have led to a series of international engagements.


Kylián's "Falling Angels." Photo by Erik Berg, Courtesy NNB.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Kyle Froman

Whitney Jensen likes to pack light. "I take the bare minimum," says the Norwegian National Ballet dancer, who was a Boston Ballet principal until 2015. She often stores things in her dressing room, and it's a good thing, too—her blue Freitag backpack, made from recycled truck tarpaulin, is admittedly heavy. "But I like how the hardware looks, and it's great to travel with," she says. "I can put my computer in it." Jensen was inspired to buy the bag after friend and Boston Ballet dancer Seo Hye Han got one.

Now that Jensen's living in Oslo, there's one item she doubles up on. She keeps in touch with her friends back home through not one, but two phones: her American iPhone ("for when I have Wi-Fi," she says) and a Norwegian pay-as-you-go phone "for when I don't. I just fill it up with how much I need, so I can talk to people in the U.S. and Norway."

Photo by Kyle Froman

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Whitney Jensen made a surprising move in 2015 when she left her principal contract at Boston Ballet without plans to join a new company. Some feared she would quit dancing. Instead, Jensen, now 24, took time to reflect on her next move. In February, she signed on as a dancer with Norwegian National Ballet, where she'll perform the lead in Balanchine's Theme and Variations on October 29. Pointe caught up with her to talk about her career move and how she's adjusting to life in Oslo.

Whitney Jensen for Dance Spirit. Photo by Jayme Thornton.

You were in Boston Ballet for six years, your last season as a principal dancer. Why did you decide to leave?

A little bit before my last year there, I started having these feelings of “what's next?" We join companies with a goal to succeed and to get promoted, and then when you become a principal you're like, how do I maintain this growth? I think it's important to always feel like you're progressing. I was 17 when I joined Boston Ballet, so that's all I knew. I loved the company and the people there. But I felt it was time for me to take a breather and reflect on what I wanted and how I can progress in my own way—and not measure roles or promotions as success. So I left, without a job or a plan.

What did you do next?

I went home to Utah. I was teaching a little bit, taking class, giving myself class. But after about a month I realized that I wasn't in the right place to progress in the way I needed. My dad said, “You're young, take your time, you don't have to have everything figured out." That was a really important lesson. As dancers, everything's kind of mapped out for us—your schedule for the day is listed, you learn this ballet, you tour there, you go to galas. There's no “what are you going to do yourself?"

So I moved to New York for about 6 months. I took singing and acting lessons, I took ballet every single day, and I rented space after class to work on my own. I had some guestings lined up, so I would rehearse, or work on variations or improv, just to feel like I was moving.

What was it like to be on your own?

In a company you don't physically have a choice—you go to work and do your job. But when you don't have a job or a schedule, you have to be like, okay, this is what I need to do. It requires a lot more perseverance. But I was confident that whatever happened was meant to be and would work out. I learned so much. After about six months, I felt ready to be in a company again.

How did you land the job at Norwegian National Ballet?

I reached out to my friend Osiel Gouneo, who dances at Norwegian National, and he encouraged me to contact the director, Ingrid Lorentzen. I had inquired about auditioning there a few years ago, but they didn't have any openings—I figured they wouldn't this time, either. But within two days Ingrid responded and said, “When can you start?" So it really fell into place. I got my paperwork together and joined in February.

What's the company like?

One of the coolest things is the diversity of the dancers. We're on contract until we're 40, so we have older and younger dancers, as well as some amazing contemporary artists. The repertoire is also super diverse. This season we're doing a Paul Lightfoot/Sol León program, a Balanchine triple bill, a new Nutcracker, Alexander Eckman's A Swan Lake, Liam Scarlett's Carmen and Nureyev's Don Quixote. In Boston, it sometimes felt like we were separated into contemporary dancers and classical dancers. I always thought I could do both, but felt like I was put more in the contemporary box. In Norway, I'm more viewed as a classical dancer. But they see that I can do both, which is kind of nice.

How do you like living in Norway?

Oslo is really clean and beautiful, especially in the summer—I've never seen anything quite like it. It has the midnight sun, which is gorgeous. (I haven't experienced the winter yet, which I'm a little nervous about.) It's a quieter, more reserved city, which I'm still adjusting to. Especially coming from Boston Ballet, where we would all hang out together outside work. In Europe, it feels like there's more of a work/life separation. It forces me to be more outgoing, though, so I still feel a sense of family. I also go to church here, which provides friends and community, as well. And my brother is moving to Paris to go to school, so I'll be able to visit him.

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When she was a student prodigy scooping up medals at top competitions, Whitney Jensen didn’t have to do much to keep her body in shape. Now, the 21-year-old hits the gym most days—sometimes even after six hours of rehearsal—to build stamina and keep her metabolism in balance.

Typical routine: 45 minutes on the elliptical or treadmill (walking with intervals between 5 and 5.4 miles per hour), then 25 minutes of Pilates. “Having a gym in my apartment building makes it very convenient.”

Warm-up trick: “I never do strengthening exercises before class. They make my body feel too tight before dancing.”

Problem spot: Shoulders. “My joints are really loose, and can get painful during contemporary work. I have to keep my rotator cuffs strong by working them with a Thera-Band.”

Stamina secret:
“To make sure I have enough energy to get through a ballet, I’ll rehearse by running it twice in a row. Then performing it just the once feels like nothing.”

Favorite stretch: Over-splits using a stack of mats.

For her inner thighs: “Lying on the floor on my side, I put one foot on top of a bench and the other underneath it, then raise my lower leg up to meet the top one 10 times. It kills your inner thighs.”

Recovery Rx: “Every night, I talk to someone from my family—it helps remind me I have a life outside of ballet.”

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.

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