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

Norwegian National Ballet Soloist Whitney Jensen on Mastering Jiří Kylián's "Petite Mort"

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.


I feel like Kylián's movement fits my body; I don't feel any struggle. It doesn't have that pizzazz-y feeling of other ballets; you're not showing off. It is so internal, and that's why I fell in love with it. I've done two parts in Petite Mort, and each is a totally different experience. When I was 17, I danced the pas de deux immediately after what we call the "dress dance" (the women use large, black dresses as props), which people say is representative of young love. Here in Oslo, I did the pas de deux at the end of the first movement, right before the dresses appear. It's more up-tempo. My partner and I never interact face-to-face. He's behind me, or trying to catch me, and I run away as if trying to escape. We end in this iconic pose on the floor with my partner balanced on my legs. We feel like maybe it's one of those relationships you're unsure of, but eventually you just let go and embrace it. Since I tend to throw all this power forward in my dancing and punch things, the challenge for me here is to remain on the backseat and keep it internal. It has to have lightness and moments of stillness.

Jensen in "Petite Mort" at Boston Ballet with Boyko Dossev. Photo Courtesy Jensen.

Whenever I do Kylián's ballets, I try to go into rehearsal without any pride. It's so important to be receptive to the stagers' descriptions of how to do a step, the detail, the essence. It may need to be heavier, have more density—or sometimes it's light as a breath. You're a part of the movement, not just doing a step. Everything is a weighted balance between you and your partner. It doesn't need to be pushed. I worked with Kylián himself last fall, and it was the experience of a lifetime. He showed us details in phrasing, often using noises to show where to put impetus. He also wanted us to accept the lighter part of it, to see that there is some humor.

Performing Kylián feels different than other ballets. I get nervous beforehand because they're so special, but onstage I feel calm, like the choreography is a part of me. I feel completely in my element, and incredibly happy.

Tip: My advice for dealing with props (like the swords in Petite Mort) is to stay aware, because anything can happen. The Kylián stagers say if you drop one, just pick it up and keep going—it's not the end of the world.

Latest Posts


Left to right: Dance Theatre of Harlem's Daphne Lee, Amanda Smith, Lindsey Donnell and Alexandra Hutchinson in a scene from Dancing Through Harlem. Derek Brockington, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem

Dancers Share Their Key Takeaways After a Year of Dancing on Film

Creating dances specifically for film has become one of the most effective ways that ballet companies have connected with audiences and kept dancers employed during the pandemic. Around the world, dance organizations are finding opportunities through digital seasons, whether conceiving cinematic, site-specific pieces or filming works within a traditional theater. And while there is a consistent sentiment that nothing will ever substitute the thrill of a live show, dancers are embracing this new way of performing.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Liam Scarlett with Marianela Nuñez and Ryoichi Hirano during a rehearsal of his Swan Lake at The Royal Ballet. Andrej Uspenski, Courtesy ROH

Choreographer Liam Scarlett Has Died

Over the weekend, news broke that 35-year-old choreographer Liam Scarlett, a former artist in residence at The Royal Ballet, died suddenly at his home in England. "It is with great sadness that we announce the tragic, untimely death of our beloved Liam," Scarlett's family said in a brief statement. "At this difficult time for all of our family, we would ask that you respect our privacy to enable us to grieve our loss."

The cause of death was not disclosed.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

#TBT: Mikhail Baryshnikov in "Fancy Free" (1981)

In Jerome Robbins's 1944 ballet Fancy Free, three sailors on leave spend the day at a bar, attempting to woo two young women by out-dancing and out-charming one another. In this clip from 1981, Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was then both the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre and a leading performer with the company, pulls out all the stops to win the ladies' affections.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks