Ballet Stars

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

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.


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.

News
Boston Ballet's Kathleen Breen Combes, María Álvarez and Dawn Atkins. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've rounded up some highlights.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Alexandra MacDonald (front row, third from left) didn't win a medal at the Genée International Ballet Competition, but says she came home inspired and newly motivated by the people she met there. Photo Courtesy Genée IBC.

Ballet competitions are an exciting part of any dancer's career. Yet while scholarships, prize money, job offers and the prestige that comes with winning a medal are compelling incentives to participate in one, they're not the only benefits. In fact, many dancers who go home empty-handed still look fondly on the experience and go on to become successful professionals.

This week, the 2019 Genée International Ballet Competition kicks off in Toronto. From August 20-29, over 50 dancers, ages 15–19 and trained in the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus, will perform three solos in the hopes of winning a medal and a $10,000 cash prize. Many past medalists have gone on to illustrious careers—but so have those who didn't win anything. We spoke with three Genée alumni now dancing professionally who know what it's like not to place. Read on to find out why they deem their comp experiences a success, and how you can make the most of yours—whether you win or not.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Skylar Brandt and Josephine Lee. Screenshot Courtesy Lee.

Master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based ThePointeShop chats with American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt to hear about how she prepares her pointe shoes. We think Brandt might win an award for how long she makes her shoes last; watch the below video for the staggering number of days (or weeks!), and to hear about all of her unique customizations and pro tips.

Courtesy Chiara Valle

Chiara Valle is just one of many dancers heading back to the studio this fall as companies ramp up for the season. But her journey back has been far more difficult than most.

Valle has been a trainee at The Washington Ballet since 2016, starting at the same time as artistic director Julie Kent. But only a few months into her first season there, she started experiencing excruciating pain high up in her femur. "It felt like someone was stabbing me 24/7," she says. Sometimes at night, the pain got so bad that her roommates would bring her dinner to the bathtub.

Keep reading... Show less