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Over the past few weeks, I have shared several posts about the upcoming retirement of Kansas City Ballet ballerina Kimberly Cowen.  Here is the second half of my interview with the virtuosic, level-headed dancer.  In a couple of weeks, I’ll conclude the series with a recap of final performance in Kansas City.

Courtesy of KCB Photography Steve Wilson

Kimberly Cowen in "The Naughty Boy" Courtesy KCB Photography Steve Wilson

MD: There’s a cliché in the theater world that I believe applies to the dancing world as well that states: The best way to get an actor (dancer) to complain is to give them a job.  What advice would you give to dancers to help them find contentment in their work?

KC: When you get comfortable and you think you have stability you tend to let your thoughts come out more, possibly in the form of a complaint. Remember to be grateful that you have a job. Dancing is a gift that you should never take for granted. There is also a saying in football, “Everyone is a Monday morning Quarterback.” Implying that everyone thinks they know how someone else should be doing their job. Until you are sitting in their position you have no idea what it is like to do their job. It might be a good lesson to stop and think what people might be saying about you. To get ahead you can analyze your own work and improve rather than wasting your time complaining about someone else. Again no place is perfect so focus on the positive.

Don’t ever expect to get a role you have to earn it time and time again. It is a hard lesson, but if you are not getting cast over and over again, maybe you aren’t quite as good as you think. That is why self-reflection is so important. Don’t just say, “They really missed out, I would have been great at that role.” Stop and try to figure out why they didn’t think you were good for that role, and fix it. Sometimes it may have nothing to do with your dancing and more to do with your attitude.

MD: I’ve been told by other company dancers that you are the most gracious and generous ballerina to have to share a role with.  Why do you think that is?

KC: I am a strong believer that you dance better when you are confident. Why would I want to be the reason a fellow dancer might lose some confidence?  There is that old saying “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” You can create a bond and learn from each other in a way that is unique. You are inside the part and that kind of feedback can be easier to relate to. In the ballet world, you are always being told what you are doing wrong and rarely get positive feedback, this is the nature of the beast. I like to provide that encouragement. If I really think back, I believe it is a choice I made long ago. When I was younger I didn’t like it when the other girls were not very nice to me. When you have talent and you are involved in something competitive you have to deal with that from time to time. People will always have something bad to say about everyone but why give them more ammunition to bad mouth you?

MD: Dancing is difficult for many dancers.  What are some secrets that you could share that have helped you?

KC: Don’t shut yourself off from feedback because it hurts your ego. Dancing is a very personal process and sometimes we can get defensive about the choices we make. That is very understandable.  You have to commit to what you are doing. Remember that they are giving you corrections to make you better and that sometimes we think we are doing something when we aren’t. Don’t be afraid to go through an awkward stage to get to your end result cutting corners never works. Always stay positive for your own sake and for those around you. You want the artistic staff and choreographers to want to work with you. It is better to laugh than to cry. Everything you do has to come from you; don’t expect someone else to do it for you. If you find yourself constantly getting corrected about the same thing, and you feel like you have tried everything they are saying and it still isn’t right, you need to shake it off.  Take a step back.  Tell yourself you know you can do it, and do it the way that feels best to you. Nine times out of ten it will be better. Don’t ever try to be like someone else. Take each day as it comes and put everything you have into your dancing. Try not to slack off it only hurts you in the end. Don’t get too wrapped up in your technique, dance with a purpose.

Courtesy KCB Photography Steve Wilson

Kimberly Cowen in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Courtesy KCB Photography Steve Wilson

MD: You are the last remaining dancer in KCB who Todd Bolender hired.  It is the end of an era.  What are your thoughts on that?

KC: I am so grateful that I met him. He taught me so much. In fact, his lessons were so great that they still teach me today. He was a man with a tremendous understanding of our art form and human nature. He taught me more than how to be a good dancer. He taught me about how to be a good person and how to get the most out of people. He taught me to be proud of the Kansas City Ballet and to always represent it in the best light possible, on or off the stage. He was an extremely humble man that only asked for your hard work as his reward. I was so fortunate to have him as my boss and then later as my friend and mentor. He is a perfect example of how hard work and determination can make things happen. He did so much for the ballet world and, to me, his legacy will live on forever. I know I will continue to pass on what he taught me.

MD: As the newly appointed Associate Director of KCB School, what do you hope to accomplish?

KC: I would like to provide the best training possible in a nurturing positive environment. I want to help young dancers respect themselves and all activities that they partake in. I want to give them the tools they need to become successful in life, not just in dance. More than anything, I want to pass on the joy of dancing to as many young people as I can. A professional career may not be for everyone but any day you dance is a good day. I have learned so much throughout my dance career and I think it would be a shame to not pass it on. I feel a sense of duty in that way. It is my turn to give back to the organization that has given me so much.

MD: Do you have any regrets from your career, and is there anything that you look forward to doing now that maybe you never did because of ballet?

KC: I don’t have any regrets.  It has been an amazing time in my life. I always felt like I had to be careful with everything I was doing so I wouldn’t get hurt. It will be nice to not have that worry all the time, but I have been thinking that way for so long it might take awhile before I try anything too adventurous.

MD: What is the best piece of advice you could give a dancer?

KC: Love every minute of it! Give yourself every chance to succeed without pissing people off. Be grateful; know that a lot of things had to happen to get you where you are. Look at the big picture; it will help you understand the decisions that are made around you. Try to keep a rational perspective of your strengths and weaknesses and work on them; this will help you deal with disappointments. Everyone is entitled to a bad day. Don’t let it turn into a bad month.

Not bad advice for anyone, regardless of what they do with their lives, eh?

Written by Matthew Donnell

Matthew Donnell

A graduate of North Carolina School of the arts, Matthew Donnell is a freelance dancer, actor, clown, instructor, and film maker residing in NYC. After a decade with the Kansas City Ballet, he turned his focus toward musical theater and teaching. He strives to bring the humor of his life into his art in order to promote artistic health for himself and those around him.