Calvin Kitten was born in
Nebraska, and came with his family to San Diego, California at the age
of two. At nine years old he went to school one morning and attended
an outreach program that changed his life. The movement class teacher
– he doesn't remember her name – saw potential talent and suggested
he take dance lessons. After a short time at a small neighborhood dance
studio, Calvin was enrolled at the studios of California Ballet directed
by Maxine Mahon. A few years later, and like a storybook tale, he became
a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.
In his five or six years at California Ballet, in addition
to Mahon, he studied with Judith Sharp, Jacquelyn Hepner and Noelle
Baron. Surprisingly, there were no male teachers in his early studies.
He showed a great deal of talent and potential and after graduating
high school was given a scholarship as an exchange student to Tbilisi,
Georgia to study with the legendary Vakhtang Chabukiani, whom he greatly
admires. Besides enjoying his studies with Chabukiani, Kitten feels
that he owes a great deal of his success to Maxine Mahon and Noelle
Baron. They really eyed me thoroughly and polished me, he
says, giving both teachers ample credit for his success. Other than
a small amount of jazz taught at the California Ballet School, Kitten
has studied only ballet.
Upon returning from Tbilisi, he found himself with a scholarship
to the Joffrey summer program, an offer of an apprenticeship to San
Francisco Ballet and an offer of a contract to Boston Ballet Company
II. So there were three directions in which he could have gone, but
after only three days at the Joffrey summer program, Mr. Arpino approached
him and asked that he stay with Joffrey. He made me feel so welcome
and comfortable that I was glad to stay, Kitten said. I
was attracted to the repertoire. When I was studying in San Diego, and
Joffrey toured to Los Angeles, I went with a bunch of friends to see
them. I loved the energy, technique and how individual the dancers were.
This Company is very much like a family.
"Then I knock on the stage floor three times knocking on
say a little prayer."
I asked him if he has a vision in his head of another dancer that he
admires when he dances, but he says Not really. Then he
continued, I push so hard in rehearsals. If I am going to do four
pirouettes in performance, then I do four every time in rehearsal. So
I feel confident that when I get out on stage I can do what I need to
do. It's such a pleasure when the curtain goes up and the music starts.
It's just as much a pleasure as when I was fifteen years old.
Kitten does have a ritual he goes through before performance
and he says he is a creature of habit. First I put on makeup and
then warm-up. At fifteen minute call I put on my costume. He takes
his shoes to the rosin box, gets them ready, but leaves them there and
only puts them on just before going on stage. Then I knock on
the stage floor three times – knocking on wood, and say a little prayer.
I didn't think I had a ritual, but I guess I do. When the music
starts the thrill begins for him.
feels that a turning point in his career came after being asked to dance
Prodigal Son. That's a ballet I never expected to dance,
he says. That gave the Company a new way to look at me and I started
getting other roles. It really stretched me. Another role he enjoys
is the Revivalist in Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring. Therefore,
he feels that Prodigal Son broke the mold. I don't just
go out there and do my tricks, I get to really dance in these ballets.
He surprised me by saying that one of his favorite ballets
is The Nutcracker, in which he dances Fritz and Snow Prince.
Dancing Nutcracker doesn't bore him at all; he looks forward
to it. Fritz gets to play with the children on stage and I enjoy
that. He has also danced Gary Chryst's role in Trinity.
I love that ballet because we do get a certain amount of time
to improvise and doing Chryst's role is awesome.
I was especially interested in how he feels about the
Nijinsky ballets that the Joffrey has reconstructed with the aid of
Millicent Hodson. Kitten danced the role of the Chinese Conjurer in
Parade as well as dancing in Le Sacre du Printemps. He
found this to be a marvelous experience. He told me, It's so coordinated,
the original dancers must have been so smart. The rhythms of the music
are difficult with the feet and hands doing different things on every
count. And it's not only danced in parallel, but also just as turned
in as I can get. That's so hard, he says. It makes him feel very
connected to history and the famous dancers of the past.
After performing Kitten likes to go home and eat, I'm
a homebody, he said. If I am only in the first ballet, then
I get dressed quickly and go out into the house and watch the rest of
the performance. Then I read on the train ride home and cook something
to eat. I love to cook. For relaxation he likes to read, I
read just about anything. I just finished Elie Weisel's Night,
it's rather disturbing, about the holocaust. When I asked him
what he likes to do to relax he really surprised me by saying, I
like to clean. Also when I get frustrated, I could clean house for hours
he wasn't a dancer he thinks he would like to be a schoolteacher and
probably teach math. It always came easily to me, I didn't have
to work at it. He has always pictured himself as a teacher; he
loves children. Mr. Kitten is teaching ballet in addition to his dancing.
At present he is instructing fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, but would
like to try to teach younger students. But I'd have to learn how
to teach the really younger ones, he says. His teaching schedule
is quite heavy, in addition to full time work as a principal dancer,
but he enjoys doing it. He plans to come to San Diego to teach at California
Ballet's summer workshop and then remaining in the city to visit with
his parents. He sees teaching in his future after his dancing career.
When I asked him if choreography is of interest to him, he said, No,
I don't see it.
Kitten carefully explained to me that the Joffrey Ballet
has a grant for an outreach program with the city schools in Chicago
and he loves to participate in it. The dancers take an actual ballet
like Arpino's Light Rain and set it on the children. Four or
five dancers teach each group of students. After a week of instruction
they have to perform for two minutes. The dancers do alter the choreography
to make it possible for the children and also ask them to do a certain
amount of improvisation. The Company invites groups of children to various
performances during the year and the seats are always filled. Kitten
is especially pleased when he sees some of the children come back to
participate in the Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker. All of this is
very important to him. He hopes that it will help to grow the appetite
for dance for years to come.
Calvin Kitten is a delight to interview, with a ready
laugh and a positive attitude. He loves being with the Joffrey Ballet,
loves the repertoire, feels very comfortable there, enjoys what he is
doing and would be content to spend his career with the Company.
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Edited by Azlan