"I loved the energy, technique and how individual
the dancers were. This Company is
very much like a family."

 

An Interview with Calvin Kitten,
Principal Dancer, The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago
May 15, 2002

By Basheva

 

 

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 wood, and
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.

He 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 and hours.”

If 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.

 

Please join our forum to discuss this interview.

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin


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