Published in Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine Vol 22, No. 1 Spring 2008
Take one look at Lisa Thorn, and the last word that comes to mind is veteran. The petite, preternaturally beautiful blonde radiates such unspoiled youth and bonhomie, it’s easier to imagine her back home in the loaming fields of Virgil, NY, where she grew up the youngest of five siblings. Yet veteran she is, having spent an illustrious, decades-long career as a principal dancer with the Kansas City Ballet, assaying roles in works by Balanchine, Ailey, Bournonville, Robbins and Duato, to name but a few.
2004 found Lisa juggling roles in the company repertory alongside her new duties as associate balletmistress, a situation rife with angst that’s understandable when poised at a career crossroads. But during KCB’s recent spring engagement at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater, it was clear that Thorn had worked through that difficult period, emerging artistically renewed and confident. We discussed the responsibilities of maintaining the company’s high performance standard, her continuing adventures as a dancer, and her looming role as a new mother.
E. How did you come to join Kansas City Ballet?
Lisa. I had just graduated from high school as a trainee with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and was accepted into the School of American Ballet’s summer program in New York and I was actively looking for a job. Kansas City Ballet needed two women—they only hired me (laughs), somehow the other contract never got filled.
E. So this second chapter behind the scenes, how’s it been? How long is it now…?
Lisa. My first year as associate ballet mistress I was still dancing with the company, so I guess technically it’s my fourth.
E. Is true to say you probably had a knack for this job long before it was offered?
Lisa. My second year with the company Todd Bolenger asked if I was interested in teaching. Later he asked if I’d assist with the children in a production of Coppélia; when it was remounted I was put in charge of the kids again. Then Karen Brown asked me to set the corps scenes in The Nutcracker. I guessed they recognized my focus, my attention to detail early on—I was always the one who’d be asked in rehearsal what the count was, when someone was supposed to move.
E. When you stopped dancing full-time with the company, how did your role change, and how have you adapted?
Lisa. I think it’s definitely been gradual. Obviously as a dancer you’re focused on yourself; as a balletmistress you’re focused on every single performer—that’s a huge change. It was a lot that first year, to try to juggle both. Trying to focus on your own dancing, it was pretty hard to be in front of the room one minute, and the next minute to be on the floor—it was hard to switch. I probably could have gotten better at it but that was a challenge.
E. Sounds overwhelming. With 26 dancers, 26 personalities, 26 different ways of moving, how do you accommodate them all?
Lisa. One thing I really like about our company is that overall the dancers really seem to get along. It’s more like a happy family. I think what’s harder is juggling the other parts of the job, which is planning, scheduling auditions or the day, the things that aren’t happening in the studio. The studio stuff comes more naturally.
E. So, in spite of your duties as a balletmistress, you continue to perform?
Lisa. I still do a bit, and that’s not so unusual, especially if you’re still in good shape. People don’t expect that after eighteen years of dancing professionally that you would just stop. There came this opportunity to work with the Owen/Cox Dance Group on a less intense scale—not on pointe, but just as demanding. It keeps you connected to the form, and when you’re not taking class or rehearsing every day you can forget how tired or sore the body can get, so it keeps you in tune with the people you’re supervising. When I would come in sore the next day I’d remember and I could appreciate what they’re struggling with.
E. A little perspective…
Lisa. I hope so. With the pregnancy I’ve had mothers tell me, ‘you’ll become more patient.’ As a dancer I was very impatient with myself, I wanted everything fixed yesterday. I was so hard on myself, and I really hate to see that in other people. I see how much energy is wasted on beating yourself up, so I try to be positive. You’re human; you’re not a machine.
E. What do you take from the balletmistresses you’ve worked with?
Lisa. My first balletmistress at Kansas City Ballet was Yna Kay. She was Danish and worked under Balanchine. She wasn’t strict—what’s the word? She had a strong personality that I took to right away. My second balletmistress was Karen Brown. I admired how they got you to do things and how willing they were to help. I still carry the things they’d say in class.
E. The company press kit lists a staggering range of repertory pieces—talk about diversity.
Lisa. And I’ve danced a good chunk of it. I look back and think how lucky that I got to dance Balanchine, Solokov, Cunningham, Agnes De Mille…
E. What’s tremendous is how all of that is written on your body, and now you’re charged to teach [those works to] another generation.
Lisa. I guess that’s true but we’re not an island. It’s an artistic staff, a collaborative. I may be working with a group of dancers, but it’s always welcome when someone else with expertise comes in—a director, a friend in the field.
E. Dance notation helps.
Lisa. So does video—we’re learning to tape not just from the front but to document from behind, the side and above so that you can see formation. You can’t always get the life of the piece from video, but there’s a little less notation, much more video work, but even that can be deceiving—at a particular taped performance, an individual can leave a step out, or trip. You learn to go back and talk to the camera and say, “ideally there should be three walks and two pirouettes on count five.”
E. Have you considered choreography as a pursuit?
Lisa. We have a great program called In The Wings that Bill Whitener (the artistic director) created about 10 years ago to allow company dancers to choreograph on each other. My first piece I did there, the company used for performance in our Ballet in the Park series; I’ve done some things with other local groups and currently I’m choreographing for the Kansas City Ballet School’s Spring Recital. It’s time consuming, and it usually scares me to death but then I get in the studio and the time flies.
E. Define the role of a ballet mistress. You know, you can actually look that up on Wikipedia? (Hands her a printout).
Lisa. (laughs and reads) Well, this is pretty correct. It says ‘responsible for the level of competence of the dancers in their company.’ I tell people that don’t know anything about the various positions in the company that when it comes to being a balletmistress, well, just think of a sports team—I’m the assistant coach. They get it right away.