When the Kansas City Ballet performed in Manhattan this past summer, a leading dancer’s injury prevented the company from performing Todd Bolender’s most impressive ballet, The Still Point, in the town where it was first seen in 1955. The change of program was especially disappointing because presenting the ballet would have linked Bolender’s illustrious career in New York with his more recent association with KCB—first as artistic director, then as artistic director emeritus.
Bolender died of a stroke on October 12 at 92, still active in the dance world. His professional life coincided with the development of ballet in America. He performed memorably in the several companies organized by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, beginning with the American Ballet in 1935 and ending as a principal with the New York City Ballet in the 1950s (he also danced in Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan). Jerome Robbins, as well as Balanchine, took advantage of his wit and charisma. He began to choreograph himself for Ballet Society in the 1940s, and before taking over KCB, he directed several companies abroad.
Bolender guarded and promulgated the Balanchine repertory by mounting ballets and working with dancers. Two years before his death, he re-staged for KCB Balanchine’s take on Stravinsky’s Le Renard, a 1947 ballet he’d starred in. Close to his 90th birthday, he appeared on one of the Guggenheim Museum’s Arts & Process events, coaching a New York City Ballet soloist in another role he’d created, the “Phlegmatic” variation in Balanchine’s 1946 The Four Temperaments. The lesson he imparted turned out not to be just for the dancer but for all of us watching. Spry and demanding as he talked and demonstrated, Bolender made it obvious that while the skilled performer knew the steps, he didn’t know how to shape them with the music and in terms of a character. That Bolender’s footwork at one point turned small and fussy had little to do with his age; his understanding of the solo’s dynamics brought it to sudden, vivid life.
Many will mourn his passing, but we can all celebrate a long life well and productively lived.