Una Kai, a former New York City Ballet dancer and ballet mistress for Kansas City Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and others, passed away on December 10 in Savannah, Georgia at the age of 92.
Kai danced with the New York City Ballet from 1948 to 1960. George Balanchine personally invited her to become the ballet master for the company, where she served from 1956 to 1971.
Kai also was ballet master of Joffrey Ballet in New York City from 1960 to 1963. In 1973, she became the artistic director of New Zealand Ballet (now The Royal New Zealand Ballet), and in 1975 moved on to become ballet mistress of the Royal Danish Ballet.
Kai in Bolender’s 1943 Mother Goose Suite. Photo by Walter E. Owen, courtesy KCB
In 1981, Todd Bolender brought Kai to Kansas City Ballet as the ballet mistress. I was studying in Beverly Hills at the Lichine Ballet Academy with Tatiana Riabouchinska when Bolender invited me to join the company.
A dancer’s final training occurs when one joins a company. Mine was at the Kansas City Ballet. Bolender was half of that final training, always observing with a keen eye the use of our feet and turnout.
Una Kai was the other half, watching from the waist up. Arms and port de bras were so important to her. Time and time again, whether for a waltz or a brisé volé, she would say to the dancers “You have to bend, you have to bend.”
“During company class, she always spoke of thinking about today’s class the night before and selecting the right notebook of combinations from either her Danish heritage or combinations from early School of American Ballet faculty: Pierre Vladimiroff, Anatole Oboukhoff, Felia Doubrovska and others,” says James Jordan, a fellow Kansas City Ballet dancer. “She always referred to ‘blowing the dust off of them’ as she sought inspiration on her shelves at home.”
Kai with Todd Bolender. Photo courtesy KCB
Her notebooks were meticulous when staging Balanchine ballets from Serenade to Apollo, Concerto Barocco to Allegro Brillante, and many more. (This was before videos, and her notes were all we had to rely on.) I remember once when she was setting the “Monsters” scene in Firebird. I had done it there years before and was questioning the way we ran. She insisted I was wrong. She then burst out laughing and said, “Oh, you’re right, my notes are upside down!” We all laughed and continued on, but even upside down, her notes were invaluable.
I was lucky to not only work under her as a dancer, but also as a rehearsal assistant at Kansas City Ballet. She was generous, kind and had a wonderful sense of humor. Bolender would at times have some tense rehearsals, while Una would be more relaxed—sometimes too relaxed. When dancers and I would discuss, sometimes argue, over what we remembered, she would eventually put her foot down. “You can talk about it until you’re blue in the face,” she’d say. “Just do it and I’ll teach it to you later.”
Kai always had amazing stories both in the studio and out. She often hosted the dancers at her home for holidays. She generously shared her Danish family antique dining room tables, royal blue Persian carpets, Danish linens and the family sterling flatware and china, trusting all of us to not ruin them. We were all very young dancers, and some of us had not grown up around such quality, including me. We drank and shared fun stories—some appropriate and some not so—but we always felt at home.
She continued to work with Kansas City Ballet until her retirement in 1994. In 2008, she wrote the book Balanchine the Teacher: Fundamentals That Shaped the First Generation of New York City Ballet Dancers, along with Barbara Walzak.
Kai was the glue that held so many companies and choreographers together, and helped to build the foundation of ballet in America. How does one say goodbye to her? I will say the same thing she told me when I left the Kansas City Ballet: “I am going to miss you around here. Thank you for all you have done, my dear.”