Shooting Star: Whitney Jensen

August 31, 2014

There’s a sort of old-world elegance about Boston Ballet’s Whitney Jensen. With her willowy frame and porcelain-doll face, she looks born to wear a tiara. And she is right at home in classical roles, like the regal Gamzatti in La Bayadère or The Nutcracker’s Sugar Plum Fairy, which showcase her exquisite épaulement and meticulous attention to detail.

But there’s another side to Jensen. Put her in a hard-edged work by William Forsythe or BB resident choreographer Jorma Elo, and she transforms into a coolly assured contemporary queen, the type of performer who makes daredevil risk-taking look casual, easy breezy. She’s fearless in a way that defies every pretty-princess ballet stereotype.

(Photo by Jayme Thornton)

That astonishing versatility is one of the reasons Jensen just became one of BB’s newest—and, at only 22 years old, youngest—principal dancers. She’s had a speedy ascent at the company, which she joined as a teenager after racking up pretty much every major medal on the ballet competition scene. (Go watch the YouTube video of her jaw-dropping Harlequinade solo from the 2008 Varna International Ballet Competition, where she became the first American to win the highest award possible, The Special Distinction Medal and Diploma.) What’s the secret to her phenomenal success? Seriously hard work. Talk to Jensen’s coaches and teachers, and you’ll find that all of them use the word “dedicated” again and again.

Her dedication to dance started very early on. A Utah native, Jensen was born into a dancing family: Her mom, Lausanne, danced professionally, and her two older sisters, Sarah Jayne and Bryn, have performed on Broadway. So when Jensen started studying at her mom’s competition studio at age 6, she dove right into the deep end of the dance pool, taking classes in ballet, jazz, tap and hip hop. Lausanne closed her school a few years later, but Jensen continued training at The Dance Club in Orem, UT, and began focusing more intensely on ballet with Utah Regional Ballet’s Jacqueline College. At 11, Jensen transferred to Ballet West Academy, and earned the role of Clara in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in NYC. That same year, she also competed in Youth America Grand Prix—which is where she first encountered her future mentor, Valentina Kozlova, who was coaching another student in the competition.

Jensen and her mom had heard that Kozlova, a former dancer with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, was the best coach around. But it wasn’t until a year later, when Jensen was invited to the School of American Ballet’s prestigious summer program in the Big Apple, that they were finally able to arrange a meeting with Kozlova at her NYC studios. “It was the last day of classes at SAB,” Jensen remembers, “and I got a call from my mom saying, ‘You have a private with Valentina in one hour!’ I was incredibly nervous.”

Kozlova was impressed by the leggy tween. “Whitney had such a strong personality,” she says. “She was fearless in many ways.” And Jensen found that she enjoyed Kozlova’s intense perfectionism. “I got hooked on the way she approached me as a student,” she says. “She’s really gifted in terms of finding what suits each dancer individually. She helped me discover which specific angles were best for my head, my arms, my legs, my back.” Jensen began commuting between Utah and NYC, spending weekends working with Kozlova. At 12, she moved into her older sister’s NYC apartment and started studying with Kozlova full-time.

Kozlova was an extremely demanding teacher, and Jensen rose to the challenge. “She was the ideal student, because she was like a sponge, working so hard and absorbing every detail,” Kozlova says. “You could tell her to stand on her head and she’d do it, without hesitation. I don’t remember her missing a single class.” Together, they worked to refine Jensen’s port de bras and épaulement, and to develop her sense of artistry and musicality. They perfected difficult technical skills, too—powerhouse jumps and turns. “She was doing things as a young teenager that some professional dancers weren’t capable of,” Kozlova says.

All of that came in handy at ballet competitions, which Jensen began attending more frequently while training with Kozlova. “Once I got more involved with competitions, that’s when I really fell in love with ballet,” Jensen says. “They teach you how to handle pressure and deal with mistakes. And they push you to perform at a certain level. You learn your strengths and your weaknesses on the competition stage.” By the time she was 16, Jensen had earned seven gold medals at top competitions, including YAGP and the World Ballet Competition. Earning The Special Distinction Medal and Diploma at the Varna IBC was the cherry on top.

After Varna, Jensen was invited to guest as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Hungarian National Ballet’s Nutcracker, an experience that opened her eyes to professional life. She’d already begun to receive offers from ballet companies. “At that point, I thought, OK: I’d like to become a professional if I can, rather than chasing more medals,” she says. “I knew I needed to join a company to gain experience and keep growing.” Jensen already had a few connections to Boston Ballet; she’d taken class with the company, and had danced with then–BB principal Reyneris Reyes at a competition. When BB artistic director Mikko Nissinen offered hera corps de ballet contract, Jensen, then just 17, was thrilled.

(Photo by Jayme Thornton)

Nissinen knew the teenager was ready. “She had a striking look, she was very strong and dynamic and she had an incredible work ethic,” he says. “She didn’t just do well—she excelled. From day one, she was a brilliant light onstage.” Within months Nissinen had promoted Jensen to second soloist, and in 2011 she became a full soloist.

During her first few years at the company, Jensen shone especially bright in contemporary ballets. “Early on, I was given more opportunities in those kinds of works,” she says. “I think because I grew up doing jazz, it was second nature for me to move in a fast, aggressive, extreme way.” She became a muse for BB resident choreographer Jorma Elo, performing featured roles in his spiky, eclectic ballets. These days, however, she’s looking forward to tackling more classical parts—the title role in Giselle, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. “Classical works are a challenge for me, because I have to constantly be aware of my lines, and work harder to create the exact look I want,” she says. “But I’m excited to get a feel for them.” And now that she’s a principal dancer—Nissinen announced her promotion this summer—plenty of those classical roles should be coming her way.

Offstage, Jensen loves to see movies, shop and eat out—“just normal stuff,” she says. She’s also enrolled in BB’s partnership program with Northeastern University, and is working her way toward a college degree. “I like having something besides ballet on my mind—it helps expand my brain,” she says. She’s already completed courses in psychology and English, and is planning to take a philosophy class next.

In the future, Jensen hopes to perform in theaters around the world, and eventually to have a family. For now, though, she feels happily at home in Boston. “During her time here, she’s become a true artist,” Nissinen says. “She’s developed so much depth—and the edge, that X factor, is still there.”

Coach for Life

Kozlova may not teach Jensen all day every day anymore, but Jensen’s still learning from her. Occasionally Kozlova will coach Jensen for a guest performance; frequently she travels to see Jensen’s performances in Boston. And Jensen never forgets to give back to her “second mom.” “We still have such a strong connection,” Kozlova says. “Most students fall out of touch. But Whitney, every holiday, every birthday, I get wonderful cards and flowers from her. She is a beautiful human being as well as a beautiful dancer.”

Fast Facts:

May 4, 1992

“My dad calls me Bugs. And some of my friends in the company call me Jenny or Jones. I don’t even know—they’re crazy.”

Most-played song of the moment:
Coldplay’s “A Sky Full of Stars”

Who would play you in a movie?
Kristen Bell

Favorite dancers of all time:
Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen

Favorite dance movie:
“I’m going to stick with the Gene Kelly theme and say An American in Paris.”

Must-see TV shows:
“Million Dollar Listing New York” and “Modern Family”

What are your hidden talents?
“Oh, I’m not that gifted. I do like to sing. Someday I’d like to take lessons.”

Three (well, four) words that describe you:
happy, calm, “always laughing”

The best advice you’ve ever received:
“You’re only as good as your last performance.”

Your advice for
“Every day is a new day, so if today isn’t great, you can start over tomorrow.”

Boston Ballet Goes to College

Think joining a ballet company means putting college on hold? Think again. An increasing number of ballet troupes are partnering with colleges to create custom-tailored academic programs for busy dancers—including Boston Ballet, which recently paired up with nearby Northeastern University. Last year, Jensen and 19 other BB dancers enrolled in the new Northeastern program. Classes are accelerated—some squeeze a full semester’s worth of material into just six weeks—and each dancer has six years to complete a degree rather than the traditional four, which gives them plenty of scheduling flexibility. The best part? A scholarship fund for the program covers about 80 percent of the dancers’ tuition.