Todd Bolender, the legendary American dancer and choreographer who led the Kansas City Ballet to prominence from 1981 to 1996, died today in Kansas City of complications from a stroke. He was 92.
Born at the dawn of World War I, Bolender was one of the last surviving members of a generation of dancers who worked with George Balanchine during the pioneering Russian-born choreographer’s American work, considered the foundation of contemporary dance.
Bolender danced professionally from 1936 to 1972, and taught and choreographed for another quarter century. His 60-year career brought him into contact with all the major figures of dance and with composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Samuel Barber.
Best known for his wiry energy and comedic sense, he created several of Balanchine’s most memorable roles, dancing in the original productions of The Four Temperaments, Renard, Agon and many others. He also was featured in major works by Jerome Robbins, including "Age of Anxiety," in Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid, and in musical theater on Broadway.
But it was as a Balanchine dancer that he was revered in the dance world. Many observers commented on the similarity of Bolender’s body and style of movement to Balanchine’s. Historian Doris Hering in the International Dictionary of Ballet called Bolender "a superb comedian with a penchant for high camp."
"There was a facility in my body, a looseness, a rubbery quality," the 5-foot-8-inch dancer told The Star in 2003.
Bolender choreographed three dozen ballets of his own, many for the Kansas City Ballet (known briefly as the State Ballet of Missouri), most recently Arena in 1996. That year he handed the artistic reins to William Whitener and was named artistic director emeritus.
Bolender’s choreography was also performed by most of the world’s major troupes, including the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theater, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, the Joffrey Ballet and the companies of Vienna, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stockholm and Istanbul.
Engaging and hardy to his last days, Bolender attributed his longevity to a regimen of exercise and low-fat diet.
"Vegetables, chicken and fish," Bolender said of his diet. "I never eat any fried food."
Bolender appeared publicly as recently as Friday at the groundbreaking festivities for the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, where Kansas City Ballet dancers performed an excerpt from his ballet The Still Point.
He was a close friend and favorite dance partner of Muriel McBrien Kauffman, the philanthropist who fostered the growth of the Kansas City Ballet and began pushing for a downtown performing arts center 12 years ago.
In February 2004 the Ballet announced that its new home, scheduled to open in 2008, would be named the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity.
His 1983 work "Grand Tarantella" is on the ballet’s fall program this weekend. A ballet spokeswoman said the company would make the weekend’s performances a tribute to Bolender and his contribution.
"Todd was, I guess, one of the early tools for Balanchine, one of those wonderful early raw materials for Balanchine’s incredible mind," said Edward Villella in 1995, a celebrated Balanchine dancer who went on to lead the Miami City Ballet.
"His performance in 'Four Temperaments' makes that ballet for me, and I remember what he did in the Robbins 'Fanfare.' I can’t see those ballets without seeing Todd. That's the measure by which we judge those particular roles."
Published in Kansas City Star on Oct. 12, 2006