Spotlight on Kimberly Cowen

interview

{Header photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton.}

Note: this article will be published in the March 2011 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active).

“The time on stage, where it’s like you’re not you anymore: you’re transformed to a different place. You can be completely free, you know? There’s just something really enlightening about it that so far in my life I haven’t found anything that comes to that level. The hard work is definitely hard work, but when you have those moments on stage, it makes it all worth it.” So says Kimberly Cowen, one of two ballerinas playing the leading lady in the Kansas City Ballet’s production of Giselle, about why she does ballet.

Cowen should know — she’s been dancing since she’s been four, and been performing on stage since the age of nine. “There wasn’t a lot of dance exposure on television when I was young. There is now, but there wasn’t when I was young,” she says with a wry smile. “But ice skating was on quite often. And I used to try to imitate the ice skater in the family room, and I guess I just one day I said to my mom that I wanted to be a dancerella, and so she enrolled me in like an after school program at the local elementary school.”

She grew up in the West County area of St. Louis, attended the Nathalie Le Vine Academy of Ballet, graduated early from high school, and moved to Kansas City to join the ballet. That was 19 seasons ago.

“I was lucky,” Cowen says about her time at the Academy, “because besides just being a ballet school, she had a small company that once I was nine, I believe, I got to start performing — which I think makes a big difference. Some schools, the only chance {the kids} get to perform is maybe once at the end of the school year, or some of them just do studio workshops and things like that. And then they turn 18, and they’re trying to find a job. Yes, they’ve trained to do it, but to have the real experience …” she trails off wistfully. “And so I feel lucky — I think that that’s probably one of the things that helped me the most, because I feel at home on the stage, because I’ve been on the stage since I was nine. And when you’re a kid, you don’t have the same fear, you know?”

You’d think being involved in dance since the age of four that perhaps Cowen’s parents were the stereotypical ‘stage moms’, pressuring her to dance. Not so, she says. “Since it was a small school and a small company, parents had to volunteer to help you know with costumes and fundraising and all kinds of things like that,” she says. “My parents were very involved and I told them that they could be involved with helping it be successful, but I didn’t want them hanging around, I didn’t want them watching. I was like, ‘If I ever hear you talking to another parent about, “Well, my Kimberly does blah blah blah,”, I will quit,'” she says with a laugh.

KC Stage’s March 2011 cover. Photo courtesy Kansas City Ballet.

“My parents have always been extremely supportive,” she’s quick to add. “They kind of had to be. I mean, all the shoes over the years and sending me away to summer programs and things like that — it was definitely dedication on their part.”

In her 19 seasons at the Ballet, this is Cowen’s third time performing the role of “Giselle”. “The first time we did Giselle,” she says, “I didn’t really think it was going to be quite the experience that it ended up being. I knew I was going to love it,” she’s quick to continue, “I knew that it’s a big deal: it’s a classic, it’s been around forever, it’s something that all these ballerinas have done over the years that establishes who they are. I tend to be more powerful when I dance,” she continues with a smile, “like that’s my natural instinct, and in Giselle, she’s very fragile, and so I didn’t know that I would connect with the steps. The first time we did it, it really was a career-altering experience for me. And the second time around, I was just so nervous. But I was older, so I approached some things differently. So, this time around, it’s going to be really interesting, because I feel like I’ve experienced so much more and the whole approach to it.

“In ballet, we spend so much time perfecting perfect arm movements and our placement and our turnout, and for me, personally, I always feel like I dance better when I have a storyline. It gives me purpose behind the steps that I’m doing and then the steps actually have emotion and feeling and that kind of takes you out of that mind frame of trying to be perfect, you’re just dancing. And it really takes you through a broad range of emotions and even dance styles and everything all within one ballet, which just doesn’t happen very often.”

Ballet’s an unusual artistic challenge for dancers, as you have prior performances of the production that the staging usually is based on, combined with the fact that the dancers are double-cast. Cowen talks about how she manages to still make the role her own while still maintaining consistency with both the staging of the ballet mistress Karen Brown and what the other Giselle is doing.

Photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton.

“A dancer in general — I mean, it’s kind of bad to say this, but we do kind of like to be told what to do within a certain degree,” she says with a smile. “Dancers don’t like to just kind of go out and have no idea what’s going to happen: we practice, practice, and practice and we like that consistency. So when it comes to the acting, you really feel exposed, because it’s a different realm than what we do every day.

“We spend a lot of time trying to figure out those little subtleties. And you can even think through it a million times on your own at home, and then you’ll do the scenes with your partner, and something that he does can change what your reaction should be. It’s a fun experience, because we don’t do that all the time in ballet. So, I love doing that. Not every dancer does, but that to me makes it so much more complete.

“I think that it’s kind of like a quiet atmosphere, just a few people in the room and we try out some things, and if you all of a sudden you feel like, ‘You know what? I really like this moment when we do this.’ If you share that with your partner, you can kind of start to solidify some things. In some cases, it’s just the relationship you have with your partner, too.

“And it’s interesting, because sometimes you just try something and it does not work, and you just kind of have to stop. You’re like, ‘Okay, well, that doesn’t work.’ But it’s constantly a learning experience, and watching the other people in the room try it sometimes, you’re like, ‘Wow — that wasn’t anywhere where my brain was going.’ But that works, you know, and it makes you think about it differently. But it’s mostly just we communicate as much as we can at the beginning, and then at a certain point it does kind of solidify, and then there might be little subtleties, but the timing always has to be the same.”

Cowen loves being a ballet dancer, but readily admits it’s a hard job. “Some of the things that can be hard as a dancer — and really, it’s true with everything in life, but for some reason I feel like maybe we take it more personally — but most of our feedback in the day is negative in nature, because you’re trying to get better at what you do. You don’t have someone patting you on the back all the time telling you do a good job, because they want you to get better. So they’re always telling you what you’re doing wrong. And sometimes that can really take it out of you, like, ‘Oh, my gosh — can I do nothing right?'” she says with a laugh. “So, I think the important thing is that to remember that that’s what you’re there for, that’s what they’re for is to help you get better, and that for every one thing that you’re doing wrong you probably did five things right, but it’s a building process and at any age, you’re still learning in the field.

“The other thing is to just be open to different ways of approaching things, different styles, because you never know when something might work to your advantage if you had followed that path. I’ve known a lot of people over the years who don’t want to branch out, they want to kind of stick to their little niche what they’re good at, and they end up not having as many opportunities because of it, so it’s better to be open to it and it’s okay if it doesn’t work out, at least you know instead of holding back.

Production photo from ‘Giselle’, with Kimberly Cowen. Photo courtesy Kansas City Ballet.

Being open to new experiences is also how Cowen would approach breaking the stereotype attached to ballet.

“It’s interesting, because there are a lot of people in Kansas City who’ve been to The Nutcracker but have never seen any other ballet. And I think it’s great that they come to The Nutcracker, but I think they’d be surprised at how much they would enjoy one of our regular season shows. There are people out there that love the tutus and like the classic, ideal image of the poised ballerina on the stage and that sort of thing, and other people love to come to the ballet because they want to be challenged artistically.

And that’s one of the things that I think Kansas City Ballet specifically does a really good job of trying to make sure there is a broad variety of styles and movement qualities and to kind of try to appeal to every dance lover out there — and even maybe some who aren’t dance lovers, to make them realize that they would enjoy ballet, it’s not all about pink tights and pointe shoes. For example, our spring show, we’re doing a piece that’s all David Byrne music {“The Catherine Wheel Suite”} and very rockin’ the house, it’s just fun and crazy and free, so we do all kinds of stuff. We were just talking about it today, actually, how after doing Giselle where we’re all going to be pulled up,” she says, subconsciously pulling her arms into a tight embrace, “and trying to be perfect, and then we’re going to be like, ‘ahhhh!'” she continues, waving her hands around frantically.

And why should people go to the ballet and try something challenging? “Well, the other thing that’s hard, too, is back when ballet first was in its heyday, going to the theatre was the thing to do,” Cowen says. “Now, our society has changed so much and there’s so much stimulation out there, you know? People aren’t content with sitting in the doctor’s office waiting to go in to see their doctor, they have to be on their phone doing something. Everyone is multitasking all the time, and maybe over-stimulated. And there are so many special effects in movies these days, and so the stage is a much simpler presentation. And to be able to still captivate people and make them want to come out is our challenge. But I know for myself, watching with someone in person is a totally different experience than anything you see on any screen: even if it’s 3-D, it doesn’t matter. It can really touch you in a different way. I mean, I watch films all the time that help me with different time periods and things that we’re working on, all of those things are great, but if you get an opportunity to see something in person, you should, because it’s live like that and raw in the moment, anything can happen. It’s really a special thing, I think.

Giselle will perform at the Kansas City Ballet March 10 – 13. For more information, visit www.kcballet.org.