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KC Ballet's founder, Tatiana Dokoudovska, left indelible mark on area arts scene

Tatiana Dokoudovska KC Ballet rehearsal
Posted at 4:00 AM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 09:27:02-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For more than 60 years, the Kansas City Ballet has captivated audiences with its unique and classical art form.

But it all started when a raven-haired ballerina with a riveting gaze, Tatiana Dokoudovska, came to Kansas City for a visit, never left and made an indelible mark on the community.

As 41 Action News celebrates Women's History Month, we examine the life and impact of Dokoudovska, who would have turned 100 years old in January.

Born in 1921 in France, where she was raised by her Russian parents, Dokoudovska trained in Paris and danced for the Ballet de Monte Carlo.

Tatiana Dokoudovska
Tatiana Dokoudovska

She moved to the United States in 1939 to join the American Ballet Theatre.

After leaving New York to perform at Kansas City’s Starlight Theater in 1954, she was offered and accepted a teaching contract at what is now the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.

Three years later in 1957, she took 25 of her top students to form the first version of the Kansas City Ballet.

"She infused all of her work with love and passion and created a beautiful foundation for not only a company but for a school," Grace Holmes, director of the Kansas City Ballet School, said.

Dokoudovska served as the Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director from its founding until 1976, even investing her own money to start the ballet and also working on costumes.

She also brought in guest performers to attract audiences.

A stern disciplinarian, "Miss Tania," as her students called her, tapped a stick on the floor to keep the dance beat.

“The funny thing about the stick is that it kind of fell out of fashion in teaching, but with COVID now everybody is thinking maybe that’s a really good idea,” Holmes said.

Tatiana Dokoudovska with her stick for keeping time
A French immigrant, Tatiana Dokoudovska, founded the Kansas City Ballet in 1957.

Holmes came to Kansas City after a long career as a performer and then teacher herself. She danced with the New Orleans Ballet Theatre as a teen, with the San Francisco Ballet as a soloist and with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in the United Kingdom.

Oscar Miller, 18, is one of Holmes' students. He began taking classes at the Kansas City Ballet School when he was a toddler.

Next year, the Shawnee Mission East senior will join the ballet’s professional company.

“It’s funny to look back on me dancing, starting dancing when I was 3 years old, just completely new to that world and having come so far,” Miller said.

For nearly 50 years before her death in 2005, Dokoudovska was the grand dame of the Kansas City Ballet, but her impact on the company lingers more than 15 years later.

Her influence is apparent in the grace and beauty of a budding ballerina, in an instructor’s care for detail and the fulfillment of students’ dreams.

"Just being able to show people my creativity and the artistry I can bring to an age-old technique, it’s really a wonderful thing,” Miller said.

Kansas City is one of the few Midwestern cities to have a ballet company, which is largely funded by corporate and private donors.