Last season in Jardí Tancat, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Kylee Kitchens displayed her dynamic flexibility in a touchingly vulnerable performance. Tightly clasped hands and fully stretched arms conveyed the sense of struggle and urgency in Nacho Duato’s emotional piece. It is a ballet the 30-year-old Kitchens has been wanting to dance since she first joined the company over a decade ago. It took perhaps just as long for the dancer to develop the strength needed to perform it.
Throughout her initial training at Westside School of Ballet in California and then at the PNB School, Kitchens’ flexibility and slender physique had its advantages. The corps member (who will be promoted to soloist in January) has just the right willowy look for classical and neoclassical ballet. However, to support that delicate frame, she has had to work continually to build and tone muscle. Easily noticeable in company class, she is the dancer early to the studio, practicing pliés with her elastic band wrapped mid-thigh.
Taking It Slow
For Kitchens, as for most dancers, technique class is fundamental to being able to dance a variety of styles, “from classical story ballets to the less formal, less contained neoclassical rep,” she says. “It’s like taking your daily vitamins. It can be an elusive thing, because there is always something that could be stronger or could be done better.”
In class, Kitchens’ placement is solid. At the barre, she maintains the natural curves of her torso even when extending her leg to the back. At the end of exercises, she adds an extra balance, just to check her alignment. Adagio is a favorite part of class; slowing down, Kitchens says, helps her to get centered. “In adagio, placement is first and foremost—thinking about not turning out from my knee, consciously using my rotators, my hips. This is where your workday begins, and adagio helps you stay centered in everything you do.”
Kitchens’ pre-class ritual involves exercises gleaned from treatment for minor injuries such as sprained ankles, some hip impingement last season, and the occasional torn muscle. Most of the exercises address weak areas in hips, thighs, and core (see sidebar). In addition, every morning and night she ices areas vulnerable to strain, such as the muscles around her knees. Kitchens also enjoys therapeutic activities like baths with Epsom salts and acupuncture, which she uses “not just when I’m injured but also to keep my body in balance.”
In terms of nutritional routines, Kitchens begins her morning with an energy-packed breakfast. This might be a light smoothie (a favorite is vanilla yogurt with banana, peanut butter, and chocolate protein powder); scrambled egg whites with spinach, avocado, and mozzarella; or warm multi-grain cereals. She avoids processed foods, soda, and sugar. Always well supplied with vegetables, nuts, and fruit, she maintains her energy by eating small amounts throughout the day (in addition to lunch and dinner) and staying well-hydrated.
For recreational exercise, Kitchens takes regular hikes with her husband and dogs. During breaks in the season, she does yoga to maintain strength and flexibility. The breathing patterns she practices in yoga also help onstage. “For me, the best way to calm my thoughts is to take deep breaths and say to myself, ‘My body is strong. Relax and enjoy the moment.’ ”
Just as essential as daily warm-ups and technique class is strengthening the will. “To stay healthy in dance,” Kitchens says, “you have to know how to keep yourself motivated and not base your self-worth on, say, casting. Most of my opportunities have come within the past three years— I’ve been hopeful and patient.”
“There are certainly a lot of stresses in this roller coaster career,” she adds. “But you need to stay positive, content with what and how much you are dancing. Any experience onstage gives you more confidence—being strong onstage is how you grow as an artist.”
Gigi Berardi is a Seattle-based writer and is the book review editor for Journal of Dance Medicine & Science.
Kitchens in Balanchine’s Serenade. Photo by ©Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB, ©Balanchine Trust.
Glutes, Rotators, and Core—Oh My!
Kylee Kitchens’ morning routine starts before class with a circuit of exercises using Thera-Bands. Begin with a low-resistance band, wrapped around both calves (well above the ankle) and tied in a knot. The band should be tight enough so that there is moderate resistance. The following exercises are done facing and holding the barre with both hands.
• Plié in a comfortable second position. With a neutral pelvis, knees continuously bent, engage hip muscles (glutes and rotators), lift heels into a forced arch, and lower. Repeat 10 times, and rest.
• With legs straight in parallel, side-step about 12 inches to the right, stepping out with the right foot and bringing the left to meet it, for 10–15 steps. Keep core and glutes engaged. Repeat in the other direction. Maintain tension in the band as you step out (abduction) and as you slowly bring the trailing leg in (adduction).
• Begin with feet in parallel. Tighten your core and external rotators while slowly extending the right leg into a slightly turned-out 45-degree arabesque, then return to parallel and lower the leg. Repeat 10 times to the right, then do the same with the left.