If you’ve met Lisa Merrill Hickok, you pick up on her drive to do things and to do them well. Her family also instilled in her a responsibility to give back to her community. Few things drive her to give back like the Kansas City Ballet.
Lisa barely knew a life that didn’t include Tatiana Dokoudovska. From the time Lisa was a little girl, her two older sisters danced with Kansas City Ballet and took ballet classes at the Conservatory with Miss Tania, as she was affectionately known. Lisa’s mother was very active with the company as well, sewing costumes, sitting on the board and even managing the books. Little Lisa Merrill, as she was known then, became infatuated with ballet as well. At age 7 she began studying with Miss Tania too. Classes were taught at Treadway Hall as part of the Center Division, a community program for classes through the Conservatory.
“Shirley Weaver and Miss Tania were my main teachers. We started by learning terms. I still have my tiny black notebook with all of the ballet terms that we would write down while sitting in a circle in class. We learned the origins of the words and what they meant in French,” Lisa said. Lisa described Miss Tania as a very strict teacher but with positive discipline. IF you did it right, she praised you. When she had on the white teaching outfit, you knew class was going to be very difficult.
Taking the Stage
“My claim to fame was that I was the very first Clara for The Nutcracker. In fact, this is the 50th anniversary of my first year as Clara. I was 9 and it was 1970. We performed a condensed version of The Nutcracker called “The Nutcracker Suite.” If I remember correctly, we performed condensed party and battle scenes and then the full second act. We did the full-length production for the first time in 1972 when I was 11. I was Clara then, too. I was Clara for 4 years and I did a whole lot of doll loving,” Lisa laughed as she mimicked rocking her nutcracker lovingly in her arms.
Lisa joined the company as an apprentice at age 12 and became a company member the following year. “Back then rehearsals would run until 10 p.m. I would finish my high school activities then head for rehearsal. Afterward, I’d have to do my homework. My father would find me in the Chinese splits asleep on my papers on the floor. I danced throughout high school. Somehow I found time for it all,” she said.
A Continued Love for KCB
In the mid-80s, after college, Lisa returned to Kansas City and to ballet classes at UMKC with Miss Shirley. “She was still teaching then,” she recalled. “It was wonderful to return to her classes. Shirley had the most magnificent feet. She was just a dear. It was because of Shirley and Miss Tania that I developed a deep love of ballet . . . and ultimately they inspired me to become involved [with KCB].” Todd Bolender was now Artistic Director and Lisa bought tickets to attend performances. A decade later, in 1996, she was asked to join the board just as William Whitener arrived as Artistic Director, taking the reigns at Todd’s retirement. She served on the board intermittently for 20 years. In 2002, after Jeffrey Bentley came on board as executive director, he asked her to serve as marketing director, which she happily did for five years. “I resigned right before the move to the Bolender and Kauffman Centers, but I chaired the 50th Anniversary Gala that year, and we used the additional proceeds to create the Ballet’s archives. It’s funny to think about it, but I’ve been involved with this company in just about every way possible: company member, season ticket holder, board member, school parent, employee, and I’m still in the ballet guild and serve as chairman of the archives,” she said.
Creating the KC Ballet Archives
The idea of establishing Kansas City Ballet’s Archives arose during preparations for the 50th Anniversary of the company. “It was really an eye opener when we started to figure out that most historical documents and photos from the early years of the company were not in our possession. We put out a call to find out what former dancers might have that we needed to tell our story,” Lisa said.
As part of the celebrations, local author Wyatt Townley began to conduct interviews and research with the goal of writing a 50th Anniversary Book about the company. Along the way, photos and other artifacts began to come together. Lisa was part of a group looking at what could be done with these collected items. The idea of an official Kansas City Ballet Archives was born. And, former Ballet Board President Wendy Powell helped Lisa set up appointments with New York City Ballet to investigate their archiving processes. She later hired the same company that NYCB used for their own archives. The next step was to ramp up the collection to continually collect important information. It’s her pet project. She jokes that that’s where they’ll find her someday… covered in the archival dust still processing in her wheelchair.
Since its creation, the Ballet’s archives has collected artifacts like Miss Tania’s photographs, toe shoes and other personal effects, show programs from throughout its history, posters, costumes, organizational documents and more. In fact, collections from both Todd Bolender and William Whitener were added as well.
Remembering a Mentor
What does Lisa imagine Miss Tania would think of her company now? “She wanted us to love the art form. I think she would be very, very, very proud. I don’t think she could have ever dreamed we’d be where we are today. Her drive and determination inspired us to keep it going. We all carry her legacy. We try to make her proud,” Lisa said.
It is human to wonder what kind of impact one has on others. As the saying goes, in the end it’s what people that knew you remember that truly matters. For Lisa, there are treasured moments that she will never forget: “One of my most cherished moments with Miss Tania was captured in a photo of me on the floor rehearsing as Clara and she’s in the background coaching me,” Lisa recalled. “The other, I remember it like it was yesterday and it’s been 50 years. At the end of four years performing as Clara, on the final night, she [Miss Tania] was given roses during bows and she walked over and gave part of them to me. It touches me to this day. She was a wonderful lady, and I’m thrilled to have been trained by her.”
Interested in sharing your own Miss Tania memories?
Those who knew Miss Tania usually have a story. She had a lot of presence. She even spoke four languages. If you have a memory of Miss Tania that you’d like to share with us, please email email@example.com. We’d love to know more!
Support the 2020 Nutcracker Ball
Each year, the Nutcracker Ball celebrates Kansas City Ballet and the artistry of dance. This year’s gala will still go on, but it will be like no other in the Guild’s history. The 2020 Nutcracker Ball will present a private broadcast event on November 21!
Honor Her Legacy
For more information about becoming a member and the different ways you can support Kansas City Ballet through The Tatiana Dokoudovska Legacy Society, please contact Rebecca Zandarski, CFRE, CSPG at 816.216.5597 or firstname.lastname@example.org.