Michele Hamlett-Weith started dancing at the age of 3 at Mildred Lyons Studio of Dance. “Once I started, I never wanted to leave!” By the age of 12 she’d outgrown two dance schools and her teachers suggested she take classes with Tatiana Dokoudovska. Tatiana was affectionately known as Miss Tania at the Conservatory at UMKC where she headed the dance department and community Center Division classes. There, students would take class 5 to 6 days a week. Then they would rehearse after classes and all day Saturday and Sunday in preparation for performances like The Nutcracker.
“We were all really, really dedicated. This was our sport. We wanted to be dancers and none of us could get enough of rehearsals and all of the fabulous blood, sweat, and tears classes under Tatiana’s stern guidance,” said Michele.
As Michele recalled, “The Nutcracker was not like the incredible production it is now. There were limited funds when Tatiana was building KCB. Most of the money going into the company came directly from her. She bought the fabric, measured us all and handmaid costumes for many, many years. Her dining room was like a costume shop in itself. And it was fabulous! I don’t know what that was like for her for living condition-wise, but we were allowed to go visit her at home back in those days. She would be working on snow scene or Waltz of the Flowers costumes. Later, when the company had more support, we had professionally made costumes. But to begin with, we had costumes made by Miss Tania herself.”
Dancing under Miss Tania had its challenges. “When we trained with Tatiana compliments were — I can’t even say few and far between. I danced with Tatiana and not just through KCB but starting as a student at the conservatory through working with her at the university doing services through her request probably spanning 15 years. I received three compliments! We all lived this. To know what she thought about how we danced and what we were evolving to as performers was through the cast list. The list was posted outside the women’s locker room at Treadway Hall on the UMKC campus at the time. There was always laughter and always tears. Because casting was exactly what she felt we deserved,” Michele said.
Favorite Nutcracker Roles and Memories
Michele admits that the Snow Queen was probably her favorite role in The Nutcracker. To this day, she just has to think about the opening strings and she gets goosebumps. She also danced the role of Sugar Plum Fairy several times. The delicacy of the choreography and the strength of that Russian movement vocabulary was challenging. It required great strength. You had to appear ethereal and light as a feather. She also loved Arabian with its beautiful solo with flexibility, acrobatics and sinuous serpentine movement with the arms and hips. One of her most memorable of her many roles was that of a boy in the Trepak scene at a matinee performance when one of the boys fell ill during Act I.
“Tatiana thought it might be kind of fun to have a girl join in the Trepak dressed as a boy. So, she came to my dressing room and she said (in her Russian accent) ‘Michele, you know the Trepak.’ I said ‘yes.’ ‘Here why don’t you put on this costume and let your hair come down and then we’ll put your hair in the hat.’ So, I got out there with the boys. At the end of the number, as we were all running off, I pulled my hat off and whipped my long hair back. The audience went crazy! I think they liked that part better than all the rest,” Michele remembered.
Miss Tania Post-Retirement
When Tatiana retired at 65, she traveled. At that point in her life, she wanted to get back to her roots and revisit places she’d seen in her younger years. She traveled to Italy, the country of origin for her mother. Her mother had also been a dancer and Tatiana’s grandparents were opera aristocracy in Italy, as well. She enjoyed getting in touch with the language (one of four languages she spoke fluently) and the culture. After that she traveled to France to visit Beausoleil, where she grew up. Then it was on to Paris, where she trained. When she returned from her trip, she kept herself involved in the dance scene. She became especially involved with her brother’s dance school in New York and her niece’s dance school in St. Louis. And, of course, with Kansas City Ballet.
“Tatiana and Todd had a beautiful and respectful relationship. I always loved watching the two of them at a cocktail party or at a ballet ball or occasionally she would see him if she would stop at the studio,” Michele recalled. “They had a connection because of their iconic stature in the dance world. They started the groundwork for dance in NY in the U.S. and knew all of the same people. They had a mutually exclusive experience. And they would talk about those times when they were together. He absolutely understood where she came from. There was a great mutual respect.”
Lifting Up a Mentor
The two started connecting as friends after Michele no longer danced under Miss Tania. It’s when she began to refer to her as Tatiana instead. They did have French in common since Michele’s family was from Europe as well. Tatiana spoke Italian, which had been her mother’s native tongue. Russian was her father’s. French came from growing up in Beausoleil, France. And then English when she came to America.
“So, we got to know each other. She was very different outside the studio than in the studio. She was a taskmaster in the studio with very few kind words for her students. Outside, though, she was funny, a great cook, had a lovely sense of humor and was a voracious reader. She was lighthearted and loved music. She’d walk around her house singing,” Michele said.
Eventually, Tatiana’s health started to decline with Alzheimers.
“It was a very difficult process for her. It was hard for all of us who loved her. Many of her students from the 60s and 70s stay in touch and had created a beautiful family-type community. We banded together to help Tatiana through this really rough journey of Alzheimers. And I became her primary caregiver,” Michele admitted. “I said I will help you. I’m here for you. And we became family. So many wonderful Sunday afternoon meals together eating St. Petersburg beef stroganoff. It was a full day event,” she said.
The ballet community of former students stepped up as well.
“I was able to call on people former students and they stepped up and helped take her for coffee or to the art gallery or other outings. So Tatiana ended up having tremendous community through her Alzheimer’s journey and it was bonding for us who chose to support her,” Michele said.
Near the end, it was a stroke that began her steady decline. It was when she started losing her languages. The first language to go was English. Michele believes it was the last in and the first out. And for a time, Michele could still communicate in their shared French. When French slipped away, Tatiana took to speaking Italian. Italian being a Romance language, Michele could still understand many things. But at the end, Russian was all that remained.
“We were very thankful for the staff members at Village Shalom who could speak Russian. One of the most charming things that Tatiana never lost her passion for her ballet class or her teaching. There was a handrail in the Alzheimer’s unit. She saw it as a ballet barre. She’d have orderlies, nurses and people eating their meals line up. She’d say, ‘To the barre, to the barre’ and she would start giving a ballet class. These great sports would do it for a little while. The last few months of her life she taught these classes. It was really beautiful. She had a wonderful and full life,” Michele said. “My only regret is that she never saw the ballet it is now and its journey with the Kauffman Center and the Bolender Center. She would have been thrilled! I’m sure she’s sitting on a cloud speaking all four languages and saying Bravo! Bring me more!”
Passing the Torch
Tatiana was thrilled to establish the Kansas City Ballet. Tatiana’s forte had been of course the Russian and European style ballet. She also know for the company to succeed, it would need to move in a more progressive direction than she was able to take it herself. The board looked toward the next leader who could help the company continue to grow. Enter Todd Bolender. He introduced audiences to the Balanchine style and brought a vitality. After Bolender, William Whitener brought in contemporary choreographers. This helped the company remain current and connect with what was happening internationally.
“She understood you have to pass the torch. This gives the incoming person the freedom to really grow the dancers and the audience in the direction they feel is necessary. And having that kind of artistic freedom means everything to an artistic directors,” Michele shared. “Todd had it and Bill had it and was able to build dancers that could do about anything. And now we have a company under Devon. And this company is just packed with phenomenal dancers and artists in the making. They are young and have years ahead of them. They have such fertile ground to grow in here in Kansas City and at the Bolender Center. To perform on a stage like the one at Kauffman Center—many performers even from the European opera houses and theaters do not exist in many places in the world. We’ve been told the Kauffman Center is in the top 20 performance spaces in the world. And it’s in our backyard. These young people have the opportunity to perform on a world class stage.”
Everything starts with an idea and a seed. Tatiana Dokoudovska planted a seed that continues to grow here in the midwest. Initially, in the 1950s, people thought it would never work. She, and those who’ve come after, have showed them.
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
Top Photo: During Nutcracker Rehearsal. Michele Hamlett-Weith is pictured center under the watchful eye of Miss Tania.