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Remembering Una Kai

In 1981, newly appointed Artistic Director Todd Bolender, brought Una Kai to Kansas City to serve as Ballet Mistress for Kansas City Ballet. For 13 years she worked with Todd and the dancers and students here in Kansas City. She brought with her a breadth of experience that spanned decades and continents.


Learn more about her career prior to Kansas City Ballet, including her role as Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet here.


It is with sadness that we say goodbye to this legendary woman who passed peacefully in her sleep on Dec. 10, 2020 in Savannah, Ga.

We wanted to leave you with a few thoughts and memories of Una from our staff and former dancers that remember her well. If you have a memory you’d like to share, please scroll down and submit it in the comments section on this post.

Sean Duus, R.O.A.D. Residency Coordinator and Former Company Dancer:

“Una was a very dedicated Ballet Mistress who was very loyal to Mr. Bolender and his vision to grow Kansas City Ballet into a world class company. She treated the dancers like they were part of her extended family and took pride in watching their growth. She loved giving turn combinations that involved multiple consecutive turns each with your leg in a different position. She thought a dancer’s hands were vital in achieving a perfect line and often would remind the dancers to make “pretty hands”.

Una had a great sense of humor and one of my favorite quotes of hers was: “Well, if you can’t jump and you can’t turn, then what’s the point?” One memory of Una was when we were traveling by bus on tour to Nashville. At the beginning of the journey, Una asked everyone on the bus if we wanted to stop at Graceland, Elvis’ home? It would have been a several hour detour, so she was met with a resounding chorus of “No!” Well, somehow during the next several hours, Una managed to convince enough people (or maybe just the bus driver!) because we pulled up to Graceland and Una had a huge smile on her face! To this day anytime I hear an Elvis song I think back and remember Kansas City Ballet’s Ballet Mistress Una Kai.”

Kevin Amey, Chief Operations Officer:

“When I think of Una, my strongest memories are of the many bus rides we took when we toured regionally in the 80s. She and I sat in the two front seats, opposite one another, and spent a great deal of time just chatting about ourselves, the scenery, and her many memories of touring internationally with New York City Ballet. I enjoyed listening to her stories of George Balanchine and some of the little antics she and other dancers pulled on one another.  And, I so clearly  remember and can hear to this day, the sound and cadence of the “Unuuuuuusual” intonation she employed in her voice. It was remarkably lyrical and great fun to listen to as she spun yet another story.”

Kimberly Cowen, Kansas City Ballet School Principal & KCYB Director and Former Company Dancer:

“Una Kai was spicy, endearing and full of knowledge. She always wore lipstick, a matching long sleeve leotard and a long ballet skirt with ballet shoes with no elastics. She taught from a wicker stool and was known for saying phrases such as “STOP, STOP, STOP” which was accompanied by a clap, “You gotta get your leg up”  and “Just do it and I will teach it to you later.” She used to tell us on the days we didn’t have that much rehearsal we should work even harder in class. She always told you the truth, even if it hurt, but she also looked out for you. I remember one rehearsal when Mr. Bolender was choreographing and Una turned to him and said “Oh Todd, the girls can’t do that on pointe.” One of the most challenging rehearsals I ever had was when she made us run Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco two times back-to-back to help us build stamina. She was more than a ballet mistress she was our second mom. She invited all the dancers to her home for Mother’s Day Brunch each year.”

Jean Quick Murphy, Former Costume Mistress and Company Dancer:

“I recently shared my favourite Una story. When the company performed the piece The Combat, new costumes were created in red and black. There was a fabric drape on the back of the male and female lead.  We had created a red drape for one of them at Todd’s request. At dress rehearsal Todd suddenly decided he wanted to see it in black. It was late. We were downtown and didn’t have time to get to Westport to find fabric. And everyone was tired. The sooner we got it done, the sooner we could go home. Una came backstage, went into the restroom, and came out with her black slip in hand. We cut it open, draped it on the costume and Todd got to see the revised costume. Una saved the day!”

Please share your favorite memories of Una in the comments.

Photos: Top photo of Una Kai. Middle photo of Todd Bolender and Una Kai. Bottom photo of Una Kai in Mother Goose Suite.

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2 responses to “Remembering Una Kai

  1. We were on tour and Una wasn’t with us for the first few stops of the tour. She took a train to wherever we were to join us for the last half of the tour. We drove the tour bus to the train station to pick her up. Una never liked it when the men of the company would take off their shirts in rehearsal, she would always say “hide your man flesh “ or “your man flesh is driving me crazy”. So all the men took their shirts off as the train was pulling into the station and we all greeted her singing a song, chanting her name and the men waved their shirts around. She LOVED it…she had the biggest smile on her face when she got off the train. She laughed about that for a long I was always so amazed how Una could stage all those Balanchine ballets by memory, she rarely looked at her notes. She had a collection of notebooks with all these Balanchine masterpieces written down in her own hand. She was teaching me the Choleric solo in 4 T’s and she couldn’t remember a certain count or step that she said was very important and she went to her 4 T’s notebook and showed me what she had written and it was so clear and precise all written in pencil. She told me at that rehearsal that Balanchine loved the way she wrote down his ballets. I realized that day the she and Todd were first generation NYCB dancers and how lucky we were to be getting this knowledge from them. To me that still was a special moment between me and Una because it was just us 2 in the studio.

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