BWW Dance Interviews: Kitty Lunn
Kitty Lunn is something of a phenomenon in the dance world. A former principal dancer with the Washington Ballet, she was a relatively new arrival in New York. She had just gotten into her first Broadway show when she slipped on a piece of ice at the top of a staircase and suffered a violent fall down the stairs, breaking her back and rendering her paraplegic. After years of surgeries, physical therapy, and physical and emotional adjustments, Kitty decided to continue her dance career. She remains a beautiful, poised, and glamorous performer and, in addition to performing, she teaches a method which she devised over the years for disabled people. She is also an advocate for persons with disabilities--she sued no less than Lincoln Center and Radio City Music Hall to make improvements for disabled folks in their facilities. Kitty's Infinity Dance Theatre will appear at Theater for the New City, December 6-8, featuring repertory performances with choreography by Lunn, Peter Pucci, Alice Sheppard and Carla Vannucchi.
How did you first become interested in dance?
My grandmother took me to see The Red Shoes when I was 8 years old, and as soon as I saw beautiful, red-haired Moira Shearer, I knew that's what I wanted to do, so I asked my parents if I could have dancing lessons.
Where did you first study dance?
My first teacher was Leila Haller in my hometown of New Orleans. She had the distinction of being the first American dancer to become a soloist with the Paris Opera Ballet. I was very fortunate to have started with such a fine teacher. She told my grandmother that she thought I had talent and gave me a scholarship, which then led to another scholarship to the Washington Ballet School when I was 16.
You had a very memorable encounter with Agnes De Mille.
Ms. de Mille was a guest artist in residence with the Washington Ballet, and used to hold court. We literally sat at her feet and listened to her and told her how we felt. There was, of course, a lot of complaining from the students about their bodies; my complaint was that I was too short. I remember Ms. de Mille took my face in her hands and said: "Kitty dear, you have to learn to dance in the body you have," a remark which has come to my rescue over the years.
What was your first professional dance experience?
I danced at home in New Orleans, but my first professional job was with the Washington Ballet. My first solo was the Spanish dance in Nutcracker, and I subsequently danced Swanhilda in Coppelia, Cerrito in Pas de Quatre, and the Mazurka in Les Sylphides. I continued to have great training in Washington, especially with Edward Caton, who ended each class with 32 entrechat six for the men and women!
You were going to appear in a Broadway show when you slipped on a piece of ice and fell down a flight of steps, breaking your back. Did you have to undergo surgery and physical therapy?
Yes, I had five surgeries and was in the hospital for almost three years. That was followed by five years of physical therapy five days a week, five hours a day.
What was the prognosis you received from your doctors?
That I wouldn't walk again.
How did you go about re-affirming your belief in your body and its possibilities after the accident?
It was a very hard and long process. I was greatly helped by my husband Andrew, whom I barely knew at the time. We had had two dates before my accident, but he came to see me every day, and we fell in love while I was in the hospital and were later married. Andrew asked me why I couldn't just continue dancing, but in a different way. I remembered what Agnes De Mille had said about dancing in the body that you have. That gave me the idea of continuing. I went back to class in my chair at Steps. Peff Modelski gave me a spot at the barre between Paloma Herrerra and Vladimir Mahlakov, who made room for me and were most gracious. Nancy Bielski subsequently invited me to take her class. I learned on my own, over a period of several years, how to transpose movements using the upper body and arms. It was hard being the only wheelchair dancer in the room, and some teachers denied me access to their classes, but I continued to take class every day and develop this technique for the disabled.
It must have been painful to watch dance after the accident. What was your reaction?
It wasn't painful to watch dance after my accident. Dance has been a major part of my life since I was 8 years old.
I understand that you take class every day.
I continue to take class at Steps with Nancy Bielski and study Horton technique with Jolea Maffie.
You also teach dance to disabled people. How did you devise a system yourself?
Yes, I did devise the system myself over a period of years, and I teach class at LaGuardia High School, in various locations for the Department of Education, and at the Westchester Cerebral Palsy Center. I have developed dance programs at facilities in Italy, Brussels, and Scotland.
You sued Radio City Music Hall and Lincoln Center for not having facilities that were friendlier to disabled people. What was the resolution of those lawsuits?
I won! and they made improvements in their venues to make it easier for disabled people.
When did you first create your company?
In 1995 I was having dinner in a Chinese restaurant with a friend, talking about my continuing to dance and creating a company for disabled and nondisabled dancers. It was there that I made a commitment to the idea. I hired two nondisabled male dancers, and we started working in a studio. That was the beginning of my company Infinity.
How do you select dancers and choreographers for your company?
The disabled dancers are all trained by me, and the others are initially observed by me in class. I also have to audition them to see if they can handle the chair and me.
Tell me about company member Alice Sheppard?
I trained the remarkable Alice, who suffers from a spinal disease that requires her to use a chair. We consider her the company scholar - she is from England and is a retired professor of Medieval Literature, proficient in 14 medieval languages. From a family of scholars and musicians, Alice will be performing a solo set to music composed by her musician/composer father.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Photos courtesy of INFINITY DANCE THEATER