Kendall Britt knows how to put on a performance worthy of royalty. This seasoned Ballet Memphis dancer is currently gearing up for his sixth performance as the lead role in “The Nutcracker,” a Christmas favorite in the MidSouth. No stranger to the spotlight, Britt’s dance repertoire includes roles as Romeo and Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet,” The Prince in “Cinderella” and Puck in Mark Godden’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The 26-year-old New York City native joined the company in 2006 and eagerly awaits his reprisal of what he sees as the role of a lifetime. “The Nutcracker” will run six showings from December 13 to 15 at the Orpheum.
Click Magazine: So how did you get started in ballet?
Kendall Britt: Unlike most boys who start ballet in their teens, I got started when I was six years old. I was one of only two boys in the ballet class! I grew up watching a series called “Great Performances” on PBS repeatedly. They showed lots of great iconic ballet companies like American Ballet Theatre back when ballet was still kind of a big thing over here.
C: So when most other kids your age were tuned into Sesame Street, you were just waiting for the ballet shows to start?
KB: Yes! I would always wait till those shows were over. My grandparents always made sure I was very exposed to arts and culture, even though I wouldn’t say I come from an artistic background.
C: What brought you down South?
KB: Ballet Memphis is my first and only professional job. When I was 18 living in New York, I attended a traineeship with Pacific Northwest Ballet School in Seattle and they offered me a spot to go train down there. I was eventually given a couple of offers at the end of my training and Ballet Memphis was my top choice for several reasons. They offered a varied repertoire and opportunities for growth. As a smaller company, they have opportunities for a shorter dancer like me. At 5’8", I’m a little bit shorter than the average dancer. I figured if I landed a spot with one of the bigger companies I’d always be stuck behind someone. Ballet Memphis gave me an opportunity to shine more, so they definitely became my top choice.
C: What is your most memorable role to date?
KB: I’d like to say Romeo, but also in retrospect I’d. At 25, I’m reaching the middle of my career as a dancer and I find myself really enjoying the smaller productions. Nutcracker would probably be my favorite, I always look forward to it and I’m always expecting it because I’ve been playing the lead for six years.
C: Hideko Karasawa plays your opposite in many productions. What’s it like to work with her?
KB: She’s my Juliet, my Cinderella, my everything! I’m very lucky to be dancing with the same partner after all these years. She’s my little Japanese bundle of joy – we recently took a trip to Tokyo over the summer and performed at a gala out there. We’re always paired together for classical roles. Our partnership definitely gives us a chance to redevelop some of these character and make them fresh.
C: What’s it like working with the rest of the crew at Ballet Memphis?
KB: It’s a partnership, not a dictatorship. We work together with our ballet masters to make the best product. Because I know my partners so well, we’re able to fill our choreography with all sorts of inside jokes and it’s fun.
C: Such as?
KB: Well, certain steps have different meanings. It’s kind of like a very personal experience that we’re sharing in a public place. It’s like a conversation through dance.
C: You’ve got quite a few regal roles under your belt. What’s it like playing a prince?
KB: The thing about princes in ballets is that they’re the least developed character. There no background on the prince past saving the princess. It’s terrible! Most of the time he just swoops in out of nowhere to save the day. I like to make up my own backstories to stay motivated, it’s like I have access to a prequel that no one ever sees. Even though the Nutcracker does save the princess, it’s also about first loves, fantastical lands and also about embracing that age where all these feelings are new and fresh.
C: What’s your dream role?
KB: That’s a tough one because I’ve never even imagined I’d be able to do half the things I’ve done so far. But I think my dream would be to revisit Romeo. After the first time, I’d really like to look back into that character – the second time is always better, in my opinion.
C: What are some of the challenges you took on playing multiple roles?
KB: I read each scene until I knew everything about it. I would know exactly what was happening, who each person what talking to, why they were saying it, the different translations and really try to take on these characters and understand the dialogue before dancing to it.
C: Any special techniques to mitigate the pre-performance jitters?
KB: A lot of my friends have pointed out to me that I talk a lot when I’m nervous – and I already talk a lot to begin with. I have a couple of things that I won’t do before a performance: I don’t work out any extra and I won’t go over my steps. Every dancer’s biggest fear is forgetting their choreography onstage, but it’s something I can’t worry about. I just need to sit in my dressing room and put on the loudest music in the world – you know, put on my own personal dance party before I have to go perform.
C: What is the toughest move that you perform regularly?
KB: Nutcracker has some of the hardest lifts I’ve ever had to do. Any time the girl is over your head in a press lift is challenging. As a shorter person, I believe it’s not all about strength – it’s mostly timing. So if you can match the timing of the person you’re lifting perfectly, it’s gonna go swell. But if you just try to "forklift" the girl up it’s not gonna happen.
C: Speaking of working out, how do you stay flexible?
KB: I don’t really go to the gym. I tend to let our daily classes cover everything. Our rehearsals definitely keep my body in shape, that’s what they’re there for. If I’m having trouble with something like a lift or something, I’ll do a little crosstraining.
C: Any advice for aspiring dancers?
KB: I’m not good with motivational speeches because I don’t like to sound cliché, but I will say this: Trust your instincts. If you feel like something should be, then it should be.
A Seasonal Spectacle
Ballet Memphis’ Kendall Britt takes center stage as the titular role in The Nutcracker Prince
Story by Casey Hilder
Photography by Allison Rodgers