Meet the Artist: Kara Wilkes

Our “Meet the Artist” interview series concludes (for now!) with Kara Wilkes. Kara performed with LINES Ballet for five years before departing in 2016 to pursue a MFA in Dance at Hollins University. We are thrilled that she has returned to LINES Ballet this Fall in the position of Ballet Master. Starting this month, Kara also teaches weekly ballet classes for LINES Dance Center. Read on to hear about her path to LINES Ballet, her transition from life as a professional dancer to academia, and her goals as an educator.

Can you define dance?
I see dance as a transference, or release, of energy with the ability to express ideas and/or emotions. Dance expressions are ephemeral – they don’t happen exactly the same twice. I think it’s part of what makes dance such a remarkable art form.

Kara Wilkes | © RJ Muna

Why did you choose dance?
Dance is my soulmate. Since I was very young, dance has been my greatest source of joy, my clearest way of communicating, and my refuge. My first formal dance classes (at age four) did not play a role in beckoning me to love or to choose dance. Heck, I recall feeling downright anxious in those first classes… pressured, lonely, bored. It wasn’t getting my first fluffy recital tutu, but classical music that ushered me into blissful, expressive dances around my childhood home. My whole discovery of dance was spiritual. Childhood is rather confusing and hard; dance offered me a way to process what I could not intellectualize and allowed my heart space to sing.

When did you know that dance was going to be your life?
When I was five, my mother took me to see Milwaukee Ballet Company’s performance of The Nutcracker. After the show, we found ourselves in a bustling crowd surrounding Clara (the lead) who was giving autographs. She was in full make-up and costume, but no longer in character. I watched her, at first astonished, and then intrigued. What was happening? She had just carried an entire ballet with mesmerizing dancing, and now she stood among us mortals relaxed, talking, waving, laughing. The whole scenario captivated me. There was a world she could step in and out of… I wanted in.

There was a remarkable change in your dancing at LINES, can you talk about it?
When I joined LINES, I was almost 30 years old and had been dancing professionally for twelve years. I had all of this training under my belt and experience dancing works by various choreographers. I was very accustomed to rigorous, detailed coaching.

Therefore, at LINES when I was asked to bring my opinions and unique voice to the work – even asked to choreograph on occasion – I was out of my element. I saw how relaxed the veteran dancers were in their presence and approach to the work, but for months I was tense and confused. Alonzo would say, “Mas!” to me during Scheherazade rehearsals and I kept wondering “How can I do more?” And then, before a performance at UW Seattle, I crossed paths with him and he simply said, “It’s your world.” Something clicked. It was the start of me finding the courage to share my truth when I danced.

What is your experience as a teacher?
I have come to realize that teaching dance is a practice. My best classes occur when I am willing to listen to what the room needs; I’ve gotten better at deviating from my plans so I can honor the present moment. As a teacher, I have to be willing to take healthy risks and to lead with the enthusiasm I hope to invoke – I am the thermostat in the room! When I teach, I work to offer a space where the dancers can be more child-like in their approaches to ballet technique… a safe place for them to practice curiosity, fearlessness, humility, and levity.

Kara Wilkes | © RJ Muna

After performing you returned to school and received a Master’s degree, what was that like?
HARD. I had been in the concert dance world for over twenty-years mostly focusing on what my body could do, so joining the highly analytical/theoretical Hollins MFA Program really pushed me out of my comfort zone. At first, the reading was beyond challenging and the discussions (there were many) used lots of words I didn’t know. I recall being overjoyed in the Digital Media courses because I was getting a break from reading, writing and talking in order to create art. I grew immensely through the challenges at Hollins. As part of my thesis, I performed a research-based 15-minute solo called “passing the salt”. It was my return to stage since leaving LINES three years prior, and my first time performing my own work. It felt like a huge accomplishment.

How is the experience of stepping into the role of Ballet Master?
It’s like coming home, but I have new things to offer and new things to learn. I am beyond honored.

What single thing do you want to give or enliven as a teacher/coach?
To get dancers excited about the act of generosity.

What is the most important thing in the world? 
Love, of course. But laughter is up there!

What is your earliest memory of movement? 
Standing up and looking over the side of my crib. It was night and I could hear my mother’s voice downstairs.

Can there be too much rehearsal?
Yes. I believe too much rehearsal has the ability to dull a dancer’s interest in the work. Without a shift in environment the performers can begin to feel uninspired or comfortable. My dad, who was an athlete, would say about performing, “If you’re not nervous, something’s wrong!”

There’s something invigorating about a dancer having to present work before a viewer – to have an exchange of energy… to change spaces, lighting, clothing. Being somewhat under-rehearsed can bring a wonderful energy to work – a dancer has to go into a sort of survival mode that can result in something excitingly beautiful.

Curious to hear more from Kara? Click here to watch her Artist Spotlight video from 2016.

BIO: A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Kara Wilkes began her professional career performing classical ballet and contemporary repertoire for five seasons with Milwaukee Ballet Company. In 2006, she became a soloist with Victor Ullate Ballet in Madrid, Spain. Kara joined North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) in 2007, where she performed works by choreographers such as Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Dwight Rhoden, Nicolo Fonte, Mark Godden, George Balanchine, Uri Sands, and Nacho Duato. She was named one of “25 to Watch” by Dance Magazine in 2009 and joined Alonzo King LINES Ballet in 2011. During her five seasons with LINES, Kara was recognized as one of “12 Standout Performances of 2015” by Pointe Magazine and performed in TEDWomen 2016. Kara has choreographed for Wake Forest University, the LINES Ballet BFA Program, Midland Festival Ballet, Wilmington Dance Festival, and the Center for Creative Arts (COCA) in St. Louis. She has taught all levels of dance, including master classes for Duke University, University of Iowa, Hollins University, East Carolina University, UC Santa Barbara, and abroad in Dublin, Ireland. In 2019, Kara received her MFA in Dance from Hollins University and joined the dance faculty at Wake Forest University. She rejoined Alonzo King LINES Ballet as Ballet Master in 2020.

Photos: © RJ Muna, Quinn B. Wharton