Obituary: Una Kai

Una Kai 1928 – 2020

The Royal New Zealand Ballet acknowledges, with sadness, and with gratitude for a long life, well-lived, the death of former Artistic Director Una Kai.

Una Kai was born in Glenridge, New Jersey, in 1928. She studied with Maria Swoboda (1936 – 40) and Vera Nemtchinova (1940 – 47) and at the School of American Ballet in New York City. After just one year at the school, in 1948 she began to perform with the Ballet Society of Lincoln Center, the company led by George Balanchine which was to become New York City Ballet. She performed with New York City Ballet until 1960, and during this time began to assist at rehearsals, eventually becoming assistant ballet mistress. When she retired from dancing in 1960, she began her career as a stager of Balanchine’s works around the world and was also employed as ballet mistress at New York City Ballet until 1970.

In 1973, Una Kai was appointed as the New Zealand Ballet’s fourth artistic director, a position that she held until 1975. This was a period of great financial uncertainty for ballet in New Zealand, however, Una kept standards high and brought important new repertoire to the company, especially the works of George Balanchine, which had not previously been staged in New Zealand. Under her directorship, the New Zealand Ballet gave its first performances of Balanchine’s Pas de Dix from Raymonda, his Concerto Barocco and Serenade. In support of her endeavours, George Balanchine did not charge the New Zealand Ballet any royalties for these stagings.

In 1975, it looked as if the New Zealand Ballet would have to close due to lack of funding. Una Kai left New Zealand to take up a new role as ballet mistress with the Royal Danish Ballet, a position which she held for six years. She then returned to the USA in 1981 to become ballet mistress for Kansas City Ballet, retiring in 1994.

Una Kai spent her last years in Savannah, Georgia, where she danced and taught ballroom dancing and Argentine Tango. She died peacefully in her sleep on 10 December 2020.

The closing moments of Serenade by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust, staged by Patricia Barker, Royal New Zealand Ballet 2019, photograph by Stephen A’Court.
Una Kai photograph