A Dancer’s Journey to Acting on Stage

Khetanya Henderson '14 MFA as Esther Mills in "Intimate Apparel." (Courtesy of CRT)

Khetanya Henderson ’14 MFA as Esther Mills in ‘Intimate Apparel.’ (Photo courtesy of CRT)

When she won the lead role of Esther Mills in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of “Intimate Apparel,” Khetanya Henderson ’14 MFA began to complete a journey much like her character in the play. “Intimate Apparel” centers around a woman who travels to New York City to fulfill her dream of becoming an independent woman in the early part of the 20th century.

Henderson began her undergraduate years at Randolph-Macon College as a scholarship soccer player. But after deciding she wanted to pursue her passion for dance, she left her studies behind to become a professional dancer in New York.

In storybook fashion, she soon earned a fellowship with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, got a lead role with the Nathan Trice Project-by-Project Dance Theater, found an agent, and won an audition that sent her to France to tour with popular French recording artist Mylene Farmer.

“I had dance fans,” says Henderson, who performed this summer the Nutmeg Summer Series of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre after completing her Master of Fine Arts degree in the School of Fine Arts. “It blew my mind because I was so used to being in the background, blending in the ensemble. It was an interesting feeling to have fans wanting to see me perform.”

Upon returning to New York City, Henderson worked restaurant jobs while her agent secured modeling assignments for magazines such as Essence and Vogue Italia, as she waited for the opportunity to audition for a return to the bright lights.

Khetanya Henderson '14 MFA as Ursula in "Much Ado About Nothing." (Courtesy of CRT)

Khetanya Henderson ’14 MFA as Ursula in ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ (Photo courtesy of CRT)

One day as she was riding on the subway in New York, her agent called and left a message about an audition. By the time Henderson got off the train and returned the call, the part for the Disney fairytale “Enchanted” had been given to someone else. However, her agent had provided all the details about the audition.

“You’re not supposed to crash an audition, but something in my gut told me, I have to go to this thing,” Henderson says. “I had no ballroom experience. I bought a ballroom dress and pretended like I was supposed to be there. I ended up booking it.”

After dancing in the New York production of “Enchanted,” and later in the film “Hairspray,” Henderson joined Evidence Dance Co., a company based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spent the next two years living out of a suitcase touring the United States as a dancer.

Khetanya Henderson '14 MFA, second from left, in a poster for "Worlds Away Cirque du Soleil." (Courtesy of Khetanya Henderson)

Khetanya Henderson ’14 MFA, second from left, in a poster for ‘Worlds Away Cirque du Soleil.’ (Image courtesy of Khetanya Henderson)

Although she had begun dancing because she wanted to be a concert dancer, her agent asked if she would be interested in doing Cirque du Soleil, which combines circus arts and street entertainment. “Back then Cirque had maybe two shows with dancers in it,” she says. “It was mostly acrobatics.”

She auditioned for Cirque du Soleil, and was then invited to choreograph a dance number for Lady Madonna, one of the featured characters in the company’s hit show in Las Vegas, “The Beatles/Love.”

“The next thing I knew. I was flying out to sign a contract. I replaced the original Lady Madonna,” she says. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. It was awesome. I was featured. I had some creative say with what I was doing on stage. It was completely different from what I experienced before. We did 10 shows a week.”

Having done some acting as part of her dancing roles, Henderson wanted to improve her acting skills and decided to return to the classroom and complete her undergraduate degree. Enrolling at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, she studied with Rayme Cornell, who has worked on television, Off Broadway, and with some of the nation’s most prestigious regional theaters, and as a voice-over specialist for national television commercials and cable networks.

It was Cornell who suggested that Henderson consider graduate school. She attended auditions held by the University Resident Theatre Association – the nation’s oldest consortium of graduate professional theater training programs – and found that among the schools interested in her was UConn. She knew that Cornell had studied with UConn’s Dale AJ Rose, director of dramatic arts performance studies, when he was working at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“I believe in legacy,” she says. “I was curious about the University of Connecticut. I felt the teacher who taught me was amazing, and I wanted to be taught by her teacher. I really wanted to understand all aspects of storytelling. I felt as a dancer I was scared to talk. … Being here has opened my eyes to more opportunity for what I can do as an artist.”

Khetanya Henderson '14 MFA as Dorcas in "The Winter's Tale." (Courtesy of CRT)

Khetanya Henderson ’14 MFA as Dorcas in ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ (Photo courtesy of CRT)

While in Storrs, Henderson has appeared in 10 Connecticut Repertory Theatre productions, in roles ranging from being a member of an ensemble in musical productions such as “The Music Man,” to key characters in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and the lead in “Intimate Apparel.”

Rose says Henderson’s experience as a dancer helped her to grow as an actor, as she began to learn more about the process of creating a character.

“As a beginning actor, she would fall down and with her own indomitable spirit and experience as a dancer would know how to get back up and start again,” Rose says. “She just grew and grew, and became ravenous in how much more she could learn and apply. This year, she was quite exciting to see on stage and to be with in rehearsals.”

Henderson also explored her own project ideas. Working with Harrison Howard Haney ’14 (SFA), the pair prepared a successful proposal for a Summer Undergraduate Research Fund grant to conduct research at the British Museum in London last summer for a play Haney wrote. The play is based on the work of Egyptologist Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun in the 1920s.

“Khetanya brought to her acting studies the invaluable experience of years in front of an audience as an accomplished dancer,” says Vincent Cardinal, head of the Department of Dramatic Arts and artistic director of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre. “This contributed to her growth as an actor, as well as her role as a leader in our student artist community.”

With her MFA completed, Henderson performed in CRT’s Nutmeg Summer Series production of “Gypsy,” before setting out on the next part of her journey.

“I want to try out Los Angeles and see what it’s like out there as an actor in TV and film,” she says. “I’m going to get in my car with my cat and head west.”