He was born in Ohio in 1914 to an artistic family. He began studying dance, including tap, as a child. He first visited New York in 1931, at age 17, taking up full-time residence in the city in 1933.
Bolender studied at the fledgling School of American Ballet with Balanchine and other Russian teachers. He also developed an interest in modern dance.
He originated many roles in Balanchine works, including Four Temperaments, Renard and Agon, as well as roles choreographed by Jerome Robbins. In Eugene Loring's work, he originated the State Trooper in Filling Station and Alias in Billy the Kid.
The 1943 Mother Goose Suite was the first of approximately three dozen ballets Bolender choreographed during his career, eleven of them for NYCB. Bolender's choreography remains in the repertoires of Kansas City Ballet, NYCB, American Ballet Theater, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, San Francisco Ballet Company, Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
His best known works still in active repertoire are Souvenirs and The Still Point, both made in 1955.
Bolender was also active as a teacher, both in the U.S. and abroad. From 1963 to 1966, he was ballet director for the Cologne Opera House in Germany and from 1966-69 he filled the same role in Frankfurt. Alongside Janet Reed, he co-founded Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1975; for three years starting in 1977 he was ballet director at the Atat‹rk Cultural Center in Istanbul. In 1981, he became the artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, which for a time became the State Ballet of Missouri. He was named artistic director emeritus in 1996.
Writing in the International Dictionary of the Ballet, critic and historian Doris Hering called him "a superb comedian with a penchant for high camp." He also had a physique similar to Balanchine's. Bolender told The Kansas City Star in 2003 that "There was a facility in my body, a looseness, a rubbery quality."
He attributed his longevity to his healthy diet, telling the Star that he ate vegetables, chicken and fish, but "never any fried food."
Kansas City Ballet artistic director William Whitener said, "Todd Bolender carried the spirit of dance with him throughout his life and freely shared his knowledge and wisdom. He has left a glorious legacy."
His legacy in Kansas will be honored by the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity, the Kansas City Ballet's new home, which is scheduled to open in 2008.