Kansas City Ballet Unveils a New Nutcracker (review)

KANSAS CITY, MO: As other mid-size cities’ downtown districts dwindle, Kansas City is growing at an unbelievable pace. Long known for its BBQ and jazz music, a series of projects and new facilities have been very good for several long-standing KC arts and cultural organizations.

The trio of organizations forming the artistic hub of KC (Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and Kansas City Ballet) have particularly benefitted from the recent revitalization of the Crossroads and Power & Lights districts downtown. Perhaps most noticeable is the 2011 dramatic addition to the KC skyline: the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Kauffman 1
The Kauffman Center: performance home to three of the city’s major arts organizations (photo: Lauren Warnecke)

It seems that much of KC’s arts and cultural institutions have the same “new car smell” as the Kauffman Center. Last month, KC Repertory Theater cut the ribbon on a massive $5.5 Million renovation to the Spencer Theatre. The same year the Kauffman Center opened, Kansas City Ballet (KCB) opened the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity. The overhauled Power House building once fueled Union Station, Kansas City’s still active, century old Amtrak hub.

Several years and many millions of dollars in the making, the state-of-the-art Bolender Center is an architectural gem that preserves the past while taking the company into the future. After decades of cramped quarters in various pockets of the city, KCB created a beautifully customized rehearsal home in the Power House, with space, natural light, and safety as priorities.

Like the city it calls home, KCB is undergoing its own revitalization with the Kauffman Center as its new performance venue, a magnificent new home for KCB’s company and school at the Bolender Center, and new artistic direction from Devon Carney, who joined in 2013. Previous seasons focused mainly on mixed repertory and short-form dances. With Carney’s affinity for narrative ballets, however, and big, brand new facilities, conditions are rife for the creation of new evening-length works. This season KCB unveils two big ballets, with a Petipa-inspired version of Swan Lake and Carney’s own Nutcracker (through Dec. 24 at the Kauffman Center).

Carney’s Nutcracker is whimsical and light, designed for kids and families and mostly ignoring the darker elements of the original Hoffmann tale. The ballet opens in Drosselmeyer’s workshop, and spends more time there than is customary as the party scene music begins. Despite his menacing eye patch, cape and ponytail, Carney’s Drosselmeyer is a happy (if slightly bumbling) magician, with the air of an absent-minded professor.

As the curtain rises on the party scene, we are greeted by exquisite sets (Alain Vaës) and costumes (Holly Hynes) that only get better as the ballet goes on. The most thought and detail are given to the transformation and fight scenes. Where some Nutcrackers simply make the Christmas tree bigger, Carney creates a whole new giant-sized world (or perhaps Clara has shrunk), with brilliant use of the children’s cast and oversized furniture pieces on casters that contribute to the scenes carefully organized chaos.

KCB Company Dancer Charles Martin as the Nutracker | Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
KCB Company Dancer Charles Martin as the Nutracker |
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Multi-layered sets in the snow and fight scenes create depth and dimension onstage, and Carney’s design team recruited from around the country are really the star of this ballet; at times it feels that even the big Kauffman Theatre stage isn’t quite big enough room for Carney’s imagination and KCB’s dancers, who shine most in the crisp, punchy snow scene and second act divertissements. Carney’s choreographic efforts are best featured in the Arabian and Marzipan variations; combined with Laura Hunt and Michael Davis’ exemplary performance of Petipa’s grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier the second act shows off the skill and technical proficiency of KCB’s lead dancers. While Laura Hunt’s upper body is a bit flowery for my taste, she nailed the most difficult version of Petipa’s Sugar Plum I’ve seen.

KCB Company Dancers in Spanish | Photo: Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios
KCB Company Dancers in Spanish |
Photo: Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

Devon Carney and Kansas City Ballet have all the makings of a truly wonderful Nutcracker for Kansas Citians to enjoy for decades to come, but a brand new ballet can be kind of like fine wine. Regardless of expense or extravagance, sometimes a ballet needs time to air out and develop its flavors. For me the newness of this ballet was most evident in its final moments, and I will be anxious to see it again once it’s “lived in” for a few seasons. As the costumes and sets begin to lose their stiffness, and the KCB dancers find all the nuances that make this ballet uniquely theirs, no doubt this lovely Nutcracker will get even better as it marinates.

Kansas City Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs through Dec 24 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (1601 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, MO). Tickets range from $29-129, available by phone at (816) 931-8993, online at kcballet.org, or at the Kansas City Ballet Box Office at the Bolender Center (500 W. Pershing Rd.).

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