Devon Carney understands balance. He has spent more than 40 years in the world of ballet and recognizes striking symmetry between leading the way and then getting out of the way to allow the dance to take its own spotlight. As the new artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, don’t be surprised to see Carney mold the company, the school and the community to see the balance in dance – the elegance of classical narratives with flirtatious short modern pieces.
Carney was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he began his dance training. In between dance classes, he attended a movie theater and watched actors like Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart. “It’s not like today’s grittier films, but the character development that made them three-dimensional. In dance, it’s not easy to do, but when dancers can act as well, it’s a gift. I enjoy helping dancers with characterization.” He expects to start this process from the first performance with Fancy Free, into Nutcracker and then forward into the late winter show, Dracula and even Cinderella in the spring. “As ballet master in Boston, I worked with Michael Pink on Hunchback of Notre Dame,” he says. “I learned how deeply he sought to shape the character and add the dynamic to ballets. It’s about adding texture, and Michael provides the dancers a chance to do so with Dracula. Cinderella in the spring will be lighter, but the whimsical nature will be clear. No matter what, the company will get to experience creating a richer character development.”
He started in 1978 with the Boston Ballet and was promoted to principal in 1986. During his 21- year professional dance career, he performed many leading roles in well-known classical ballets such as Giselle, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and The Sleeping Beauty. He also was able to dance roles choreographed by cutting-edge choreographers. These roles include Paul Taylor’s Company B, Merce Cunningham’s Breakers, Sir Frederick Ashton’s Monotones 1, Elisa Monte’s VII for VIII, Mark Morris’ Mort Subite, Susan Marshall’s Overture, and Daniel Pelzig’s Nine Lives: Songs of Lyle Lovett. His George Balanchine repertoire includes principal roles in Square Dance, Serenade, Agon, Rubies, La Sonnambula, The Four Temperaments, and Theme and Variations.
Moving into teaching, he became artistic director for the Boston Ballet Summer Dance Program in 1994 and served in this capacity for nine years. Teaching credits include Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, Arizona Ballet Summer Program, Austin Ballet, Guangzhou Ballet of China, University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music Dance Department and various regional ballet companies and schools across the United States and Europe. Four years after the appointment as summer program director, he served as Ballet Master for Boston Ballet from 1998 to 2003.
Carney was most recently the associate artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet and had been with the Cincinnati Ballet since 2003. He recently created a new version of the full-length version of the world renowned Sleeping Beauty to great critical acclaim.
Looking ahead as the new artistic director for the Kansas City Ballet, Carney knows the 2013-2014 season is already set, but he has breathing room to communicate how he wants to move forward. “I plan to teach a lot. I want to work on technique with the dancers; I will teach three times a week. I want the company dancers to learn from me. The other chance is to learn about the internal operations of the Kansas City Ballet. I can learn about the administration and I have room to work on the following season.”
In shaping a season for 2014-2015, Carney expects to look at schedules, budgets, the “hot” choreographers he wants to work with and see if it is feasible to stage their work. “It’s like being way in front of the bull rather than finding the horns. We are going to look at everything from the performances in the studio and to those on stage.”
The first time Carney saw the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, he caught a few minutes of the May 3 performance when he came to town for interviews, meetings and a chance to see the facilities. “Ironically it was during the late spring snowstorm and I felt these giant flakes falling. I love winter and I thought it must be a good sign.” He was almost a competitive ski racer until dancing proved the greater love. The Kansas City Ballets’ Board of Directors made the announcement that Carney was offered and accepted the position May 24.
In Boston, Carney helped shape the ballet school and he wants to help here as well. He also wants to see a second company of young up-and-coming dancers who can go out into the community and share dance. Coming to Kansas City also gave him the chance to step into the artistic directorship. “Cincinnati is a similar-sized city and budget and I appreciate what we have developed there. However, Kansas City is that dream company with guidance from a strong executive director in Jeff Bentley, an attractive budget, and good solid dancers. I see a hungry group of dancers who want to be the best they can be.”
He plans to take the ballet into the communities and make the dancers ambassadors. “I want people to come be a part of dance. Come see what moves you and understand more than before they saw us dance.” Executive Director Jeff Bentley calls Carney’s selection as a continuation of the tradition the board has in choosing strong leaders. “Devon is a wonderful combination of deep experience in the field as performer, coach, and director, and an engaging personality. He is totally devoted to moving this company and our school forward to its next moment. I am so pleased to be able to have the opportunity to partner with Devon.”
Carney describes his leadership style as hands-on. “I am first and foremost a teacher. I am also one who appreciates all my coworkers. I respect every job from the custodian who cleans the Bolender Center to the general manager because our goal is a common one … we are all working together to put out the best product and that’s giving the very best on stage. My biggest challenge is to delegate because as a hands-on individual, it’s tough to hand off certain aspects.”
Carney has an extensive knowledge of classical works and current pieces. “I gravitate toward good works. They can be classical pieces from the 1700s and 1800s or contemporary. No matter what, they need to be high quality. I am a chameleon myself and my voice is constantly changing. I may choreograph a neo-classical piece to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 4 and then turn around and use Take Five’s music or electronica contemporary artist Moby. For me, it’s first about the music. It will tell me what to do. The music moves me.”
He plans to make sure current choreographers will become part of the landscape. “That’s the future. It’s where the art form is going.” Carney expects some discovery with emerging choreographers as well as searching for that next voice. “The balance has to be a mix of the masterpieces, those classic full lengths, with the new works.”
Carney has a hard time standing in the spotlight now, even if it is to introduce himself to the metropolitan area. “It’s not about me; it’s about the art form. It’s about furthering the art form and getting the word out. It’s about letting people know what we are and what we can provide. We all have a story to tell and we can share it. We are going to help shape a dance landscape. It’s going to be enrichment. We are going to stress that the cultural arts are necessary to our lives. The arts aren’t ancillary, but necessary. Through our company, people will see dance. They will see that we are vibrant; we will take ballet into more schools. Art makes us well-rounded people and ballet can be that avenue of expression that gives them a way into dance.”
And never fear, Carney has a deep personal reservoir of inspiration. He comes from artistic parents as his father taught art at Tulane and his mother taught comparative literature. His sister is a ceramist and his brother leads his own dance company. “Someday he and I will collaborate,” Carney says. “My wife danced and my step-mother did too. I was in band in high school. I played third chair trumpet. First chair was Wynton Marsalis and Branford was in the band too.” He even enjoys following a classical music score if and when he can.
The opening show Fancy Free in mid-October will give Carney a chance to see the dancers perform live and see their strengths. “I want to see what gets them excited. I want the audiences to see a bright future with a new director. I want us to be nationally recognized all the time. I want to be on the leading edge with more performances and more people experiencing the world of ballet. We are in a place to start the next new chapter and there is optimism. I sensed that from the minute I walked in the door and that carries me forward.”
Photo courtesy Kansas City Ballet and Photo by Ken Coit