Can’t Buy Me Love: Kansas City Ballet’s “Lady of the Camellias”

Kansas City Ballet’s “Lady of the Camellias” is gorgeous. The costuming, the dancing, the sets and lighting evoke a shimmering dream world, enhanced by the romantic music of Frédéric Chopin.

Saturday’s performance at the Kauffman Center earned resounding praise from the audience.

Choreographer Val Caniparoli used the popular and familiar (and semi-autobiographical) story by Alexander Dumas fils for the basis of the work in 1994. Dumas’ novel, written in 1848, is the same story that inspired Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” in 1853 and, in 2001, Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!”

All these stories center on a glamorous courtesan, inspired by the real life Marie Duplessis. Beautiful, poor and poorly used, Duplessis used her charm and intelligence, together with her appearance, to attain a luxurious lifestyle with the only tools available to a woman of her status in that era. She died at the age of 23.

Duplessis met Dumas when they were both 20 and included him in her roster of lovers, but he could not afford to support her high-end lifestyle and she moved on. After her death he bitterly wrote a novelized, ennobling version of their affair, casting himself as the ardent, but wrongly used, lover. Capitalizing on her reputation and notoriety, the novel came out a year after her death and the story has been popular ever since, securing Dumas’ literary reputation.

Kaleena Burks, as the courtesan Marguerite, maintained a restrained, somewhat frosty beauty, a fitting interpretation for a woman whose emotional struggles are primarily internal. James Kirby Rogers, as Armand, had a gallant, almost stoic, air…at first. They made an elegant pair and conjured a believable chemistry that seemed almost innocent.  (Emily Mistretta and Lamin Pereira dos Santos dance the roles in alternating performances.)

Caniparoli, especially in the opening scene, balanced fun, flamboyant dancing with subtle gestures and broad innuendo (Kelsey Hellebuyck, as Prudence, gave a seasoned comic performance). Lots of flashy steps, especially for the men, made for enjoyable sequences, though the ensemble had issues staying in sync in the last act.

The catty and venomous exchanges between some of the other women were well crafted, with Amanda DeVenuta and Lilliana Hagerman bringing individualism and attitude to the moment.

Generally, Caniparoli’s structure and storytelling worked, including Act III’s shadowy dream sequence. I took issue with some of the pacing and devices, though, such as the synchronized macho twirling between Armand and Baron De Varville, Marguerite’s lover.

Marguerite’s duet with Armand’s father was awkward, too. He secretly shows up in the country to convince her to drop Armand to save their family’s reputation, clearly a staid, socially minded person. Why would they dance together? Why would he dance at all? If you hadn’t read the program notes, the actions of the character seemed more like yet another lover determined to woo her.

Then, when Marguerite is forced to decide between her happiness and Armand’s future, her inner turmoil is allowed just a few seconds, but his emotions are expressed in a prolonged solo.

In the culminating scenes, though, Burks danced Marguerite’s weakened physical and psychological state with a weary grace, permitted more emotional range in the culminating scenes than the first two acts allowed.

Chopin’s song “Niema Czego Trzeba” (Faded and Vanished) was an ingenious inclusion, performed by Robert Gibby Brand, during Armand’s grief, and then reprised by Sarah Kathryn Curtis, to mirror Marguerite’s. The score, with Ramona Pansegrau conducting the Kansas City Symphony, included extensive, exemplary piano solos and featured Samuel Beckett in Act I and Yee-Sik Wong in Acts II and III.

This production is set contemporaneous to Duplessis and Dumas’ time, the same era as other famous story ballets, like “Giselle.” Robert De La Rose designed delightfully decorated frocks. De La Rose, who developed the original concept for this production with Norbert Vesak, also designed the set for Act II, a minimal pastoral scene.

David Gano designed Acts I and III, creating ornate, towering set pieces in dark, saturated tones. Trad A Burns’ lighting design was a moody mix: wonderfully honed in during the dark scenes and a vibrant array of subtly shifting pastels in the garden scene.

The Kansas City Ballet’s production of “Lady of the Camellias” is gorgeous, yes, but it is not a love story. Or at least it’s not a version of love that wears so well in the 21stcentury, when we’ve begun to dissect the insidious behaviors of masculine privilege, and the harm in it, which Armand displays so openly.

I have little sympathy for Armand, as it turns out. He wanted her just as any man wanted her, but since he didn’t have money, he used manipulation. He doesn’t respect her, her choices, her resilience, or her autonomy. Though their relationship is not built of gifts and favors, it is still transactional, which Armand made perfectly clear when he hurt and insulted her – he didn’t get what he thought he deserved, so she has to pay. It’s not enough for her to suffer the pain of her illness, but humiliation and rejection as well.

It’s heartbreaking, to be sure. Love is not true to Marguerite. Love does not comfort her, it cannot purify her, nor can it save her. But do we give up on love – or this skewed version of it?

Reviewed Saturday, February 16, 2019. Kansas City Ballet presents “Lady of the Camellias” February 17 and 24 at 2 p.m., February 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. For more information visit kcballet.org.  

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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