Kansas City Ballet Marks its 60th Anniversary with Two Weekends of Performance

Kansas City Ballet completed 2017 in high style. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts invited the company to Washington, D.C., to perform Devon Carney’s “The Nutcracker” over Thanksgiving weekend.

“This is a particularly satisfying fantasy,” wrote Sarah L. Kaufman for “The Washington Post,” which “positively oozes charm.” High praise from a Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic.

Then they came back to Kansas City for a 21-show run at the Kauffman Theatre.

By mid-January KCB was back at full blast, welcoming visiting choreographers and stagers, readying for February’s New Moves, preparing Carney’s new choreography of “Peter Pan” for May, working with Septime Webre, artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet, for October’s world premiere of “The Wizard of Oz” and learning the extensive repertoire for their two-week Anniversary Dance Festival, April 6 through 15.

This season marks KCB’s 60th anniversary (read about the company’s history in KC Studio’s Jan./Feb. issue) and, while it is not a traditionally acknowledged anniversary, like a 50th or 75th, Carney, KCB’s artistic director, thought it was too big an opportunity to pass up. “It’s a good time to recognize what’s going on with the company and recognize where we’ve come from and those contributions that brought the company to where it now stands,” he said.

To celebrate, they are presenting two weekends of performance, each weekend with an entirely different program of contemporary ballet, as well as community engagement Dance Speaks discussions and a “Celebrate 60” event at the Kauffman Center.

Said Carney: “You’ll get to see a broad, diverse profile of who the company is right now . . . and what this company is capable of.”

The first weekend of the festival includes George Balanchine’s “Diamonds” (the traditional stone of a 60th anniversary). Former artistic director Todd Bolender came from Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and brought that artistic influence to the Midwest. “This company has had a great history of doing Balanchine’s work, so I strongly believed that something of his had to be on the program, and in recognition of Todd’s contributions to the company and what he did to raise the company level,” said Carney.

“Diamonds” is one of Balanchine’s classical contemporary works in full Russian romanticized glory, using symmetry to form grand, exciting statements, set to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 3. Balanchine, said Carney, had an innate musicality and “was such a genius with patterns and dissecting the music in such gorgeous ways.”

Also on the first weekend are Michael Neenan’s “The Uneven” and Jirí Kylián’s “Petite Mort.” Neenan’s work was developed in 2017 for Johnson County Community College Carlsen Center’s New Dance Partners program. Set to the music of Philip Glass, he uses iterative patterns and playful gestures in whimsical, unexpected ways.

The biggest coup of the festival, however, is Kylián’s “Petite Mort.” Kylián, former artistic director and chief choreographer for the Nederlands Dans Theatre, is one of the greatest living choreographers of this day, stated Carney.

“It’s a beautiful vocabulary and something that Kansas City Ballet and Kansas City audiences have not had a chance to experience. That’s important to stretch the boundaries.”

Even being allowed to perform this work is a coup and indication of the company’s growing reputation. Not every company is capable of tackling this brilliant and exposed work. “It’s very raw technique, and visceral,” said Carney. He always wanted to perform this as a dancer, but he’s thrilled to present it in KC.

The second weekend features works by James Kudelka, Stanton Welch and Andrea Schermoly, moving from abstract artistry to focusing on snapshots of human relationships.

Kudelka’s “The Man in Black” is set to the mature work of Johnny Cash for four cowboy-booted dancers (three male and one female). Along with Cash’s wise words and gravelly voice, the dancers take the audience on a journey. “It’s a small cast, so you get to know the dancers quite well. You get to know the people who are involved in it, their humanity.”

Carney was in the audience for the world premiere in 2010 and loved how the audience reacted in different ways, some laughing, some crying, in the same moment. “I wanted to bring that to the stage here for Kansas City Ballet ever since I knew I was coming here.”

Welch’s “Play,” set to the selections from Moby’s same-titled album, uses a whole other vocabulary, to depict a contemporary vision of the hustle and bustle of city life and the interrelationships between people.

And while this festival features a world premiere by Schermoly, her work is familiar to KC balletomanes, seen at KCB’s New Moves in 2015, Modern Night at the Folly in 2016 and the KC Dance Festival in 2017.

Her work contrasts the other pieces on the program, using the music of Antonio Vivaldi and Frédéric Chopin, as well as a contrast in tone. Starting in February, she worked with the dancers to develop the piece, exploring “the human psyche, our relationship to each other and our manifestation of emotions and action in reaction to life’s turbulence,” she wrote in an email.

“I believe in this young choreographer quite highly,” said Carney, who was her ballet master at the Boston Ballet. KCB’s leadership has deliberately set out to create a more diverse company and that goes for the creative voices, too. “It’s important to continue to promote female choreographers. I’m very keen on that and it has to be something that is conscious, that is sought after. It just doesn’t naturally happen all by itself.”

“I think there is a huge shift in the industry that is happening right now,” Schermoly wrote, citing practical and institutional reasons for the historic lack of female creative voices. “Female choreographers do exist, we are creating noteworthy work and finding a following. Directors like Devon Carney are doing a great job of championing that.”

Schermoly participated in the company’s Dance Speaks event in February. Elki Shepers (stager for “Petite Mort”) and Kudelka join Carney for a discussion and demonstration at the Michael and Ginger Frost Studio Theater on March 28. This is the second year for the lecture series. “I love that it’s a chance to get to know the creative team members. There’s nothing like hearing (about the works) first hand,” said Carney.

Celebration 60, on April 8, is a free event honoring the company’s history, with a retrospective in film and commentary from guest speakers, as well as a reception in the lobby, plus some surprises.

And while the festival is a chance to reflect on the history of the company, of course, and its current state, it’s also an indication of what could be.

“My goal, my desire over the years to come, is to get more and more opportunities for the dancers to perform different types of work in the course of their season,” said Carney. This practice is common in the larger companies and helps grow and retain the best dancers. “To be able to shift gears like that . . . putting a dancer in that kind of situation is going to give that opportunity for major artistic growth.”

“I believe the company is on the precipice of a very big jump,” said Carney. “If there’s anybody who knows how to prepare for a big jump, it’s a dancer.”

Kansas City Ballet presents “Anniversary Dance Festival” Week 1: Diamonds, 7:30 p.m. April 6 and 7; 2 p.m. April 8. Week 2: The Man in Black, 7:30 p.m. April 13 and 14; 2 p.m. April 15. All performances at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, 1601 Broadway Blvd. For more information about events and tickets, 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."

Leave a Reply