Troupe’s talent inspires KC Ballet artist director Devon Carney to tackle KC Premiere of Swan Lake.

Swan Lake was a flop when it premiered in 1877. Tchaikovsky’s score was considered too Wagnerian; too noisy. A critic named Tyler Grant referred to it as “utter hogwash” and thought the choreography was “unimaginative and altogether unmemorable.”

After Tchaikovsky died in 1893, composer Riccardo Drigo revised the score. Then Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, revised the libretto, changing a tragically hopeless ending to a tragically hopeful one. Ballet master Marius Petipa then revamped the choreography before this new version of Swan Lake premiered in January of 1895. It is this incarnation that has stood the test of time.

[block pos=”right”] “This is a spectacular group of individuals who are very prepared for great challenges in their artistic careers.”  —Devon Carney, artistic director, Kansas City Ballet[/block]

Ask someone who knows nothing about dance to name a ballet, chances are the answer will be Swan Lake. It is the most “famous” ballet in the world. But this Swan Lake, which runs February 19-28 at the Kauffman Center, will be a Kansas City premiere. Why did it take Kansas City 120 years?

It all comes down to the artistic director, says executive director Jeffrey Bentley. “He or she is responsible for the artistic signature, and that signature is almost always defined by the artistic director’s personal history, experience and career track.”

The two former artistic directors of the Kansas City Ballet, Todd Bolender and William Whitener, came from companies that did not typically program traditional full-length classical ballets.  The current director, Devon Carney, on the other hand, has been steeped in the classical repertoire.

“I had the opportunity to perform Swan Lake around the world with Rudolph Nureyev dancing the role of Prince Siegfried while with Boston Ballet,” says Carney. “Since then, I have had the wonderful opportunity to perform in all the leading roles that are available for male dancers.”

Though Carney choreographed the “white acts” (Acts 2 and 4, when the women are costumed in white tutus) during his tenure at the Cincinnati Ballet, this is his first full-length Swan Lake. Carney is tackling this project right on the heels of retiring the beloved Bolender production of The Nutcracker and premiering a brand new imagining of the holiday ballet. And once again, he has great confidence in the talent and drive of his dancers.

“This is a spectacular group of individuals who are very prepared for great challenges in their artistic careers,” he said.

On the Kansas City Ballet website, this production of Swan Lake is described as having “choreography by Artistic Director Devon Carney after Marius Petipa.” Many consider Petipa the “inventor” of modern classical ballet. His thoughts on all aspects of ballet—the dance technique and style, the music, the structure, even the props used—became prevailing practices and remain so today. There is a long lineage of Swan Lake productions with a connection to Petipa’s 1895 choreography. So how will Carney create originality within the construct of someone else’s idea?

“The beauty of Swan Lake is in its tradition within the classic realm of repertoire, but in the 130 years since Swan Lake premiered much has happened in the technique of ballet dancers,” says Carney. “So some originality can come from having such highly-talented and technically-advanced dancers work with techniques that did not exist before.”

Though Swan Lake is an audience favorite and Bentley expects a large box office draw, Carney is looking at the production through a lens of building the core of the company. For example, dancing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake is a rite of passage for many ballerinas. Because the character of Odile is actually the evil Von Rothbart’s daughter magically disguised as Odette, the two roles are sometimes portrayed by the same dancer and sometimes danced by two different dancers.

Carney has arranged to have Cynthia Gregory, one of the most successful American Ballet Theatre ballerinas of the 20th century, come to Kansas City to coach the dancers portraying Odette and Odile. This plan, along with programming two of the most classic ballets in the repertory in one season, speaks volumes about Carney’s investment in the artistic development of his dancers.

“Every dancer who wants to be a classical ballet technician and artist yearns for the opportunity to perform a full length Swan Lake,” Carney says. “From the role of Odette/Odile to every single corps de ballet role both for men and women, this ballet will be a great chance for artistic growth.”

Above: Kansas City Ballet dancer Molly Wagner will perform in the company’s KC premiere of Swan Lake. Photo by Kenny Johnson.

Krista Lang Blackwood

Krista Lang Blackwood is an award-winning educator, performer and freelance writer. When she's not teaching or performing, she combs the greater Kansas City region for off-the-beaten-path arts and culture offerings, usually in the company of her husband and precocious, French-speaking son. 

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