Concert to Come: Prepare for a “Transformative Experience”

Dancers Taryn Mejia and Cameron Thomas strike a pose in advance of Kansas City Ballet’s production of Lila York’s “Celts,” a high-energy work based on the phenomenon of Irish dance. (photo by Kenny Johnson)

KCBallet Presents George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” Edwaard Liang’s “Wunderland” and Lila York’s “Celts”

When the Kansas City Ballet returns to performances in the Kauffman Center this October, prepare for a transportive experience with a trio of signature works in “Celts.”

Without a doubt, the company kept busy last season, with an expanded all-virtual New Moves series — 16 new works, each filmed in a different location — which reached a global audience. Talk about transportive!

And they were able to perform before a live audience for the first time in 15 months with a season closer at Starlight Theatre last spring.

“Oh my goodness, to walk out on stage just to say a few words to the audience and to look out on 1,200 people sitting outdoors and who are all thrilled to be there . . . Wow!” said Devon Carney, Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director. “There were a lot of reassuring moments in the process of having a real performance.

“It was great to plant the flag in the ground and go, ‘okay, we’re back,’” he added. It was a great battle won. Not the war, but seriously, a major battle was won on that show.”

With the strength of those successes, the Kansas City Ballet is looking forward to dancing in the Kauffman Center again. Poignantly, their opening production is the same production that was cancelled at the end of the 2019/2020 season.

“There’s a lot of emotional content to this particular triple bill,” said Carney. The three works are something of defining works for their choreographers — stunning, emotive pieces that challenge dancers and enchant audiences.

Set to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” generations of audience love George Balanchine’s “Serenade.”

George Balanchine’s “Serenade” is one of the grounding works of modern ballet: neo-classical before that was even a genre. “It was quite ahead of its time,” said Carney. There’s quite a bit of dance history attached to the work as well: It was the first piece of choreography Balanchine did in the United States and, as one of the most performed works by Balanchine, most professional dancers have experienced it. Set to Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” generations of audiences love it.

“It has such a range of feeling that you go on a journey with this work,” he said. “It gives the audience member as well as the dancer the opportunity to go on their own interpretive adventure.”

The evening’s middle work is Edwaard Liang’s dreamlike “Wunderland,” created in 2009. This is the company’s second showing of the work, set to mesmerizing music by Philip Glass.

When KCBallet first performed it in 2015, the review in “The Kansas City Star” said that the performance had “a quiet, urban quality, as through watched from high and far away,” fitting, as Liang was inspired by a miniature scene in a snow globe while in Siberia.

Audience response was so positive that the organization knew it would revisit the work soon. “There are some works that you don’t want to allow to be too far in the distant past,” said Carney. Usually, the work is performed to recordings. Back in 2015, KCBallet had Glass’ string quartet scored for chamber orchestra, but this time around, they’ll do the work as originally intended, bringing in the Opus 76 string quartet to perform live. This is the first collaboration between this up-and-coming ensemble and the ballet company. Additionally, Music Director Ramona Pansegrau, a trained concert pianist, will perform as the soloist for Glass’ “Metamorphosis No.2.”

Set to music by the Irish folk group The Chieftains, (“Celts”) is a “real crowd-rouser,” Carney said. “Everybody just gets whipped up and is having a good time.”

The show ends with the concert’s title work, Lila York’s “Celts,” a high-energy, high-stepping work based on the phenomenon of Irish dance.

“It’s big, it’s bold, it’s fun,” Carney said. The work certainly tests the stamina of the dancers. “It’s a winder,” he laughed.

He would know, since he danced in the premiere production in 1996 with Boston Ballet. “The process of working with Lila was really cool. This became her signature work like ‘Serenade’ is for George Balanchine,” he said. It was immediately appealing, and the company even performed the work at a Boston Celtics halftime show.

It must be pointed out that York’s work premiered the year before “Riverdance” enthralled the globe with its flashy synchronized footwork. “Lila was very much ahead of the curve.”

Set to music by the Irish folk group The Chieftains, it’s a “real crowd-rouser,” Carney said. “Everybody just gets whipped up and is having a good time.”

Things won’t be exactly the same as they were back in 2019. The return to the concert stage and live performances brings a comforting familiarity but also hard lessons well-learned. “We’re just being creative with what we’ve got,” Carney said. “This is the time for it, right?”

“It’s our renewal into a new reality.”

Kansas City Ballet presents “Celts” Oct. 15-17 and Oct. 22-24 in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. 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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