Dancing with the devil: Kansas City Ballet presents sinister “Jekyll & Hyde”

Kansas City Ballet Company Dancers Cameron Thomas and Gavin Abercrombie in Val Caniparoli’s “Jekyll & Hyde.” Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.

In presenting the North American premiere of Van Caniparoli’s “Jekyll & Hyde,” the Kansas City Ballet demonstrated that the company is poised for top tier status. Strong performances contributed to the success of this work, which mined sinister fascination and gruesome acts. Fittingly, the production opened on Friday the 13th in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to a robust and enthusiastic crowd. 

The ballet premiered at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet in 2020, but some of the work originated in Kansas City in workshops with KCB. The company has also performed Caniparoli’s “The Lottery,” based on the grisly short story by Shirley Jackson, another twisted exploration of humanity’s capacity for cruelty. 

This new ballet was decidedly menacing, with stark lighting and ominous sound design and, you know, incarnate evil. At least one child left the theater crying on opening night. (The company does advise parental discretion.) 

From the principals to the smaller roles to the ensemble segments, the company presented a strong presence in the challenging work, requiring the full forces of the main company, KCBII, apprentices, and Kansas City Ballet School students. 

Caniparoli’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” took liberties with the plot and structure, including creating a part for Stevenson himself. Stevenson was in ill health most of his life and, legend has it, originally conceived and wrote the first draft of the story in a feverish haze. Caniparoli used that inspiration to form a third male lead (Angelin Carrant on opening night) whose actions mirror and manipulate the torturous characters as the story develops. Throughout the ballet, Carrant returned obsessively to observe and engage the leads, tethered to their shadowy deeds and tragic outcome.

Gavin Abercrombie was superb as Dr. Jekyll, frustrated in his experiments, desperate and angry. He seemed torn apart from within. His gentle treatment to the people around him, whether fiancee, prostitute or beggar child (well, maybe not the asylum patients he wants to experiment on) served in contrast to the split personality soon to emerge. 

Cameron Thomas’s performance as Hyde was one of vicious glee, captivating and terrifying. Though his movements were sharp and threatening, Thomas maintained an interesting refinement in the character, making his violent outbursts all the more horrific. 

Kansas City Ballet Company Dancer Cameron Thomas and dancers from the Kansas City Ballet School in Val Caniparoli’s “Jekyll & Hyde.” Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.

Caniparoli’s expertise was evident in the ensemble segments and in the duo and trio work between these main characters. The asylum scene and hallucination scenes were particularly effective, especially with the beggar children. The transitions from Jekyll to Hyde and back were carefully plotted and generally effective, though the final one needed finesse. It set up the work’s finale—an incredible performance between the warring personalities, excellently executed by Carrant, Abercrombie and Thomas. 

The score for the ballet was developed by KCBallet music director Ramona Pansegrau, who conducted the Kansas City Symphony for the performance. Collaborating with Caniparoli, she compiled and arranged music by Polish composers to set the work, with pieces by Krzysztof Penderecki, Frédéric Chopin, Henryk Górecki, Wojciech Kilar, and Henryk Wieniawski. While the selections worked overall, repetition of segments contributed to the overlong feel of some of the scenes. Sound design by Erno Hulkkonen was interlaced with the music. 

Caniparoli stated in interviews that he wanted to choreograph a ballet with duets for men and in this he succeeded, with opportunities in a majority of scenes between various characters dancing together, not just the title roles, making it a candidate for companies who wanted to showcase their male performers. 

Women characters were secondary, somewhat one dimensional with little character development, a reflection of the era of the story’s origin, but the lead women gave their roles effective performances, with Emily Mistretta as the demure Nellie Carew, Amanda DeVenuta as the reluctant and doomed Rowena, Lauren Fadeley Veyette as the stone faced (and a bit maniacal) asylum nurse, and Naomi Tanioka as Jeykll’s terrified maid. 

Set design by David Israel Reynoso matched the story’s dank and broody atmosphere, showing the coarser side of the Victorian era. Reynoso’s versatile design cleverly switched from scene to scene, incorporating details like bookcases and laboratory tables, cow skulls and gilt mirrors. Era-appropriate umbrellas were another appreciated style choice. Lighting by Jim French heightened emotion and contributed to each scene’s developing tensions. 

A key feature of the design was an enormous black reflective panel which contorted images, emphasizing the damaged psychological connection between creator and creation. Likewise, the use of masks added to the eerie nature. 

Kansas City Ballet Company Dancer Gavin Abercrombie and Angelin Carrant in Val Caniparoli’s “Jekyll & Hyde.” Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.

Reynoso also designed the costumes, from lace and silk Victorian era-inspired gowns to ragged corsets on the brothel workers. Particularly attractive were the dresses for the well-to-do, bejeweled gowns during the opulent ballroom scene, displayed in the fine dancing from Whitney Huell, Kaleena Burks, and Taryn Pachciarz with Joshua Bodden, Gabriel Lorena, and Chase Hanson. 

This is not a relaxing night at the theater, sitting back to enjoy some pretty dancing. It was visceral, the neck-cracking tension creeping into back and shoulders. And judging by the extended applause at the work’s conclusion, Kansas City Ballet’s presentation of  “Jekyll & Hyde” was an all-round success. 

Reviewed Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. Kansas City Ballet presents “Jekyll & Hyde” at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts Oct. 19-22. For more information visit www.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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