Fresh Take on a Beloved Classic

Kansas City Ballet lights the season with a reimagined Nutcracker.

This December, Kansas City Ballet reimagines The Nutcracker as a confection of magic and fantasy in a brand new production, retiring former artistic director Todd Bolender’s version after a 42-year run.

Nutcracker is a huge passion of mine— I love it like there’s no tomorrow,” said Devon Carney, who signed on as the ballet’s artistic director in 2013. In an interview last August, he enthusiastically explained his vision while blithely ignoring the thuds from landed jetés in the rehearsal room above his office and the beeps and bings of schedule reminders.

When asked where one starts such a massive project, Carney laughed. “Right there! In my head,” he said, pointing. “And I go, ‘What do I want?’” After a lifetime of Nutcrackers, he had a clear idea of what worked (and what didn’t).

This new Nutcracker remains in the classical ballet tradition set to Tchaikovsky’s score and will stick with the familiar story:  the party, the battle and Clara’s dream-journey into the Land of Sweets.

But unlike some versions that cobble together pretty dance episodes with a nodding acquaintance to plot, this production aims to make a clear psychological through-line from Act I to Act II. “Is it a dream? Is it reality? We’re not really sure, but she’s very much influenced about her travels in the Land of Sweets by her real world,” said Carney.

Many of these associations are subtle, like matching a candy-stripe trim on Clara’s night gown to columns in a backdrop or dressing Clara’s mother in a luxurious plum-and-gold colored costume that correlates with the Sugar Plum Fairy’s ensemble.

But some are more obvious. The divertissements of Act II—the character-dances of China, Russia, Spain, etc.—are foreshadowed in the first scene as eight-inch dolls, gifts from Drosselmeier, presented in a toy theater that corresponds with the proscenium.

These characters appear next in the battle scene, but now as living dolls (what costume designer Holly Hynes called “Mini Diverts”), played by children dressed in miniature versions of the costumes dancing simplified renditions of the choreography. In Act II, the full splendor is revealed as the professional company performs the iconic dances.

This mimics the Nutcracker’s traditional transformational arc from a toy to a prince, and they’ve retained that aspect, as well as the party entertainment of the “mechanized” life-sized dolls, Columbine and Harlequin.

It is a fresh take on the beloved tradition. “I wouldn’t go off the deep end,” said Carney. “Nutcracker has a place in this country, in the lexicon of the ballet world, in the culture of America…it’s important to respect that and to appreciate it.”

Carney is creating the steps. Though he has choreographed ballets throughout his career, this is his first full-length Nutcracker, and he has assembled a first-rate team to pull it off. They have worked together over a year to craft this spectacle.

Holly Hynes is an internationally-known designer who also served as director of costumes at New York City Ballet for 21 years, and designed the costumes for William Whitener’s Tom Sawyer. She and Carney had an instant connection, said Hynes, “I think within the first two minutes he’d hired me. I spelled Drosselmeier the way he spelled Drosselmeier and I think it was that simple.”

For scenic designer, Hynes suggested her longtime friend and colleague Alain Vaës, an artist and children’s book illustrator. Vaës, however, had retired from set design to focus on his painting. Carney was enthusiastic, but skeptical, “[He] was my first choice but I didn’t think I had that option.” But then one night over dinner Vaës mentioned to Hynes that he would consider coming out of retirement for the right project. She perked up, “Funny you should say that!”

Vaës recalled the dinner, too, “It was funny. It just came out of the blue. … [Devon] knew I was retired so he didn’t even ask me. When he found out I was interested he asked, I said yes, and voila!”

They had worked together at Boston Ballet in a production of Romeo and Juliet that was something of a big break for both of them, Vaës as a designer of a full-length ballet and Carney in his first principal role as Romeo, some 31 years ago. “Working with him again is heartwarming for me. It’s like working with a family member again,” said Vaës.

This will be Vaës’ fifth production, as well as number five for lighting designer Trad A Burns, a frequent collaborator with Kansas City Ballet. (Vaës and Burns had previously worked together on a Nutcracker for Cincinnati Ballet.)

It is a cohesive team. “The fortunate thing about this project,” said Burns, “is that the entire design team [could]… talk about the design ideas for Nutcracker from the very beginning,” explaining that in many cases the lighting designer is the last person to see the designs.

Working so closely is quite a feat, considering that both Hynes and Vaës live in New York and Burns is based in Ohio. “We are constantly texting each other,” said Vaës. “It’s a team effort and we have to be aware of what the other ones are doing, to avoid surprises.”

In late August, all these elements were starting to come together. Carney had begun the choreographic process and held the first auditions for children’s roles. Hynes flew in to Kansas City for the first round of fittings— as did the costumes. With a show this size, totaling 217 costumes, it’s difficult for one shop to make everything.

The sketches and fabric samples for each design fill up three bulging binders, or “costume bibles,” each sketch going through multiple variations.

The costumes are elaborate, multi-layered constructions. “I wanted to have subtle, true Victorian colors with a crackle of jewel-tones to it,” said Hynes. Between fitting sessions in Kansas City Ballet’s costume shop, she went over some of the designs. Examining the raw-edged pieces for Sugar Plum Fairy, she explained, “It’s a white tutu, with a layer of plum taffeta under this gold lace. And then at the very end is a very gentle soft dusty gray lavender and that’ll be a soft little ruffle … a little spun sugar all around the edge.”

The props and backdrops were created in five shops around the country and Vaes traveled between them to inspect the work. The design inspiration draws from 19th-century Prague and classical architectural elements. “While you want it to have a very classical Victorian sense, you don’t want it to be too suggestive of a specific place,” he explained. Additionally, there will be subtle Kansas City references.

Vaës also wanted to give the production a modern look, using exaggeration of scale and a bold, fresh color scheme, resulting in a charming, surrealist world: a city made of cakes, a garden of gumdrops, and a palace of pastries. “It’s a kingdom made of sweets…[but] we are trying not to be too obvious with the sweets.”

To achieve the perfect ambience for each scene, Burns rigorously maps out the lighting plan in advance with detailed sketches and complex spreadsheets, having tested different angles and hues on fabric swatches and printed renderings. “In my mind, I don’t think there is a difference between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy,’” he said. “In reality we constantly see things that are visually beyond our belief.”

This skewing of reality works as an entry point for the imagination. The Christmas tree, the first sign of magical transformation, will not be a painted backdrop as before. Vaës designed a tree, being built in Chicago, which will expand like an accordion as Clara’s dream begins. “It’s one thing to think of it and draft it, it’s another thing to build it. It’s always a challenge.”

Of course, the new production will keep one of the most treasured aspects of The Nutcracker, namely, the kiddoes (the youngest this year is a mere 5 years old). Many dance careers begin with this first experience on a professional stage. At least, it did for Carney, who was a sleigh-pulling reindeer.

“I have a child-like heart about Nutcracker and I hope that comes out in the show, that exuberance about just loving life and loving the holidays,” said Carney.

Kansas City Ballet presents The Nutcracker from Dec. 5 through Dec. 24 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway Blvd. Tickets start at $29. For tickets, 816-931-2232 or kcballet.org.

Editor’s Note: The print version of this story reports plans for Paul Mesner to create a gigantic puppet for the new Nutcracker that didn’t pan out. There were early talks to explore the possibility but schedules and deadlines prevented any partnership. Perhaps another time!” said ballet spokesperson Ellen McDonald.

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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