Kansas City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” is a Glorious Holiday Gift

Kansas City Ballet Dancers in Devon Carney’s The Nutcracker. Photography: Brett Pruitt

­So as not to beat around the magically growing Christmas tree, let’s be crystal clear: what follows are the many ways the Kansas City Ballet’s The Nutcracker is absolute perfection.

I grew up with the New York City Ballet’s Balanchine version, so upon moving to Kansas City, I approached the local production with small child in hand and a big case of East Coast skepticism. Boy, was I wrong. 

Balanchine’s Nutcracker, with its Old World elegance, static tableaux and sinister fairytale undertones, demands admiration, but holds the audience at a remove. By contrast, the Kansas City Ballet’s version was an instant heart-melter and unabashed crowd-pleaser. And the “new” Nutcracker, though completely recreated and choreographed by Artistic Director Devon Carney in 2015, carries on the Bolender tradition of charm, approachability and generosity. With color-rich, gorgeously detailed costumes (Holly Hynes), powerfully evocative lighting (Trad A Burns) and Candyland-Fantasy set design (Alain Vaes), witty stagings and bravura performances, scenes of wonder and touches of silliness, this is a production stuffed with delights. 

Kansas City Ballet Dancers in Devon Carney’s The Nutcracker. Photography: Brett Pruitt

The children around us giggled when doddering old Grandmother and Grandfather (Emily Mistretta and Angelin Carrant) broke out in a fit of freaky dancing during the dignified family party. But it was the Mice that brought down the house. Fat, furry and insouciant, they popped onstage one by one in solo bursts of gymnastics, hip-hop, break-dance, dabbing, krumping, flossing and other mayhem. The audience roared as each one topped the last. Then out trotted the Baby Mice, played by youngest students of the KCB’s school, eliciting collective Awwwws.

Around then is when the evening took flight for me, never again to touch ground. There’s a loopy, strangely successful change in scale. The coral divan and armchair are replaced by enormous twins. Same with the ornate grandfather clock. The Mouse invaders, who look like picture book characters come to life, charge about with pugnacious determination and giant, broken cutlery for weapons. In march the toy soldiers, tiny and trim, stepping in time to their toy drums, as small, orderly and disciplined as the Mice are giant, riotous and sassy. The ensuing battle is pure entertainment, exciting and comic, cannon blast and fork lunge. When the defeated Mouse King retreats, he does so in style, borne off in a repurposed sardine tin. 

Kansas City Ballet Dancers in Devon Carney’s The Nutcracker. Photography: Brett Pruitt

In keeping with the lively pacing that enhances the impression of wonder upon wonder, this droll interlude is directly followed by the dazzling Kingdom of Snow, snow-covered pines framing the Snowflakes and Ice Crystals, twirling and converging under flurries of snow. The Snow King and Snow Queen’s suite of alternating pas de deux and solos was particularly electrifying, with Sidney Haefs’ delicately fluttering relevées and Gavin Abercrombie’s masterful carving of space and the gallantry of his partnering. Their breathtaking fish dive — Haefs’ daredevil plunge and Abercrombie’s last-split-second catch — is not soon to be forgotten. 

Kansas City Ballet Dancers in Devon Carney’s The Nutcracker. Photography: Brett Pruitt

This is KCB Nutcracker’s first time back to full corps since 2019, which is extra good news for audiences. For it is the exultant ensemble numbers that feel truly celebratory and gladden the heart. The angels strumming their harps amid golden clouds. The quick surprise of Gavin Ambercrombie tossing Arabian princess Whitney Huell over his head for Paul Suzi’s easy catch. The Marzipan Shepherdess’s expressive port de bras (Naomi Tanioka) and the Marzipan Shepherd’s fabulous fouettés (Gabriel Lorena). And of course, the flocks of adorable Lambs and Cherubs and mischievous Polichinelles who scamper in and out of Mother Ginger’s skirts.

For all its sweetness and appeal, this Nutcracker is also thoughtfully considered and reimagined. In fact, it’s impressive how much Carney gets right, nimbly sidestepping this work’s more infamous landmines. Drosselmeier (played opening night by Carney himself) still wears an eyepatch and black cloak and practices dark arts, but the overture in his toy shop helps establish him as more humorous Gepetto than the usual creepy Uncle. Similarly, the offensive Coolie hats, slant-eye makeup and mincing choreography that characterized the Balanchine Chinese segment is refreshingly absent here. Instead, the Second Act features oversized props for each of the “cultural” dances — a folding flamenco fan for the Spanish troupe, matryoshka dolls for the Russian dancers. Not only do these elements help establish their respective countries while continuing the first act’s play on scale, they redirect our attention, smoothing over the problematic exoticizing that is a relic of the long-ago past. Color-blind casting adds still more helpful and appreciated blurring. 

Kansas City Ballet Dancers in Devon Carney’s The Nutcracker. Photography: Brett Pruitt

Under the baton of KCB’s Musical Director, Ramona Pansegrau, the Kansas City Symphony burnishes the Tchaikovsky score to a warm glow and carries the production aloft. 

This Nutcracker is a perfect dose of holiday spirits, brimming with irresistible enchantment and joy. We saw it on a weeknight, rushing to the Kauffman in the bleak pitch black after hectic days at work and school. Dinner was a rushed cookie and hot chocolate in the lobby, while Slack kept pinging. To be frank, our hearts were not the merriest. Two hours later, the reverse trip home took place in a reverie of happiness, car windows steaming as we enthused over the sets, the costumes, this endearing moment and that amazing scene, and most all, the divine dancing. I’ve been humming Tchaikovsky since, memory replaying lattice-pie-crust walls and peppermint stick columns, the luscious ice blues and lavenders of the Snow King and Snow Queen costumes, the haunting, muted call of the French horns, and snow slowly drifting on drifting dancers in a dark magic wood.

Through December 24

Grace Suh

Grace Suh's work has received awards from the Edward F. Albee Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts USC Arts Journalism Fellowship, Hedgebrook Writers in Residence Program, Djerassi Resident Artist Program and Charlotte Street Foundation.

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