Kansas City Ballet Company Dancers in Mark Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet. Photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.
On a balmy spring evening, surprise rippled through the audience at the Kansas City Ballet as the Kansas City Symphony launched into a spirited, hilariously unseasonable rendition of “Sleigh Ride,” complete with sleigh bells. This impish overture to Mark Morris’s “Sandpaper Ballet” gave a good indication of the program to come — the three disparate dances that comprise “Bliss Point” have in common a fresh and lighthearted unconventionality.
“Sandpaper Ballet” is a vision, starting with the spectacular identical grass-and-sky costumes designed by Isaac Mizrahi. When the large combined corps fills the stage, it is a fantastical landscape. And when it snaps in and out of formation, which it does in a different creative and amusing way after each of the ten songs (all by Leroy Anderson), it’s as satisfying every time as a jigsaw puzzle clicking together.
For all his usual urbane cheer, Mark Morris is also a choreographer of precision and architecture. On opening night there were a few places where timing and line could have been more crisper, the better to contrast when the dancing broke into madcap exhilaration, but no doubt all will have sharpened by this second weekend. And it was clear the company relished the free-for-all passages, flipping ponytails and performing comical hyperextensions and cat’s-cradle-tangle partnerings with knowing grins.
To be frank, after skimming the description of “Petite Mort”, I was a little bit dreading this second piece. Art that purports to philosophize about sex or push sexual boundaries can often be peculiarly boring and prudish. But then again, artistic statements are often completely different from the actual art itself, and in this case “Petite Mort” surprised by being my favorite of the evening. A stark black background and lush, atmospheric lighting showcased Jiří Kylián’s brilliant choreography, which in turn was supported at all turns by the delicate stateliness of pianist Sam Beckett on the Mozart selections. Some tricky swordplay that could easily have tipped into the silly and heavily symbolic was instead entertaining and brief. Stiff black gowns, despite being another overdetermined gender symbol, created dramatic, beautiful images that softened to lightness and laughter. And a gorgeous rippling black tarp was put to simple and effective stage magic. All this perfectly served Kylián’s rich dance vocabulary, with its constantly inventive stances, lifts, wraps, propulsions and chaotic energy transfers. It was a truly beautiful piece, flawlessly performed by the well matched pairs of Whitney Huell and Alladson Barreto, Amanda DeVenuta and Joshua Bodden, Klaeena Burks and Angelin Carrant, Taryn Mejia and Cameron Thomas, Georgia Fuller and Andrew Vecseri and Kelsey Ivana Hellebuyck and Paul Zusi.
The last piece, “Cacti,” by Alexander Ekman, might best be characterized as “extra.” There are large white dimensional squares, which serve variously as risers, platforms, walls and set dressing. Staging, lighting, and costume also play strong roles. Split-second spot lights create the impression of strobe flashes or stop motion, while androgynous costumes strip dancers to motion, energy and sound. In ways that sometimes recalled Japanese Taiko troupes, “Cacti” calls on the dancers to make use of their full physicality — vocalizations, stomping, parading, jumping, pounding, gesturing, audible exhalations — and the dancers throw themselves at these opportunities with everything they have. They seem to be having the time of their lives doing it too, performing with extra vivacity, feeding off the laughter of the audience, running and yelling and pounding full-out, and letting wildly loose in the bursts of surreal comedy. In addition to the usual stellar accompaniment by the Kansas City Symphony, The Opus 76 Quartet (Keith Stanfield, Zsolt Eder, Ashley Stanfield, Daniel Ketter) lent an unusual onstage presence, playing passages by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert as they strolled around and amidst the dancers, upended platforms, lit highway signs and large cacti.
I’m a maximalist, but if I forced to, I’d lose (in this order) the vapid voiceover, the lit “Cacti” highway signs and even (gasp) the titular cacti. These all added their moments, although maybe not quite enough to justify their inclusion. At a certain point, things feel kitchen-sinkish, but then again, absurdity is the point. To jump metaphors, in its plenitude of ridiculous props, arresting tableaux, visual surprises, staging gags, sound jokes, and meta punchlines, “Cacti” is not unlike the summer potluck with six bowls of potato salad. Good thing I like potato salad. Judging by the audience’s laughter and applause, so do we all.
“Bliss Point” is a gift for those who would love to see more contemporary dance in town. And a seasonably perfect buffet of fresh, light dance pleasure to send us smiling into summer and looking forward to next season.
May 12, 13,14, 19, 20, 21
Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts