On the Move: Kansas City Ballet’s New Moves: The Broadcast Series

Dancers raise their arms in the lobby of a modern art museum.

Screenshot from Kansas City Ballet’s New Moves of dancers performing at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

If dancers can’t be flexible, who can be? When the Kansas City Ballet announced that the spring in-person performances were cancelled, one could only hope they would pivot to something innovative and eye catching. What better mode than the company’s annual choreographic showcase New Moves?

This season, it’s New Moves: The Broadcast Series, which premiered February 18.

Rather than a full evening of new works, this reimagined New Moves is a seven-part series, each weekly episode including an introduction from Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney, interviews with the choreographers and host organization, a bit of behind the scenes, and, of course, the featured dance. Each episode is about 15-20 minutes, the dance about a third of the total experience.

Each episode was filmed on location at a partnering arts organization, creating a unique palette of spaces, backgrounds and views with which the dance responds, resonates, or reflects. Some choreographers were onsite, some choreographed entirely via Zoom. This isn’t necessarily the first time these dancers have performed on film, with some recently featured in the KC Performs series from Kansas City PBS, as well as other projects.

As of this review, two episodes are released. We’ll review the remaining works as the series progresses.

The first two works featured returning New Moves choreographers and Kansas City Ballet company dancers Courtney Nitting and James Kirby Rogers, with cinematographers Johanna Brooks and Kenny Johnson, produced and edited by Elizabeth Stehling.

For the premiere episode, Nitting created a sunny “Dances at a Gallery” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, channeling Fred-and-Ginger sweetness and optimism. The 4-minute piece had a refreshed feeling, just the sort of ambience we’d want coming out of this long, cold, pandemic winter. Three pairs of dancers frolicked—yes, frolicked—around the Bloch Galleries and Kirkwood Hall, with snappy movements, meet-cute moments, and youthful energy, set to a Sundance Remix of “Retro Funky” by the French electronica duo Perséphone.

Rogers’ piece, on the other hand, fluctuated between ennui and tension (as have we all these past months). In “Songs Without Words,” he begins the work sans music, with only the dancers’ movements creating sound in a sequence that is both curious and uncomfortable, set in the Kemper Museum of Modern Art’s Café Sebastienne. Rogers and Emily Mistretta are featured, staring at each across a table, heavy-headed, making complicated gestures that seem to be locking in a sense of loss, or perhaps offering consolation.

They transfer to the main lobby, joining other pairs who lean back-to-back in weary silence, the artwork on the walls reflecting on the floor tiles below them. Quickly changing camera angles shift the view from intimate to broad view and back again and, as they rise, somber piano music by Felix Mendelssohn begins. The music didn’t seem to add very much to the piece, compared with the first portion, just something to frame the movement. Rogers designed an array of creative movement in the 6-minute piece, and while the structure was disjointed, the movement maintained curiosity.

To learn more about the dances and process of creating the films, join Kansas City Ballet for a Facebook Live event on March 3 at 6pm for Dance Speaks: New Moves, New Voices.

Art has always balanced efforts to respond to the present, reflect on the past, and speculate to the future, simultaneously taking us out of reality while centering itself as a more vibrant, distilled real and these works from New Moves: The Broadcast Series, thus far, do just that.

Update March 19: Episodes 3-5

I watched Caroline Dahm’s “Misguided” three times in a row (one of the benefits of recorded pieces), trying to break down exactly what caught me in this stunning work. Filmed in the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, the dancers relayed sequences of movement, coded messaged that seemed to contain meaning, but not, necessarily, to reveal it. Staring at each other, or into the camera, only their eyes and brows were visible above their masks. There was an intense neutrality, if that is such a thing, like secret, stoic telegrams—all on the same type of innocuous paper, but carrying different messages.

So many brilliant touches in this work, subtleties and variants in the movement, first in a stark white gallery space, then in and around sculpture and paintings, responding to the art and the architecture.

I was familiar with Dahm as a dancer, and this was my first chance to see her as a choreographer, working in person with the Kansas City Ballet dancers. She also worked with Brooks and Johnson, and clearly Dahm has a sense of the power of the travelling camera. At only a few moments did they cut to a new scene; everything else was done as near to seamless as possible, thanks to some editing tricks, and a true understanding of movement on film.

For episodes 4 and 5, Brad Austin of Kansas City PBS was the filmmaker.

Slanting sunlight filtering into the Belger Arts Center during the filming of Marika Brussel’s “Bones of Chaos,” set to music by Ben Juodvalkis for a company of seven dancers. Rapid cuts showed them moving in and out of frame, with the music in similar snippets, catching different aspect of the movement as the camera, likewise, moved around and through the performance space, creating a kaleidoscopic feel. A somber melodic line transitioned into a moment for soloist Whitney Huell, drawn out of the ensemble, before a final segment created a swirling, transformative effect of undulating movement, crossfaded images, and the ever-changing viewpoint.

Brussel worked with the dancers and cinematographer exclusively over Zoom to create the piece.

Huell was featured again in Helen Pickett’s “The Shakespeare Cycle Triptych,” filmed by Austin at the Kansas City PBS Studios. Pickett also worked via Zoom, holding rehearsals in the dancers’ living spaces. Each of the short works, set to music by Peter Salem, was based on a line from a play, and Huell, as Titania from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” danced as though awakening, the lighting, fog and leafy décor creating an illusion of dawning forest. In some moments, Austin layered the images, giving Huell a dreaming, fluttering effect.

Austin used a similar effect in the second part, “Hurly-Burly,” but for darker psychological result, with blurred images and abrupt, stark lighting changes. A trio of dancers (Tanioka, Gavin Abercrombie, Cameron Thomas) were the weird sisters of “Macbeth,” accompanied by sounds of scraping metal and heartbeat, their moves jagged, twisting and interlocked.

The final section featured the charming pair Danielle Bausinger and Liang Fu, a sweet and joyful pas de deux. Throbbing string music set the scene for the lovers from “Cymbeline” as they prepare to run away together.

Update April 1, 2021: Episodes 6-7

For episode 6, Margaret Mullin’s “Felicity Found,” choreographed over Zoom, was a very spring-forward sort of piece, a joy-fill work, flowing through the ornate and empty rooms of Corinthian Hall of the Kansas City Museum, set to music by Antonia Vivaldi. It was filmed by AWStudio.

While it relied on long, moving shots, too often a close up would cut in, inelegantly disconnecting the grace and structure. Some phrases were only partially captured, as though unintentional, and too often caught at odd angles that did not do justice to the dancers’ work.

The last installation of the series was Price Suddarth’s “Corridors,” filmed in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts’ Brandmeyer Hall. The production took advantage of the soaring space and lush natural light, creating a richly saturated piece, with atmospheric music by Peter Sandberg and the nine dancers in varying shades of evergreen, azure, lilac and magenta. While Suddarth included interesting solo and duo moments in the balconies of the hall, it was the ensemble moments that stood out, especially as the view changed planes, seen from the floor and from above. Suddarth’s vision and the dancers’ execution allowed for cohesion, yet individualized gestures that worked exceedingly well viewed from different angles. The work was choreographed via Zoom and filmed by Ron Berg Studio.

Elizabeth Stehling edited and produced each of the episodes. I appreciated the use of captioning on the video throughout the interview portions, the behind-the-scenes views demonstrating the many people involved, the incredible task of creating these works in challenging situations, filmed in a limited timeframe, and tastefully woven with the choreographer interview to reduce that stare-at-a-face Zoom fatigue we are all feeling these days.

This series was an excellent chance to stay limber and stretch the dancers, choreographers, and partnering organizations. Hopefully, these films, available through April 9th, will find new (or perhaps just dormant) audiences, adding to and sharing in the beauty available in Kansas City.

Whether these sorts of projects are feasible moving forward remains to be seen, but the Kansas City Ballet demonstrated a willingness to explore and connect in new ways, providing an exceptional opportunity to show this arts community to the world.

Reviewed February 27, 2021 (Episodes 1-2), March 19 (Episodes 3-5), and April 1 (Episodes 6-7). Episodes released weekly Thursdays 7 p.m. through April 1 at kcballet.org and facebook.com/kcballet and are freely available to view until April 9, 2021.

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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