Peace in the Madness, A New Way of Looking

Kansas City Ballet’s New Moves Showcases Emerging Choreographers

To create a new dance requires training and conversance in dance styles, of course, but also reading, life experiences and knowledge of sculpture and music. The art of choreography brings all these inspirations together using bodies, time and space.

Also necessary is a rampant imagination and acute observations.

Now in its sixth year, Kansas City Ballet’s New Moves program is an established favorite in the dance season’s calendar. Devon Carney, KCB’s artistic director, consistently finds an exciting cadre of fresh voices to create a program of bold choreography, with world premieres and works new to Kansas City audiences.

This year’s production brings a mix of balletic and modern styles, storytelling and abstract movement, bravura and subtlety.

Carney selected three choreographers from within the company, two from the Kansas City area and one visiting artist. The showcase also includes a performance from Kansas City Ballet Second Company.

Gary Abbott is the most experienced participant on the roster. An established choreographer, he is an associate professor of modern dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance and co-founded the Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre, of Chicago, 22 years ago, following his experience with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble.

“I got into choreography when I was a kid; I was about 8. I was the kid in the neighborhood who would get all the other kids together and put together dance steps and show them to our other friends and parents,” said Abbott.

His work combines elements of modern, ballet and African-American dance. “I have a dance company that is African-American-centric, but we have everybody, because we all share the same problems and the same challenges and the same things that make us grow — we share that — but I come from this,” he touches the skin on his arm, “so those are the stories I tell.”

He’s restaging a work originally developed for Deeply Rooted called “Parallel Lives,” which uses original music by pianist/composer Evangelos Spanos.

“‘Parallel Lives’ is inspired by the graciousness and the tenacity, the gracefulness of women,” he said. “I wanted to explore the way women of different classes share the same sort of issues, the same sort of challenges.”

Courtney Nitting dances in Abbott’s piece, readily admitting that his work challenges her. Her experience, both as a dancer and choreographer, leans more toward classical ballet, so for her, New Moves is a chance to experiment as both mover and choreographer/creator.

This year’s New Moves marks Nitting’s second professional choreographic experience and her first time choreographing KCB dancers. But she’s prepared, with a notebook stuffed with 200 pages of ideas and notes.

She improvises in the studio first, taking notes of what works. Aware of the limitation on rehearsal time, she worked over the company’s winter break, even enlisting her mother (also a dancer) to try out movements.

The result is “Men In Red,” featuring six male dancers. “I tried to find a balance of giving them something they’re not used to . . . showing a different side of what male dancers can do. And then at the end, really giving you all of what they can do.”

One of those dancers is James Kirby Rogers, who is choreographing his second New Moves work, exploring his personal vocabulary and ideas. Rogers’ process is very different, and though he tried the improvisation idea when he first started out, it doesn’t work for him. “I have to sit down and just write what I imagine,” he said.

Emily Mistretta is creating her second New Moves work, as well.

“I’ve always been interested in moving and creating, but I’d never really been the one on the other side of the creation process,” she said.

Last year, Carney encouraged her to try it out, and now she’s back with a bigger scale production, combining her training in ballet with her experience with collaborative processes from the modern company Cirio Collective.

“I think what surprised me the most was how it all kind of comes together. You start out with this blank nothingness and endless possibilities and then slowly steps start to form, space opens up, something starts to become tangible and workable in front of your eyes,” said Mistretta.

Mistretta also performs in Haley Kostas’ piece, “About Looking,” inspired by the book “Ways of Seeing,” by John Berger. Kostas is a Kansas City native whose diverse portfolio has taken her all over the country, though this is her first balletic work. She also developed the music, working in tandem with her boyfriend, cellist Conner Giles.

“My intention in designing work is to create an experience versus a storyline, pieces to be felt, not followed.” Kostas’ work is abstract, using continuous motion to “take you somewhere that is unexpected.

“To look is an act of choice. We can see, but to actually look at someone or something, that is a whole different aspect,” she explained. “I’m giving the dancers one role and the audience another by creating a duality between spectator and performer.”

Price Suddarth is another seasoned choreographer. He’s a soloist with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, in town this January to work with his KCB cast. His piece, “White Noise,” uses original music by William Lin-Yee, a fellow PNB dancer.

“I had always been interested in creating things as a kid,” he said. “I would work with Legos and never follow directions. My brother hated it, but I would just want to make up my own thing. It wasn’t until I had this vocabulary of dance that I could take that and create my own version.

“‘White Noise’ refers to how oversaturated our lives can become. With mounting pressures coming from every direction, it is more and more difficult to find any sense of peace. This work is truly about finding that peace, not apart from, but within all the madness.”

Peace in the madness, a new way of looking . . . that’s New Moves. By identifying individuals with potential and giving them a platform to experiment, Carney and Kansas City Ballet ensure that dance will grow, adapt and continue.

This program benefits the dancers, too. The more experiences they have, the more elastic and eclectic their vocabularies grow.

“No matter how talented you are as a dancer, if you’re lucky, you will always come across a challenge. As a dancer, part of the joy in dance is working on ways to mitigate fear and self- consciousness,” said Abbott. “I found that if I just try the new stuff, I grow tremendously as an artist.”

Kansas City Ballet presents New Moves March 28 – 31 at the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity, 500 W. Pershing Rd. For information and tickets visit www.kcballet.org.

Above: This year’s New Moves will feature works by six dancer/choreographers, shown left to right: Price Suddarth, Pacific Northwest Ballet; Emily Mistretta, Kansas City Ballet; James Kirby Rogers, Kansas City Ballet; Haley Kostas, Kansas City-based choreographer; Courtney Nitting, Kansas City Ballet and Gary Abbott, Associate Professor of Modern Dance at UMKC and co-founder of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in Chicago. (photo by Jim Barcus)

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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