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REIMAGINING THE CLASSICAL: Kansas City Ballet opens season with precision, playfulness, and a modern turn

Oh, how George Balanchine’s teachers back in Russia must have chafed at the finale of his Serenade, in which three women assert themselves through the most startling of means: After 20 minutes of perfectly turned-out, bun-headed classicism, they let down their hair, literally. And how cataclysmic this revolutionary moment can feel when this chilly classic is performed with the dazzling eye for detail, color, and synchronicity that the Kansas City Ballet brought, in spades, to its October 15th season opener.

Kaleena Burks, Kelsey Ivana Hellebuyck, and Taryn Mejia lolled about the stage with Humberto Rivera Blanco (and later, Liang Fu) on opening night, with tresses flowing and attitudes to match. (Casts change during the run, which continues through October 24th.) One realized that the shock of this finale “clicks” only if the previous movements of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade (which Balanchine has mischievously mis-ordered) are executed with purposeful mood and movement.

Victoria Simon, a peerless former Balanchine dancer whom “Mr. B.” picked in the mid-1960s to re-stage his works, brought luscious detail to a piece many view as a foundation of contemporary ballet. (Victoria could be seen after the show greeting admirers in the Kauffman Center lobby, her charisma undimmed.)

Kansas City Ballet Dancer Taryn Mejia performed with company dancers in Balanchine’s Serenade / Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios


It was as if the Kansas City Ballet knew it needed to come off the pandemic with a bang, and this performance delivered. One sensed that the dancers were so excited to be onstage that they could barely contain themselves, but they managed to channel this energy into stealth and decisiveness. The impact of Balanchine’s nose-thumbing was rounded out by the expressive lighting design of Trad A Burns. The piece was accompanied a group of string players organized by the Opus 76 Quartet.

The Ballet was determined to offer as wide a range of works as possible on this mixed-repertory program, and the contrasts were daunting. Next up was a reprise of Edwaard Liang’s 2009 Wunderland, performed here in 2015 but with recorded music. This time the musicians of Opus 76, and Ramona Pansegrau on the single solo-piano movement, brought a full-bodied flavor to Philip Glass’ music that notably enhanced the choreography.

Opening with ruby-red hues that enlived Glass’ mesmeric rhythms, five pairs set the tone with jaunty jabs at classicism: with dancers poking their heads here and there and elegantly twisting themselves around their partners’ bodies.

Emily Mistretta and Liang Fu danced in Edwaard Liang’s Wunderland. / Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios


A series of pas de deux (Emily Mistretta and Liang Fu were breathlessly in sync) alternated with scenes, perhaps, from life in a Russian village: The men preen and joust, the women gaze upstage a lot, as if looking for a way out. (Edwaard has said the work was inspired by a snow globe he saw on his Russian travels.) As the day progresses, snow begins to fall, not once but twice, and during the last moments the men use the snowy ground to slide partners about like kids on a Siberian morning.

The evening concluded with Lila York’s Celts, a paean to Irish dance created for Boston Ballet in 1996. (Devon Carney, Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director, danced in Boston at the time and performed in the original cast.) It is worth noting that this piece preceded the appearance of the heavy-handed Lord of the Dance phenomenon, and happily itis considerably more subtly varied and virtuosic.

Kelsey Ivana Hellebuyck, Humberto Rivera Blanco, and Lamin Pereira perform Lila York’s Celts / Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios


Still, there was no shortage of the limpid legwork that makes up this folkloric style, the best of which was seen at the outset, with soloist Cameron Thomas’s legs virtually a blur. Intricate ensembles and pas de deux demonstrated a fantastic array of balletically engineered Irish dance steps. At one point, a mostly male group performed what resembled an ancient, ritualistic circle-dance. In the end, Celts is as much playful fun as it is serious choreography, best taken in the jovial spirit in which it is served.

—By Paul Horsley

Celts runs through October 24th at the Kauffman Center. For tickets go to kcballet.org or call 816-931-8993.
To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor; send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).
Read more in the October 16, 2021 issue of The Independent

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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