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IN REVIEW: KC Ballet presents varied program that reveals much about American dance

When a ballet audience gasps audibly at the sheer “look” of a piece, before the dancers have made a single move, you know you’re in for a ride. When the curtain went up on George Balanchine’s Serenade, the opening piece of the Kansas City Ballet’s final 2011-2012 production, the translucent azure lighting and ballerinas frozen in a tilted port de bras immediately warmed us to the classical beauty of this first American piece by the Russian-born choreographer. The KCB’s program, like the rest of its inaugural Kauffman Center season, was a fine balance of the classical ballet on which the company was founded with more striking contemporary takes on that heritage. Masters of American Danceincluded, in addition to Serenade, three pieces that revealed various traditions that have made American dance unique, as well as calling to attention the KCB’s role in these traditions.

Serenade features many of the striking symmetrical patterns common to so many of Balanchine’s works, such as Kimberly Cowen downstage center with four rows of three dancers each emanating from her upstage like beams of light. It is grounded in the Russian tradition the choreographer knew so well, yet it is amazing to see how much innovation is contained already in this piece from 1935 – such as the Tayloresque lifts from the thighs, or the “grounded” pas de deux that seems to fulfill, not defy, classical “airiness.” Kimberly was transcendent in her solos, her smartly precise movements looking as heartfelt as ever after 20 years of dancing with the company. Every time she entered the stage you could feel a special energy flow from her and out into the audience.

Afternoon of a Faun, Jerome Robbins’ brief classic to Debussy’s music, is an inward duet in which two dancers seem to want to interact but can’t seem to take their eyes off their own images in the mirror. The “fourth wall,” namely the audience, is the mirror, and the moment the dancers take their eyes off of us and look at each other is mildly startling. On opening night (May 4th) Logan Pachciarz was the slumbering “faun” and Rachel Coats his haughty partner; they brought quiet energy to the piece. (The lighting design/recreation here, as throughout the evening, was by the gifted Kirk Bookman.)

New York City Ballet as “idea” was a sort of undercurrent throughout the program, and current NYCB director Peter Martins’ Les Gentilhommes, to music of Handel, revealed ways in which the Balanchine tradition has been upheld by subsequent generations. It is a florid, low-boil piece for nine men in good-natured struggle who break off into a variety of smaller ensembles. Martins proves himself to be highly musical in passages of imitative fugal textures; the men’s movements are forceful but never “macho.” Still, the piece seems to go on a tad too long. Yoshiya Sakurai danced remarkable solos; through all of his fluid, fanciful movements was an underlying stillness that was a joy to watch.

The finale was the witty and visually sumptuous Souvenirs by the late Todd Bolender, the former Balanchine dancer and KCB artistic director who helped bring Our Town’s company to national prominence. It is a zany comedy of opening-and-closing doors that pays homage to silent-era films. Again Kimberly drew attention as the wiggly, seductive, overdressed Vamp. Logan was the debonair Man About Town, Charles Martin played a hilarious Elevator Attendant and Michael Eaton was a heartily energetic Gigolo. Laura Wolfe and Marty Davis sported well against each other as the Bride and Groom. The frothy music by Samuel Barber was played admirably by Kansas City Symphony members in the pit, who were kept quite busy throughout the evening. The night ended with a warm standing-O for Kimberly, who was presented with flowers by KCB artistic director William Whitener;she’ll be feted at a private reception after the May 13th performance.

Masters of American Dance runs through May 13th at the Kauffman Center. For tickets call 816-931-2232 or go to kcballet.com.

526-bravo-WEB

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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