When Devon Carney became the Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director two years ago, he told me his goal was to grow the company so it could perform the large works of the repertoire that it has never done before.
In his third season at the helm, Carney is making good on his promise.
The centerpiece of the 2015-16 season is “Swan Lake,” one of the grand works of 19th-century ballet but one that has never been performed by the Kansas City Ballet.
Carney also will unveil his “Nutcracker” to replace the recently retired version by former artistic director Todd Bolender. He’s creating it with a crack team of designers and production specialists, and it promises to be filled with lots of Christmas eye candy.
There’s another story ballet on the season, too: “The Three Musketeers.” And Carney will conclude the season with a spring-themed program featuring another classic never before done by the Kansas City Ballet: “The Rite of Spring.”
“The technical level of the company is rising,” Carney said. “What we’re doing this season is continuing to push them forward. It’s just great that the dancers are so open to the input. I feel like we’re at a place where I’m confident about us taking a step forward and taking a plunge into ‘Swan Lake’ and just getting on with it.”
The season will open in October with “The Three Musketeers,” based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Set to the music of Giuseppe Verdi, this swashbuckler should be appealing to families as well as lovers of great dance.
“I really wanted to give the men of the company a chance to shine and push their technical level up another notch, and this ballet will definitely do that,” Carney said. “It uses the men extensively, and, of course, there’s sword-fighting galore, which is always fun.
“I adore sword-fighting. It was one of my favorite things to do. Whenever I had a sword in my hand when I was in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ I was having a blast. It’s a male ballet dancer’s chance to be masculine and fight. There’s an awful lot of dancing moments for the men in “Three Musketeers,” so this is their ‘Swan Lake.’”
After a 34-year run, the Kansas City Ballet retired Bolender’s version of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” after its last performance in December. Carney will not only bring a fresh perspective to the work, he also plans to take full advantage of the technical capabilities the Muriel Kauffman Theatre has to offer.
Carney has assembled an outstanding production team to help him with his “Nutcracker,” including:
▪ Alain Vaës, who has designed countless sets for ballet companies around the world and has illustrated children’s books.
▪ Holly Hynes, one of the premier ballet costume designers in the world.
▪ Trad A Burns, who has designed lighting for ballet companies as well as theme parks, including lighting for the opening of Disney Tokyo.
“The drawings I’m starting to get from Alain are just spectacular,” Carney said. “And I want the production to be spectacular. And he knows that. He’s very open to input. We’ve had a great working relationship already with this project.
“And it’s amazing we have someone like Holly Hynes as a designer. She is spectacular. The woman has done creations for every major ballet company in the world, the Paris Opera, the Bolshoi, American Ballet Theatre. Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet. It just goes on and on.”
Carney says his “Nutcracker” will be set in the Victorian era, but his particular Victorian era will be filled with color and lots of technical razzle-dazzle.
“My desire is to have a journey that really feels like we’re going to different places,” Carney said. “There will be rich texture in the sets with a very deep dimension to give the sense that you’re actually in a larger place than just the stage. Sets are going to grow bigger than life. …
“I want the audience to feel that this is something you’d see on any major company stage in the country. It’s going to be epic.”
In February 2016, the ballet will give the Kansas City premiere of another Tchaikovsky classic, “Swan Lake.” This is a standard of the ballet repertoire, but it can’t be performed by just any standard ballet company. A large corps of dancers and, more importantly, a high level of technical expertise are vital for this ballet.
“I love ‘Swan Lake,’” Carney said. “I so much respect its value in the classical ballet canon. ‘Swan Lake’ is an opportunity for the women of the company to really show their mettle. It’s a really grueling night for the women of the company.
“But I tell you, the women of this company are powerhouses. They’re tough, very tough. That’s why I feel like we’re there. We need to start doing this kind of work and building this kind of repertoire that we can return to as the years move forward.”
For its spring program, Carney has chosen yet another classic never done by the Kansas City Ballet, Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The music alone can still startle audiences, and the production Carney has chosen to mount, with choreography by Adam Hougland, will be provocative in its own right.
Carney says the set is reminiscent of an oppressive subway station with industrial-looking pipes running along the walls and overhead.
“The men are in cargo pants and sleeveless tank top shirts, and the women are in one-piece, sleeveless dresses,” he said. “There’s kind of a dirty element to it, like they’ve been around for a while and haven’t taken showers for a while. There’s a polluted look to them.
“The Chosen One is a new person in the world who is pure and who has no pollution. Her dress is all ivory, cream color, very clean. So there’s this stark comparison between her and the rest of the cast.
“The whole rite is about this pollution overtaking the Chosen One. It’s very much about the environmental impact that’s happening in our world today. But what’s really quite striking and unique is that at the end it rains onstage. The final dance is done with water literally falling from the rafters. It’s very, very intense.”
The other dances on the program will have a spring theme, including “Petal,” by the much sought-after choreographer Helen Pickett; “Diving Into the Lilacs,” by Yuri Possokhov; and an as yet untitled ballet by Viktor Plotnikov set to the largo from Antonin Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”
All this, plus the contemporary choreography showcase New Moves in April. The 2015-16 season promises to be the beginning of the Devon Carney era.
Kansas City Ballet 2015-16 season
▪ The Three Musketeers, Oct. 9-18, Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
▪ The Nutcracker, Dec. 5-24, Muriel Kauffman Theatre
▪ Swan Lake, Feb. 19-28, 2016, Muriel Kauffman Theatre
▪ New Moves, April 1-9, 2016, Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity
▪ The Rite of Spring, May 5-15, 2016, Muriel Kauffman Theatre