William Whitener has overseen at least 15 productions of “The Nutcracker” since he became artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet in 1996. And December will bring his last “Nutcracker” with the company before he retires as artistic director at the end of the season.
The ballet will present Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday classic for 20 performances beginning 2 p.m. Saturday at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.
“I’ll tell you my most interesting ‘Nutcracker’ story,” Whitener said recently. “In Seattle, when I was growing up as a student of ballet, we didn’t have a ‘Nutcracker,’ so I didn’t dance in one as a student. When I got to New York to dance with the Joffrey Ballet, they didn’t have one. So I’m one of the rare professional dancers who has not danced in ‘The Nutcracker.’
“I think that’s very surprising to most people because there aren’t very many professional dancers or choreographers who haven’t been in ‘The Nutcracker.’ ”
Although he has never danced in “The Nutcracker,” Whitener has directed his fair share, both in the United States and Canada.
“And obviously, I’ve seen many versions,” Whitener said. “I actually took a tour of the U.S. a couple of years ago to look at as many productions of ‘Nutcracker’ as I could manage to see. There were several standouts.
“For example, I like the party scene that Lew Christensen created in his version for Ballet West in Salt Lake City. It was a very lively, naturalistic, yet period style party scene in Act 1. Pacific Northwest has wonderful designs by Maurice Sendak. And I love George Balanchine’s ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ for the New York City Ballet.”
In recent years, choreographers have been pushing the envelope with their “Nutcrackers,” like Matthew Bourne’s production set in a Dickensian orphanage that plays up the creepy qualities of Drosselmeyer, or Mark Morris’ ‘Hard Nut,’ which explores the sometimes twisted psychology of the baby boom generation. Locally, the Owen/Cox Dance Company presents a raucous, avant-garde “Nutcracker and the Mouse King” with incredibly clever choreography by Jennifer Owen, one of Whitener’s protégées.
“Jennifer’s version is delightful,” Whitener said, “and she shows that you can do a version on just about any scale. She was able to tell the story in her own way. There’s room for all kinds of interpretations of such a well-known piece. So long as the choreography is respectful of the music, I think they can all work.”
The Kansas City Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” with choreography by its former artistic director, Todd Bolender, is definitely a more classical vision of the work.
“I would say that Todd’s is the cousin of the version by George Balanchine,” Whitener said. “There are similar ideas. Among productions nationally, I think ours stands out very nicely. Todd’s ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ and ‘Snow Scene’ are among the best I’ve ever seen.
“Last year we relit the production and did some dressing up of the scenery, but it’s still Todd Bolender’s choreography. It’s fresher and easier on the eyes, shall we say. It’s quite beautiful the way it’s been lit. It’s been enhanced.”
Part of the magic of every “Nutcracker” are the children who dance as mice or snowflakes or fairies. It’s a chance for student dancers to shine and take part in their first professional ballet. It’s an especially important opportunity for the girl chosen to dance the role of Clara, who is given a nutcracker that comes to life and takes her to the enchanted Land of the Sweets.
“We have two dancers playing Clara,” Whitener said. “They both won the role through an intensive audition process and were the most suited to play the role this year. They’re slightly taller than our usual Claras. They’re long-legged beauties and terrific actresses. They’re going to be quite different as actresses, which is what we like.
“It’s always intense. Many girls would like to be Clara, but we picked those who are most suited and most technically advanced. And they have to have a vivid imagination and understand the music.”
The two girls chosen to be Clara this year are Mariah Fleischman and Destané Doughty. Destané, who is originally from Detroit, says that she has been dancing since she was 2, and she was thrilled when she heard she was chosen for the highly sought role.
“It was a shock because I’ve never done ‘The Nutcracker’ before,” she said, “and so I wasn’t expecting it. My parents told me to just walk into that audition as Clara. Just pretend it’s a little rehearsal. And that’s it. That’s what I did. I gave it my all.
“A lot of my friends don’t actually dance, so it’s kind of hard for them to understand. But they were actually very excited for me. It’s kind of nice to have non-dance friends that are still really happy for me.”
Destané will be celebrating her birthday by dancing in “The Nutcracker.”
“I’m turning 14 on Dec. 8,” she said. “I believe I have a matinee on that day, so it’ll be kind of cool to do some dancing in the morning and then hang out with my family toward the afternoon. I haven’t worked this hard for a really, really long time, but I think it’s good for me. It’s fun because I feel like I’m not even working.”
“I don’t think anything is that grueling for children,” Whitener said with a chuckle. “That’s the nature of childhood. There are infinite possibilities. Each of us is selected for various opportunities in our lifetime, and other things don’t happen that we might wish that they had, but then we move on.”
Destané, who is a student at the Kansas City Ballet School, credits the support of her family for helping make her dreams come true.
“Most of my family is in Michigan,” she said. “All I have are my parents here. The Legacy Scholarship has also been a big supporter. They’re helping fund almost all of this semester’s ballet training, which is amazing.
“The Vincent Legacy is a corporation founded by two donors. They basically help different ethnicities chase their dreams. So I auditioned this year, and they gave me the scholarship.
“It was really awesome because I feel like it gives me the privilege to be able to dance with KCB, and I probably wouldn’t be at KCB for a second year without them. I’m just really happy to have supporters like them and my parents.”
The dancers at the Kansas City Ballet also have helped Destané feel at home.
“I think they support me, definitely,” Destané said. “This is my first year doing ‘Nutcracker,’ so when I first came to the studio they were all chanting and cheering. It’s pretty cool to get that kind of support because sometimes in ballet there’s a lot of competition and you don’t get that kind of support, so it’s nice to see I have a really big happy family at KCB.”
And every year, all the members of that big happy family do their part to make “The Nutcracker” a success. “It’s a big team that puts together this production because we have three casts over all,” Whitener said. “Now it’s all hands on deck for ‘Nutcracker.’ We all owe a great debt to Tchaikovsky for writing the score. He has helped keep ballet companies in business, particularly in North America.”
Destané is grateful, too. Not only for winning the coveted role, but for Tchaikovsky’s ballet itself. She loves “The Nutcracker.”
“I just really like that it’s a Christmas holiday type of performance. The whole entire dance and performance is very joyful, and there are no negatives. It’s just really relaxing and really fun to do. It’s always happy. I feel like there’s nothing scary or anything bad about it. It’s just really, really fun.”
: 2 p.m. Saturday through Dec. 23
: Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center
INFO: 816-931-2232 or kcballet.org
Tradition continues for Independence choir
George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” has been hugely popular ever since it was first performed in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742 to raise money for charities. We’ve had our own long-time “Messiah” tradition with the annual performance by the Independence Messiah Choir.
Next weekend, the choir will join the Kansas City Symphony, conducted by David Lockington, and the symphony chorus for three sold-out performances of “Messiah.” This will mark the 96th year the Independence Messiah Choir has performed the work.
Lockington grew up in the suburbs of London and has long been familiar with “Messiah,” which is a staple of British culture.
“When I was a teenager, the first time I played it, I was sitting next to my father, and he was playing continuo, in a local amateur performance,” he said. “So I grew to love it then, though I didn’t do a full ‘Messiah’ until 12 years ago, or something like that.
“I’ve done it a number of times since then. It never wears thin. It’s so filled with extraordinary melodies, vigorous rhythms, and the pacing of the oratorio is quite remarkable. Even when you cut some things out, it still hangs together so beautifully.”
Lockington will conduct an abridged version of the work.
“There are eight or nine pieces that we won’t be doing. We wanted it to fit within 2 1/2 hours. But this is going to be a big performance. The choir is over 200 strong. It will be the largest choir that I’ve done ‘Messiah’ with.
“Even though we’re using a large choir, I am more interested in word, accent and smaller phrases than big blustery articulation. I want to bring out a lot of different colors and a lot of rhythmic vitality. That’s what I’m interested in. But we’ll be playing in a fairly big hall, so our musical gestures have to be big enough to fill it up.”
Lockington is music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony. At a time when many of America’s orchestras are in crisis with musician lockouts, canceled seasons and even bankruptcy, the symphony in Michigan is a success story.
“We’ve been very fortunate with support of the arts in Grand Rapids,” Lockington said. “We have an eight-and-a-bit-million-dollar budget, so it’s no small feat for a rather smaller town than Kansas City and Minneapolis. It’s really run extremely well. The community is very, very supportive. It’s also a very high-level performing orchestra. Everybody has made compromises and the board has worked harder. We couldn’t be much luckier.”
Lockington says he is looking forward to spending time with our success story, the Kansas City Symphony, conducting one of his favorite works.
“The choruses in ‘Messiah’ are absolutely remarkable,” he said. “As soon as you think there can’t be one that is more dramatic or more beautiful than the last one you heard, they just seem to keep building. You wonder how is he going to cap this — and he does. It’s just astonishing.”
: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Dec. 2
: Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center
: All three concerts are sold out.
INFO: 816-471-0400, kcsymphony.org
If you can’t get into one of the Kansas City Symphony’s sold-out performances of “Messiah,” don’t forget about the “Messiah” sing-along at 4 p.m. Saturday at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. It’s always a high quality performance and especially soul-satisfying because you get to join in during the choruses.
Jack Ergo will conduct the Kansas City Baroque Consortium, and the soloists are Sarah Tannehill Anderson, Jay Carter, Frank Fleschner and Joshua Lawlor. Rebecca Bell will provide harpsichord continuo.
: 4 p.m. Saturday
: Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th St.
: Admission is free, although donations are encouraged. Scores will be available for purchase at the door.