Ramona Pansegrau knows a thing or two about “The Nutcracker.”
The Kansas City Ballet’s music director has conducted 1,200 performances of “The Nutcracker” in six different productions with the Boston Ballet, the Tulsa Ballet and the Kansas City Ballet.
You would think by now she’d have had her fill of sugar plums and snowflakes, but that’s hardly the case. In fact, Pansegrau is more enthusiastic than ever as she prepares to conduct the music for the Kansas City Ballet’s new “Nutcracker,” which she describes as “absolutely stunning.”
Since 1981, the Kansas City Ballet has presented Todd Bolender’s “Nutcracker.” Bolender, a protege of famed choreographer George Balanchine, created a “Nutcracker” based on his mentor’s version for the New York City Ballet. It was a classic interpretation, and audiences loved it. But Bolender, hobbled by the creaky Lyric Theater and a limited cast of dancers, could never mount a truly grand “Nutcracker” that captures all of the work’s childlike fantasy.
Devon Carney, the Kansas City Ballet’s current artistic director, has the tools at his disposal to create a “Nutcracker” that lives up to the visions of sugar plums we have dancing in our heads.
With a much larger company of dancers, all the bells and whistles and a larger stage, and a $2 million dollar budget for sets and costumes, Carney has been able to construct a state-of-the-art “Nutcracker.” According to Pansegrau, it is sumptuous.
“For the past few weeks, we’ve been exposing bits and pieces as they come out of crates and boxes and every new piece is more beautiful than the last one,” Pansegrau said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful snow scene. The Muriel Kauffman stage is full of sets. You get depth and dimension and it’s truly breathtaking. This is a different animal than Kansas City has ever seen, and I am really, really proud to be associated with this version. It’s stunning.”
Unlike some recent productions of “The Nutcracker,” like Matthew Bourne’s sexualized coming-of-age “Nutcracker!” or Mark Morris’ dark, baby boomer fantasy, “The Hard Nut,” Carney is taking a traditional approach. The first act is set in a Victorian parlor, and the Kingdom of Sweets in the second act looks like an illustration in an old book of fairy tales.
But with 21st century technology, Carney has been able to let his traditional vision take flight, quite literally.
“Some things I can’t tell you because they would shoot me,” Pansegrau said, “but there are some wonderful surprises that happen at the beginning of Act Two and the end of Act One. There are things that fly that will be a surprise for the audience. Mother Ginger has an animatronic face, and that’s pretty amazing. We’re using modern technology, which in the last version wasn’t modern yet.”
Pansegrau, who has been the Kansas City Ballet’s music director for nine years, has seen the company evolve and grow in many different ways during her tenure. In addition to having access to the larger stage of the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, there are now more dancers to fill that stage, from 23 nine years ago to 46 now. This expansion also allows the Kansas City Ballet to enlarge its “Nutcracker” in another way.
“With the size of the company and the number of dancers and the size of the stage at the Kauffman Center and all of those things, we were able to add two additional scenes, Drosselmeyer’s workshop at the beginning of Act One and the scene in the clouds at the beginning of Act Two,” she said. “So you get more storyline and you get more music. It’s all good.”
Speaking of Drosselmeyer, Clara’s mysterious godfather who brings the nutcracker to the party in Act One, he is often portrayed, especially in more recent productions, as a dark, almost sinister character. Pansegrau says that in Carney’s version, Drosselmeyer has an expanded role and is not sinister at all.
“A lot of productions like to portray him as almost frightening, or a forgetful, old, doddering guy,” Pansegrau said. “But in Devon’s version, he might be a little bit absent-minded, but he has a wonderfully good heart. Drosselmeyer has a wonderful toy shop where he creates dolls, and you see the most adorable tiny people who are dolls in Act One become the grown-up divertissement dolls in Act Two.”
Pansegrau is pleased with all aspects of Carney’s new “Nutcracker,” from the technical wizardry to the hand-painted sets by Alain Vaes to the costumes designed by Pansegrau’s longtime friend Holly Hynes. Pansegrau is also happy that Carney is presenting “The Nutcracker” as a holiday confection rather than a profound psychological exploration.
“Devon has not given it some dark, deeper meaning,” she said. “It’s just a delightful Christmas present for Kansas City audiences. The world is too full of deep things right now. We need this wonderful evening of beauty in front of us. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Kansas City Symphony: “Messiah”
As much as the Plaza lights, the annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” by the 250-voice Independence Messiah Choir and the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus is one of Kansas City’s most cherished holiday traditions. Aram Demirjian will conduct George Frideric Handel’s lofty oratorio at Helzberg Hall.
The soloists for this year’s “Messiah” are soprano Amanda Forsythe, mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel, tenor Nicholas Phan and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. Charles Bruffy, director of the Kansas City Symphony Chorus, is preparing the singers. This will be the 99th year the Independence Messiah Choir has performed “Messiah.”
Kansas City Symphony: Tuba Christmas
Another Kansas City Symphony tradition is Tuba Christmas. For the past eight years, the Kansas City Symphony has hosted this free lunch-hour concert featuring tuba and euphonium players from all over the region who fill Helzberg Hall with the sounds of the season. Although this very popular concert is free, advance registration is required.
Noon Friday and Monday. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The concert is free, but advance registration is required. To register, call 816-471-0400.
Heartland Men’s Chorus: Kansas City Christmas
The Heartland Men’s Chorus revels in the sacred and the silly sides of Christmas. The Kansas City Christmas concert will feature the spirituality of Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” and the campy glitz of songs like “Text Me Merry Christmas.” As they say, there’s something for everybody.
You can reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com.