When Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” was published in 1948, it caused consternation among the genteel readers of The New Yorker.
The magazine was inundated with letters from readers outraged by Jackson’s tale of a rural community that ensures the success of its crops with a rather brutal annual ritual.
From May 12 to May 21 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Kansas City Ballet will perform a dance version of “The Lottery” that has a twist of its own. “The Lottery” is part of the ballet’s “Director’s Choice” program, which also includes works by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli created “The Lottery” for Ballet West in 2012. The Kansas City Ballet will be the second company to perform the work.
It’s customary for a company that commissioned a piece to sign exclusivity for three to five years, Caniparoli said. Devon Carney, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, was the first to call him about doing it.
Caniparoli is one of the most creative of contemporary American choreographers. The Kansas City Ballet has previously performed his “Lambarena,” set to an African-inspired performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He is known for his story ballets, and he certainly has quite a story to tell in “The Lottery.”
“What makes this story so horrific is the natural, everyday, small-town innocence and then coming to the realization that there’s this ancient ritual attached to this modern world,” Caniparoli said. “ ‘The Lottery’ is like ‘Our Town’ but with a horrific ending.”
Although the ballet begins like “Appalachian Spring,” it soon turns into “The Rite of Spring,” as the townsfolk choose their sacrificial victim and begin to gather stones. In keeping with the theme of a random lottery, no one dancer plays the victim. In every performance, a member of the cast is chosen by lottery to be sacrificed. Every dancer must be prepared to take on the virtuosic final dance as he or she is stoned to death.
Jackson’s story was written in the late ’40s, when America was recovering from the horrors of World War II. The country was also settling into a period of conformity that would lead to neighbors informing on neighbors during the Red Scare of the 1950s.
“War is kind of like a lottery,” Carney said. “Every person who goes to war is basically pulling a lottery ticket out of a hat every time they put themselves on the front lines.”
The other two works on the program, also created in the 1940s, reflect a much more optimistic spirit.
Robbins’ “Interplay” was first performed at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York in 1945. Fresh from his success of choreographing Leonard Bernstein’s “Fancy Free,” Robbins created another jazzy work that infused classical ballet with the youthfulness of the American spirit.
The other work on the program, “Theme and Variations,” had its premiere in 1947 and is a supreme example of Balanchine’s neoclassicism.
“ ‘Theme and Variations’ is representative of Balanchine’s roots in the Imperial Russian Ballet,” Carney said. “It’s really interesting to see Balanchine doing a work in tutus, which is something out of the late 19th century, with a “Swan Lake” structure to it, and then he takes it and runs. He does all these beautiful, cool things, musically as well as pattern-wise. Every time I’ve danced it and have watched it, I am always constantly amazed.”
Balanchine said that in “Theme and Variations” he wanted “to evoke that great period in classical dancing when Russian ballet flourished with the aid of Tchaikovsky’s music.”
Yet the ballet is very distinct from typical classical dance.
“One of the things I adore about ‘Theme and Variations’ is that Balanchine is just willing to go a little farther with classical movement and let the hips push forward, and he plays with the timing of the footwork, which is just so vibrant,” Carney said.
“You’ll see the principal male dancer do a very jazzy step the first time he dances alone. I had the chance to dance this role a lot, and it’s fun to watch the male dancer push those borders out a little bit,” Carney said.
He considers Robbins and Balanchine dance pioneers.
“They definitely were creating works in a parallel universe but had very different voices artistically,” Carney said. “That’s the thing about ‘Interplay’ and ‘Theme and Variations.’ They’re very complementary to each other. One is in ponytails and leotards and bright, bright colors, and then you’ve got ‘Theme and Variations,’ which looks like it’s going to be a straight classical ballet when the curtain goes up, but all of a sudden you go, ‘Oh I get it now.’ ”
7:30 p.m May 12, 13, 19 and 20 and 2 p.m. May 14 and 21. Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $35.50-$125.50. 816-931-8993 or kcballet.org.