Devon Carney, a veteran dancer and choreographer with ballet companies in Boston and Cincinnati, is the Kansas City Ballet’s new artistic director.
Carney, whose appointment was announced Thursday, is expected to take the creative reins of one of the city’s most important performing arts organizations in July.
He succeeds William Whitener, who retired this month.
Carney, 52, told The Star that he appreciated the stability of the Kansas City company and the firm foundation created by his predecessors. He was impressed by the company’s new Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
“Kansas City Ballet is ready for some incredible growth,” Carney said. “It’s like everything is in place. And now you’ve got the final part of that — an artistic director on the ground and ready to go.”
Carney was selected from among 62 initial candidates. Seven finalists came to Kansas City in recent months for what Carney and ballet officials described as an exhaustive process. Each met with dancers, staff, board members and donors, and each taught a dance class.
“When we started, I think the search committee was trying to find a level of experience that would be able to take the Kansas City Ballet from where it is today to the next level,” said board president Tom Whittaker. “So when we looked at Devon … he had all the essentials.”
Tony Feiock, who led the search committee, was impressed by Carney’s combination of artistic vision and leadership qualities.
“We were looking for an individual who could relate well not only to the dancers and the artistic staff and the rest of the organization,” Feiock said, “but also to the community and to donors.”
Carney joined the Boston Ballet as a dancer in its second company in 1978 and became a principal dancer with the main company eight years later. He was named artistic director of the company’s summer dance program in 1994 and was appointed ballet master in 1998. He joined the Cincinnati Ballet as chief ballet master in 2003 and was named associate artistic director in 2008.
He has performed with such noted ballet stars as Rudolph Nureyev, Fernando Bujones and Cynthia Gregory.
He has choreographed many pieces of his own, including “Giselle” and “Sleeping Beauty” and two acts of the four-act “Swan Lake” for the Cincinnati company. His resume is a mix of classical and contemporary work and sometimes reveals a whimsical side, such as a Cincinnati production of “Dracula,” a version of which his new company will stage at the Kauffman Center next season.
Carney was born in New Orleans. Both his parents taught at Tulane University.
Before discovering dance, Carney was a dedicated athlete — he had dreams of becoming a downhill ski racer before taking up gymnastics in high school. He had no interest in ballet until the day he attended a class. It changed his life.
“I fell in love with the movement quality of it right away,” he said. “At first I took the ballet class for the stretch, because in gymnastics you need the extension. But within six months to a year, it was a complete reversal. I was taking gymnastics to help my jumping in my ballet.”
Carney said it didn’t take long for him to decide that he wanted to be a professional dancer. His first role came in “Nutcracker.”
“I was a reindeer,” he said. “I thought it was the biggest deal. I got to pull the sleigh on, pulling the Snow King. I heard this incredible applause and the music from a live orchestra and the lights and the snow was falling. I thought it was the most amazing thing on the planet.”
In Boston, he met his future wife, prima ballerina Pamela Royal.
“That was the second time I fell in love,” he said. “The first was with dance.”
They’ve been married 32 years and have two grown children — Lauren, a visual artist, and Ryan, a rock musician.
Jeffrey Bentley, Kansas City Ballet’s executive director, said the company’s strategic plan calls for staging more full-length ballets and creating a second company for young trainees to provide more performances in the community and fill out the ranks of the corps members in full-length, big-scale ballets. Carney, he said, has all the qualities to achieve those goals.
“Many of those things he’s been involved in are precisely the things our organization through its strategic planning process wants to do,” Bentley said.
Two dancers in the Kansas City company, Anthony Krutzkamp and Jill Marlow, formerly worked under Carney in Cincinnati and described him as accessible but disciplined.
“I was a big advocate of Devon putting his name in as soon as Bill put it out there that he was leaving,” Krutzkamp said. “I don’t think I would have become a principal dancer without him. ... He’s good with people. He knows all the classics.”
Carney said the opportunity to lead the Kansas City company has come at the ideal time.
“I am so excited about being this age and being in this position,” he said. “You have enough maturity to understand the pace of the life of a dancer. I just love it. I’ve got a lot of energy and I think you need that for this kind of job.”