It’s amazing how much effort goes into looking effortless.
On stage — dancing the lead role in “Romeo and Juliet,” for example — Kaleena Burks appears weightless. Bathed in light and buoyed by the tempo set by a pit full of musicians, she’s a vision of grace and beauty.
But spend a bit of time in the Kansas City Ballet’s bare rehearsal hall and you’ll discover that behind that onstage glow is a world of backstage sweat. Defying gravity is hard work.
On this particular afternoon Burks and her partner, Liang Fu, are rehearsing their roles in the upcoming annual production of “The Nutcracker.” They’re featured in the Act 2 highlight “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” one of the most demanding numbers in artistic director Devon Carney’s choreography.
With no lighting, costumes or orchestra (they rehearse to piano accompaniment), the dance is reduced to its essentials: Two bodies moving in unison through space to evoke the deepest of emotions.
Up close and personal this is exacting, even violent work. Feet thud when they strike the floor after a terrific leap. Muscles flex and stretch, quivering as they are pushed to their limits, required to hold a difficult pose.
When it’s over, Burks, at age 29 in her eighth season with the KC Ballet, is bent over, panting, her hands pressing down on her knees.
“Pretty darn good,” opines Carney, who has been watching their every move and punching notes into his cellphone. “Pretty darn good.”
Expect the performances to get even better before “Nutcracker” rehearsals are over. This year Burks and the company’s other dancers have a special motivation to excel.
On Nov. 22, the KC Ballet’s “Nutcracker” will open a four-day, seven-performance run at the 2,400-seat John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
It will be a high visibility opportunity to perform on a national stage. Not unlike, Carney says, a country artist reaching the Grand Ole Opry.
“It’s a huge deal for our company,” he says. “A coming-of-age moment. It’s time to step up. And the group in this building is stepping up. Watching them take on a new challenge and handle the nerves … to me that’s just incredible.”
Burke concurs: “I’ve never been there, but dancing at the Kennedy Center is on my bucket list. I mean, it’s the Kennedy Center.”
Each Thanksgiving the center invites a ballet company to kick off the holiday season with a run of “The Nutcracker.” In recent years heavy hitters like Ballet West, the Joffrey, the Cincinnati Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre have had the honor.
This year it falls to the Kansas City Ballet. Carney, Burks and dozens of other company members are determined to make the most of it.
At least some of the thrill for Burks lies with the fact that the clock is ticking. Like gymnasts and football players, a dancer’s performance life is limited. Burks says she’s been lucky so far, performing a wide variety of roles in both modern and classical dance and suffering only a couple of stress fractures, never an injury requiring surgery.
But as she nears 30 she has been thinking about her post-dance options. To finally go to college and get a degree in something that interests her? Or to stick with dance, perhaps teaching or becoming ballet mistress to a company?
“My mom put me in ballet when I was 3,” she said. “It was the usual story. I was Mom’s daughter, a little girl in a tutu. But as I grew older I realized I had a lot of natural talent.”
When she was in her late teens Burks stopped dancing for six months “just to confirm that I really loved it. Turns out it made me love it even more, because I now realized what it is not to dance.
“I still get the butterflies. But actually being anxious is good for me. It helps me get into the performance. It’s a motivational thing.
“And I’m sure that I’ll be looking back on dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy on the Kennedy Center stage as the high point of my career.”
Having danced himself at the Kennedy Center, Carney appreciates the boost that comes with the experience. He’s particularly pleased for Burks because their acquaintance goes way back.
“I judged a competition in Florida when Kaleena was only 16, and she was one of the winners. I offered her a scholarship to the Cincinnati Ballet, and though she wasn’t old enough to take it then, she showed up a year later.”
Burks moved on to Kansas City; then in 2013 was reunited with Carney when he was named the Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director.
“One of most encouraging things about coming to KC for me was that Kaleena was already here,” Carney said. “It was an opportunity to continue developing a wonderfully talented artist. She’s still growing in wonderful ways, not only meeting challenges but exceeding them.”
The invitation from the Kennedy Center came out of the blue, according to Ballet executive director Jeff Bentley.
“We didn’t lobby for this. I’m not even sure that the Kennedy Center sent anyone to see one of our productions. But we’ve gotten a terrific response to Devon’s work, and word gets around.
“The ballet world is recognizing the trajectory this company has been on.”
In fact, the Kennedy Center first approached the KC Ballet in the summer of 2015 when work was underway on the company’s radically redesigned “Nutcracker” featuring Carney’s original choreography. But company officials concluded they couldn’t commit to a 2016 trip to Washington until they had nailed down all the details — especially complex moving expenses — of the new production.
It has been years since the Ballet toured with any regularity, so the staff was faced with a big planning challenge.
In September Carney twice traveled to the nation’s capital to audition 100-plus child dancers required for the Ballet’s “Nutcracker.”
Contracts were signed with the Kennedy Center “house band,” an ensemble so deep and experienced that Ballet music director Ramona Pansegrau can forgo extensive rehearsals. She has had to rewrite parts of her orchestrations for an expanded ensemble — for example, she now has two harps at her disposal.
Meanwhile, general manager Kevin Amey has been working on how to move nearly 70 company members, sets and equipment 1,074 miles from Kansas City to the banks of the Potomac.
Much of his time is being taken up with the logistical jigsaw puzzle of fitting Alain Vaës’ fabulous and sometimes fragile settings — featuring a “hot air balloon” and a giant sofa — into four semis.
Once in D.C., the company will have only two full rehearsals before opening night.
And then, after the last performance on Nov. 26, they’ll pack up and return home, unloading sets, props and costumes at the Kauffman Center on Tuesday morning. Public performances begin with a student matinee on Dec. 7.
A good challenge
What impact will all this have on the Ballet’s future?
Carney says appearing at the Kennedy Center can push a company to a new performance level.
“Under pressure like this a company can really grow. The camaraderie, the teamwork, just holding each other’s hands.
“You can get comfortable when you’re always performing in the same place all the time. As a dancer I did a lot of touring, and it’s different when you’re in front of new audiences who don’t know you. All that matters is how well you are reaching them in their seats.”
Bentley says that 2017 is shaping up to be a seminal moment in the Ballet’s history.
This summer the company hosted the Dance USA National Conference, attracting 500 movers and shakers of American dance and giving the Kansas City Ballet the opportunity to show off the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
With the Kennedy Center “Nutcracker” the dance world cannot ignore what’s happening here in fly-over country.
The ripple effect could be substantial. Carney hopes it will enhance the company’s ability to attract great young talent.
And there’s the possibility of even more out-of-town appearances.
“We’re always scanning the horizon for those opportunities,” Carney said. “This one just walked in the front door. But there’s also the Joyce Theater in New York City, or Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, which is the oldest dance festival in the country. We’re already in conversations with those groups.
“We’re ready for it. It’s not, ‘Can we pull this off?’
“We know we can.”
“The Nutcracker” will be performed Nov. 22-26 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and will be performed Dec. 7-24 at Kansas City’s Kauffman Center. Tickets available at kcballet.org.
“Nutcracker” by the numbers
▪ Total number of staff and dancers traveling to Washington, D.C.: 67
▪ Kids involved in the Kennedy Center production: 82
▪ Kids involved in the Kansas City production: 189
▪ Complete costumes: 198
▪ Costume Pieces: 955
▪ Hats: 93
▪ Heads: 26 (1 nutcracker, 1 bear, 1 rat king, 8 adult mice, 8 baby mice, 1 bunny, 6 reindeer)
▪ Crowns: 21
▪ Tutus: 41 (6 classical, 14 romantic, 21 bell)