Season’s final Kansas City Ballet program showcases dancers’ abilities

Despite its ill-chosen title, “Masters of American Dance,” Friday’s opening performance of the Kansas City Ballet’s concluding program in its inaugural season at the Kauffman Center, was a delicious affair.

Although it seemed the evening would serve up works by master choreographers, it instead offered sublime ballets by only two genuine choreographic masters -- George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Rounding out the program was a fun piece by the company’s former artistic director, Todd Bolender, and a work by the famously mediocre, unimaginative dance-maker Peter Martins. (He had a distinguished career as a dancer with the New York City Ballet and now is its ballet master-in-chief, but for most New York critics, having to watch a Martins ballet is a dreaded event.)

The reason KC Ballet’s artistic director William Whitener programmed Martins among such illustrious company quickly becomes apparent. Martins’s “Les Gentilhommes,” a ballet for nine men, set to Handel’s “Concerto Grosso,” provides a perfect showcase for the troupe’s male contingent.

One of Whitener’s finest traits as company helmsman is his commitment to his dancers, finding the right ballets to challenge their abilities and support their evolution as artists. While there are countless works which do that for a ballerina, it is difficult to find pieces that effectively nurture a young male dancer, much less an ensemble of them, such as the impressive cadre Whitener has been grooming. Martins’ ballet emphasizes not athleticism, but rather the lyricism and subtleties of classical stylings. In it the cast found the aristocratic elegance of the ballet lexicon, and reveled in the strength of presence and physical eloquence it yields.

The evening opened with a shining performance of Balanchine’s wondrous “Serenade,” a jewel of a ballet created in 1935 for a large corps of women and two men. Kirk Bookman’s too-bright lighting, however, compromised the work’s mysterious, dream-like quality.

Logan Pachciarz and Rachel Coats gave timid interpretation to Robbins’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” an unusual duet in which a male and female dancer enjoy a brief encounter in a rehearsal studio. We the audience are their mirror. They gaze intently out at us as they dance, as if mesmerized by their own and each other’s reflections. While Pachciarz’s performance may have benefited from more boldly energized movement statements, Coats’s physical rendering of the choreography and her delicate emotionality were exquisite.

But what makes this program the don’t-miss dance outing of the season is the opportunity to see the company’s veteran ballerina, Kimberly Cowen, perform one last time. After a 20-year career she is retiring from the stage and gives her farewell performance in Bolender’s “Souvenirs,” a theatrical, character-driven comic ballet set at a beachside resort during the silent-movie era.

Cowen is marvelous as a Theda Bara-inspired vamp. With his sharp affinity for the stylistic nuances of the cleverly choreographed period dancing, Pachciarz makes a charming Man About Town, and the entire cast tickles us with well-executed slapstick shenanigans.