With pumpkins turning into horse-drawn carriages, rags becoming ball gowns and poor, grungy girls transformed into beautiful princesses, “Cinderella” is a tale of change. How appropriate, then, for the Kansas City Ballet to conclude its 56th season with a staging of this fairy tale of transformation — the company itself is in transition.
The greatest engine of that change is Devon Carney, the new artistic director. Concluding his inaugural year, Carney is beginning to put his stamp on the company. Balletomanes in Kansas City have long been accustomed to programs created by former artistic director William Whitener featuring three or four separate pieces in an evening, mixing themes and styles.
Carney, while certainly unafraid of vignettes and mixing styles, has greater fondness for full-length classic works. “Cinderella,” a three-act evening unto itself, is an example of that new direction. Another huge change at KCB is the impending departure of James Jordan, who has accepted a post as ballet master for Sarasota Ballet in Florida. Shared creative visions
“Cinderella” is among the world’s most frequently staged ballets. This version, choreographed by Victoria Morgan, artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet, will be lavish. The show, opening Friday, uses KCB’s full compliment of 28 dancers, along with six more from the second company and 90 children from the ballet’s school. The score will be conducted by Ramona Pansegrau, with 56 musicians of the Kansas City Symphony performing in the pit. The costumes are by Peter Farmer, a designer for major companies around the world including the Royal Ballet in Great Britain and National Ballet of Canada, so expect a show lush with with sequins, satins and rhinestone-encrusted chiffon. Morgan worked with Carney at the Cincinnati Ballet during his decade there as associate artistic director. The two, she said, share a great deal in terms of creative vision. “We both care for and admire the classical, traditional structures of ballet,” Morgan said, “but also feel compelled to ensure that the art form has relevance and connects to younger audiences.” “Kansas City,” she said, “can expect big adventure, both in the contemporary arena and with classic narratives.”
This version of “Cinderella” is Morgan’s third treatment of the subject. Before creating this iteration in 2005, she looked at dozens of productions, balletic and theatrical —including Disney’s animated classic. Just as importantly, she was able to incorporate her own her experience dancing the title role with the San Francisco Ballet and Salt Lake City’s Ballet West. “Sometimes I feel a little guilty about the story,” she said. That story, of course, is the well-known fairy tale of a young girl tormented by a wicked stepmother and two cruel stepsisters. Transformed by a fairy godmother, she goes to the royal ball and enchants the prince, leaving a glass slipper behind. He searches for his mystery girl and — spoiler alert — the shoe fits. From a standard feminist perspective, Morgan said, the tale is retrograde. New clothes and a makeover save Cinderella, after all. “She just falls into the prince’s arms, and everything is OK,” she said.
But the story, as she sees it, is more about personal empowerment and the transformative power of dreams. Cinderella may be a poor girl rescued by a prince, but she is also the quintessential underdog made good. That idea is universal, transcending gender roles — even entering the testosterone-soaked vernacular of sports. Long-shot teams that win titles are inevitably dubbed a Cinderella story. In the classic comedy “Caddyshack,” Bill Murray’s Carl Spackler character calls himself a “Cinderella boy.” “The power of the story is really in that idea of hope — hope that your life can be better. This is a character who knows what it feels like to be picked on, bullied, brushed aside,” Morgan said. In spite of tough times, though, she perseveres. Expanding on tradition
Illustrating that transformation, Morgan’s choreography embodies the company’s new direction. Her style is respectful of the past, yet not wedded to it; embracing classical traditions while expanding them. Morgan has a great love of patterns — the geometrically precise synchronized formations intrinsic to classical ballet. She uses those conventional forms, though, not merely to produce a certain look, but as a framework for developing characters. “In some ways,” she said, “the frame is about directing the audience’s eye. The straightforward classical vocabulary is challenging and wonderful, both for the dancers and die-hard attendees that love the look and lines.
“But a story like ‘Cinderella’ also has to be about character development. It’s a balance between the traditions of the art form and the need to tell the story,” Morgan said. “You want to create a balance between choreographing for yourself, the audience, and the dancers — and not necessarily in that order.” Changes at KCB aren’t limited to the top. Several dancers are leaving at the end of the season, with new ones hired for next year. One of the departing dancers is Anthony Krutzkamp, who recently starred as the vampire in “Dracula.” Krutzkamp’s final role with the company will be Cinderella’s charming prince. Krutzkamp said Morgan’s sense of classical composition is exemplary. “The visual structure supports all the improvisational things she encourages,” he said. “That keeps it fresh. All loosey-goosey stuff wouldn’t work without that classical foundation.”
He also calls the show as physically demanding as any he’s ever performed.
“It’s definitely visceral. It’s hard, the technique. There’s a lot of steps, a lot of people dancing onstage at the same time. Holding lines can be the biggest challenge. Being the prince is like getting shot out of a cannon,” Krutzkamp said. “The moment you get on stage, you better be warmed up and ready to go.”
“Cinderella” runs Friday through May 11 and May 16-18 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For details, go to KCBallet.org.