Classical Music & Dance

Kansas City Ballet stages a testosterone-fueled ‘The Three Musketeers’

Michael Davis (left) worked with Gilles Maidon on the positioning of swords during a run-through of “The Three Musketeers” at the Bolender Center, 500 W. Pershing Road, recently.
Michael Davis (left) worked with Gilles Maidon on the positioning of swords during a run-through of “The Three Musketeers” at the Bolender Center, 500 W. Pershing Road, recently. skeyser@kcstar.com

George Balanchine once famously said, “Ballet is woman.”

Mr. B had a point. From “Giselle” to “Sleeping Beauty,” it seems guys rarely get top billing in classical ballet.

But then there’s “The Three Musketeers.” This swashbuckler has five lead roles for men and enough testosterone-driven sword fighting to please a fan of mixed martial arts.

The Kansas City Ballet will present “The Three Musketeers” for six performances beginning this Friday at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.

Choreographer Andrei Prokovsky created “The Three Musketeers” for Australian Ballet in 1980, paring the plot of Alexander Dumas’ novel to its theatrical essentials and using dramatic music from the operas of Giuseppe Verdi. The ballet’s story, set in 17th century France, will be familiar to anyone who has seen a film adaptation. D’Artagnan and the three musketeers, whose band he hopes to join, right wrongs and woo women while defending the queen against the plotting Cardinal Richelieu.

Prokovsky died in 2009, but Gilles Maidon, who was an assistant to Prokovsky, is helping the Kansas City Ballet bring Prokovsky’s vision to life. He’s giving special attention to the sword fighting, where accuracy and precision are of utmost importance.

“It’s very slow teaching it,” Maidon said. “We did not do it with swords for a week or more before we made sure they had every movement the way it’s supposed to be. Then we add the swords and do it slower, and little by little we go faster and faster to get to the real tempo for the performances.”

Maidon says that the key to successful stage sword fighting is for the dancer to be very cautious to avoid injury, while at the same time appear to the audience to throw caution to the wind. This level of perfection can only be achieved through painstaking rehearsals.

Devon Carney, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, is also sharing his years of experience during those rehearsals.

“There’s a thing called Flynning, which is named after Errol Flynn,” Carney said. “It’s a term in sword fighting when two guys both put their swords over their heads and thrust toward each other, alternately swinging their swords back and forth. Clink, clink, clink, clink.

“Well, if both guys are Flynning and lunging forward, from the audience’s point of view that doesn’t make any sense because both people are being on the offense. So I come in and say, ‘Guys, wait, wait, wait. One of you needs to be in retreat mode, and the other is offense.’ It’s little things like that that I’m helping them with.”

But there’s a lot more to “The Three Musketeers” than just sword play. The choreography itself is very challenging, reflecting Prokovsky’s years as a dancer with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. According to Carney, you can detect Balanchine’s subtle influence in the choreography.

“There’s a really fun step that the character Milady does that is so Balanchine,” Carney said. “She does this manèges, or circular step, but then she flicks her foot out, goes ta-tap, and then she turns and does it again. A piqué turn, a piqué turn and a flic-flac thing. It’s so cool to see Balanchine’s influence in these little tiny ways.”

Don’t let the ballet lingo throw you. “The Three Musketeers” is for everyone, ballet connoisseur or not. And for those indifferent to sword fighting, there’s plenty of romantic and political intrigue.

“You have it all,” Maidon said. “You have the technique and the sword fights, which are fun and challenging, and then you have all the love, with the pas de deux between the Queen and Buckingham and between Constance and D’Artagnan. And you have Milady, who is so evil. It is a good story for ballet to tell.”

In addition to passing on his fencing skills, Maidon is also helping the dancers shape their characters. Each of the three musketeers, for example, has a distinctive personality. Maidon wants to bring the individual characters into sharp relief.

“You have Athos, the one with the more stern persona,” Maidon said. “He’s a bit more in charge. So he takes care of others. And you have Porthos who’s more of a womanizer, a little more careless with things. And then there’s Aramis, the loverboy, who is always in love with a woman. So you have these different characters, and when they dance, we try to show that.”

If there’s a lead role in the ballet, it’s D’Artagnan, the proud young man who wants to join the three musketeers. Carney calls him the thread tying together the various plot elements. The dancers who will alternate portraying D’Artagnan are Liang Fu and Charles Martin.

“Fu is an extremely capable partner as well as a technician in terms of his dancing skills, and you need both to do this role,” Carney said. “He’s got the acting skills, which is important as well. Charles is an up-and-coming dancer in the company, and every time something comes his way, I’m always excited to see what he’ll do with it.”

“The Three Musketeers” may be a ballet for bros, but Carney believes there’s plenty of romance and humor to appeal to a wide variety of audiences.

“Besides all the killing and stabbing and fighting, there are love stories involved, so it’s a great night for a date,” Carney said. “It’s a fun sort of evening with men battling for women’s hands, protecting them. There’s a lot of chivalry. There’s nothing wrong with those themes, and I think they’re important to address in this 21st century when people won’t even open a door for you anymore.”

7:30 p.m. Oct. 9, 10, 16 & 17 and 2 p.m. Oct. 11 & 18. Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $29-$119. 816-931-8993 or www.kcballet.org.

Krasnoyarsk National Dance Company of Siberia

The Krasnoyarsk National Dance Company of Siberia dispels any notion of Siberia as a frozen land of gulags and grim, snowbound peasants. Siberians obviously know how to have a good time, as Krasnoyarsk will demonstrate when the Harriman-Jewell Series presents the folk ensemble Friday at Helzberg Hall.

Since it was founded in 1960, the Krasnoyarsk National Dance Company of Siberia has wowed audiences with high-energy shows featuring brilliantly colorful costumes and stunning set pieces. Folk purists might quibble at the glitziness, but everyone else is sure to enjoy this eye-popping, toe-tapping Russian extravaganza.

7 p.m. Friday. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$70. 816-415-5025 or www.hjseries.org.

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble

You couldn’t ask for a finer ensemble to inaugurate the acoustically improved Polsky Theatre at Johnson County Community College than the Academy of St. Martin in Fields Chamber Ensemble.

The St. Martin musicians will perform music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Strauss and Franz Schubert this Saturday, giving the LARES digital acoustic enhancement system its first real chamber music tryout.

Kansas City certainly has some wonderful classical music venues, but one thing we’ve lacked is a hall specifically designed for chamber music and solo recitals, a place like London’s 545-seat Wigmore Hall. The Polsky Theatre has the intimacy, but it was designed for spoken word and theater, and its acoustics have not been kind to non-amplified musicians. The LARES system of processors, speakers and digital manipulation will allow the Polsky to be fine-tuned to achieve optimal acoustics for a wide variety of performances.

The LARES system, which is used by more than 200 theaters around the world, including Millennium Park in Chicago and the Berlin Staatsoper, was a gift from Mark and Nancy Gilman to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Performing Arts Series of Johnson County Community College. It promises to be a gift that keeps giving for many years to come.

8 p.m. Saturday. Polsky Theatre, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. $25-$30. 913-469-4445 or www.jccc.edu/theseries.

You can reach Patrick Neas at patrickneas@gmail.com.

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