Devon Carney, Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director, sat at his desk after a long day in the dance studio and shared this interesting factoid:
The three most popular ballets, almost always guaranteed to draw enthusiastic audiences, are “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
And all three were the work of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the great 19th century Russian composer.
“To this day they are the most popular things he ever did,” Carney said.
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And the most popular in the U.S.?
Virtually every ballet company in the country stages a version of the holiday fable based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” In Kansas City, it’s as strong a tradition as Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol” or the Country Club Plaza lights.
“I also will say from an economic point of view that unlike Europe, which has a lot of state funding, we don’t have that in America. … It’s a holiday event and it gets families in the holiday spirit and it really pays the darn bills for ballet companies,” Carney said.
“Without our ‘Nutcrackers’ we couldn’t do half the works over the course of the rest of our season. It’s our only truly positive cash-flow of significant amount. When you balance the cost of production … and then compare that to the revenue, ‘Nutcracker’ is hands down the largest single revenue-producing event any ballet company does. I would love to hear somebody prove me otherwise.”
The hope is that a significant number of people who see the holiday show will return to see the company’s other ballets. And the money earned by “The Nutcracker” helps fund the other productions.
The company’s projected box office for the season, including season tickets and single tickets, is just over $3.6 million. Of that, “The Nutcracker” is expected to bring in $2.1 million.
“Really, productions like ‘The Nutcracker’ help support the mixed repertory programs we must and want to do,” said Jeffrey Bentley, executive director.
The ballet is all new: choreography, costumes, scenery, lighting design. It employs a cast of 250, including 28 members of the main company, six members of Kansas City Ballet II, nine trainees, two UMKC students and 205 members of the ballet school.
Budgeted at $2 million, “The Nutcracker” is the most expensive production in the company’s history. Most of the money was raised through a capital campaign. And, Bentley added, the production is coming in on budget.
The ballet’s previous annual production of “The Nutcracker” premiered in 1981 and was choreographed by the late Todd Bolender, who was the company’s new artistic director when he first staged the show.
So why a new “Nutcracker” and why now?
Carney said the Bolender ballet had outlived its time.
“That’s kind of a mishmash highly influenced by Balanchine’s version,” he said. “For its time period I think it was fabulous. That’s important to understand. At some point dance technique moves beyond the current choreography that was done 30 or 35 years ago.
“That was the most exciting thing about this process — just being able to use some of the incredible talented individuals who are part of the Kansas City Ballet and up the ante. I wanted to challenge our dancers and push them forward into the next level of their artistic ability.”
Besides, Carney said, change is a good thing.
“It’s healthy for a ballet company, and it’s healthy for a city,” he said. “We’re always hoping to attract new patrons, so if we’re doing the same thing over 30 years, you’re not going to keep going because, you know: ‘I’ve seen that.’ ”
But Carney also had a personal reason for staging a new production.
“I’ve always wanted to (choreograph) a ‘Nutcracker,’ ” he said. “I’ve been dancing and participating and running Nutcrackers for … 40 years. I have no idea how many I’ve done or participated in or done performances of in various parts of the country.
“After being in so many different productions — all to the same music, let’s remember — I have gathered ideas over those 40 years, the good and the bad. And how would I interpret something that would be exciting? What would that be for me?”
To create a totally new look, Carney brought in an A-team of designers. Holly Hynes, who created the costumes, has designed for international ballet companies; she also designed the KC Ballet’s world-premiere production of “Tom Sawyer.”
Lighting designer Trad A. Burns has worked around the world, and scenic designer Alain Vaes has created sets and sometimes costumes for companies across the country and in Europe.
Carney said the ballet will have a traditional Victorian setting but with a difference: lots of color. Based on advance ticket sales, he’s reasonably confident that audiences will take to the new version. Feedback from the community, he said, has been “nothing but positive.”
“They can’t wait for this new production to arrive. And if they’re thinking otherwise, they’re not talking to me about it. And the ticket sales are through the roof. We’re so far ahead of where we should be tracking right now. There’s always going to be somebody who wants it the way it was, but you can’t do much about that.”
The production is so big that the costumes and scenery had to be produced in design shops spread across the country. The costumes were created in more than 20 shops from California to Georgia. Some of them had to be trucked in, others were shipped via UPS.
“It’s such a large (production) you have to start so early,” Hynes said. “When this is all done I will have been on this 18 months … it becomes such a big project you’re never far away from it. So even though I was doing other things and traveling overseas, ‘Nutcracker’ was always in the back of my head. I had to make sure I always had my computer so I could have access to my sketches.”
Vaes and Carney have known each for decades, but the scenic designer had never worked in Kansas City. The scenery, he said, was constructed in five shops in Chicago, upstate New York and Dayton, Ohio, among others. The finished designs were a result of a series of meetings with his collaborators.
“I made several trips (to Kansas City) with sketches and ideas and lots of meetings with Devon and his staff,” said the French-born Vaes. “I had a very close working relationship with Devon and Holly and Trad Burns, who is the lighting designer. They were all involved from the beginning.
“Hundreds of sketches later, here we are. It’s certainly the biggest ‘Nutcracker’ I’ve done so far. … It’s not going to be boring.”
Carney said his goal with the ballet is twofold: to achieve a high level of artistry and to entertain the public.
“It’s critical that the production appeals to our audiences — to our new audiences and also those who have come year after year. … Some people may go every year and some people may go every couple of years, but there is that tradition I want to respect. In no way am I interested in doing a crazy experimental artistic production. … This is a time to celebrate the family and the holidays and good cheer.”