The rebuilt and reimagined “Nutcracker” from the Kansas City Ballet is, among other things, a visually mesmerizing spectacle that will fill the viewer’s head with indelible images.
Oh, and the dancing’s not bad either. Certainly the opening night audience thought so, frequently rewarding duets and solos with bursts of applause and vocal approval. At the curtain call, the majority of viewers gradually committed to a standing ovation.
Devon Carney, the ballet company’s artistic director, fulfilled a long-standing desire to choreograph his own version of “The Nutcracker,” the 19th-century ballet that dance companies across the North America stage this time of year. Working with exceptional designers, Carney has come up with an extraordinary physical production that dazzles us with imagery that gets pretty trippy at times. And he creates demanding dances for his company. The opening-night audience caught a couple of glimpses of just how challenging the choreography is.
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Tchaikovsky’s score has been drummed into most of us since childhood so hearing it performed live by a symphony orchestra is a little recalling a genetic memory. There’s a comforting familiarity to Tchaikovsky’s lush melodies and the Kansas City Symphony under Ramona Pansegrau’s baton delivers a nearly perfect reading of the work.
Essentially, this is big-budget children’s theater — a colorful tale based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s whimsical story about a mad-genius toymaker and a little girl’s hallucinogenic evening in which she witnesses toys come to life, a battle between toy soldiers and mice and a trip to a sort of candyland where she watches dances from around the world. Carney finds opportunities to inject humor into the piece, especially in his depiction of the mouse army.
His guiding thought seems to have been: When in doubt, put as many people as possible on the stage. That produces more than a few spectacular moments but there are times when the stage is so filled with movement that it becomes distracting. It’s a little like going to a three-ring circus — you don’t know where to look.
The show may be mainly for kids, but there are actual children — lots of them — sharing the stage with members of the company. All are from the ballet’s school, and they certainly score well on the cuteness scale, even if their nascent development as performers sometimes limits the aesthetic effect Carney was reaching for. But baby mice, lambs, miniature soldiers and snowflakes are adorable enough to coax “oohs” and “ahs” from the viewers, which may be all that matters.
The featured dancers are consistently impressive. Angela Sansone won justly enthusiastic applause for her sensual solo performance in the “Arabian” section of Act 2. So, too, did Sarah Chun as the Rose in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Sansone and Thom Panto, the Snow Queen and King, perform a sublime duet, as do Amanda DeVenuta and Michael Davis in the Chinese “tea” sequence and Taryn Mejia and Dillon Malinski as the shepherds.
There were times Saturday when the stage pictures formed by background dancers weren’t as crisp as they should have been. And the grand pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, danced by Tempe Ostergren and Lamin Pereira dos Santos, was an elegant performance for the most part, marred by two small but obvious slips by Santos.
Even by the standards of an opulent production, the scenic and properties designs by Alain Vaes surprise and astonish. In the “Kingdom of the Snow” sequence that closes Act 1, Vaes creates an icy forest in which company members dance beneath falling snow. At the end of Act 1, Clara (Sarah Waller) and the Nutcracker Prince (Charles Martin), who has been magically transformed from a wooden toy into a handsome young officer, take flight in a hot-air balloon while toymaker Drosselmeier (played nicely by Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye) also becomes airborne as he spreads open his magnificent black cape.
Act 2 opens with a cloudy, golden-tinged image of dancers viewed through a transparent scrim as the story relocates in the Land of the Sweets. Later Vaes produces what amounts to an enormous puppet representing a woman in a hoop skirt, out of which children emerge and return. The figure’s blank face made her a little creepy, but it was just one the unexpected visual surprises that fill this production. The lighting design by Trad A. Burns helps create a succession of startling images and maximizes the work of Vaes and costume designer Holly Hynes.
Hynes creates an untold number of creative outfits that range from more-or-less authentic Victorian dress to fantastic images, including a toy bear that comes to life. She prizes elegance for the featured dancers but also has a sense of humor.
Kudos to Carney and the ballet for attempting something this ambitious, bold and creative. There’s a sort of “go-for-broke” energy permeating the stage and he scores major points for an artistic vision that allows a reasonable amount of unadulterated audacity. That’s always a good thing.