The Kansas City Ballet is celebrating its 60th anniversary with the sort of daring and ambitious works that have made it one of the finest regional ballet companies in the country. The two-weekend celebration will feature the Kansas City Ballet’s first-ever performance of one of George Balanchine’s greatest neoclassical masterpieces, as well as acclaimed contemporary works that also will receive their company premieres.
The 60th Anniversary Dance Festival will take place over two weekends, April 6 through 8 and April 13 through 15 at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.
Now in his fifth year as artistic director, Devon Carney has already made a profound mark on the Kansas City Ballet. Constantly striving to stretch, grow and improve his dancers, Carney has gotten impressive results. Under his leadership, the Kansas City Ballet has presented iconic ballets of the classical repertoire never previously done by the company, like “Swan Lake,” as well as cutting-edge contemporary works.
It’s fitting that the two 60th anniversary programs reflect these qualities of Carney’s leadership
“This is going to give the dancers a B-12 shot in the arm,” Carney said. “They’re working really, really hard right now. It’s a stretch, and when you stretch, that’s where growth is going to occur. We have to continue to grow and evolve. This program is definitely an evolutionary moment for Kansas City Ballet.”
On the first weekend, the Kansas City Ballet will, appropriately enough for its diamond anniversary, present “Diamonds,” the longest and most challenging section of Balanchine’s full-length ballet “Jewels.” Carney hopes to stage “Jewels,” which includes two other movements, “Emeralds” and “Rubies,” in its entirety in the next couple of years.
The idea for “Jewels” was suggested to Balanchine by Claude Arpels of the jewelry design house Van Cleef and Arpels.
“All of these jewels complement each other like those on a well-designed necklace,” Carney said. “I danced ‘Rubies’ a ton, but I’ve never had the chance to dance ‘Diamonds,’ and I just wanted to give our company the chance to do it. And what better time than to celebrate our diamond anniversary.
“I think it’s a very important work for the company to have ‘Diamonds’ under its belt. It will only get better whenever we get a chance to do it again in the future.”
“Diamonds” calls for massive forces, 16 couples plus a lead couple, all of them onstage at the same time. Taryn Mejia, who is one of the female leads, has previously danced in “Diamonds” when she was a member of the New York City Ballet, the company Balanchine founded.
“ ‘Diamonds’ is a beautiful ballet, which I had the opportunity to do, but I was in the corps, I was in the back,” Mejia said. … “I feel most comfortable in Balanchine ballets. That is the majority of my training. Whenever we do Balanchine, I feel at home.”
Mejia, an Independence native, spent only 2 1/2 years with the New York City Ballet before deciding to drop out.
“I was really unhappy in a big company in New York, and I was unhealthy,” she said. “I just wasn’t handling it properly, so I took some time away and went to college, and I got a degree in child development and psychology and had two babies.
“I have two little girls, and after I had my second child, I missed dancing and thought that this time I could do it for me instead of because it was what I was supposed to do.”
Being a single mother while also dancing is almost unheard of in the world of professional ballet.
“I’m the only one with kids in this company,” Mejia said. “It’s becoming more com mon in recent years, but I’m still one of the few. We’re rehearsing a lot, and it’s hard on the body and mind. Most dancers get to go home and decompress, but I start job two, running around after my kids.”
Mejia, 32, says that the six-year gap between her time with the New York City Ballet and when she joined her hometown company in 2012 means her body has not undergone the stresses and strains that have taken their toll on other dancers her age. Carney thinks Mejia’s best years are ahead of her.
“Taryn is very fleet of foot,” Carney said. “She’s very dynamic in the way she moves. And she’s very focused in her work ethic and understands the specialness of every opportunity she has to grow as an artist. I think she’s coming into her own. She rises to every occasion, and I’m excited about her future.”
Also on the first weekend’s program is “The Uneven” by Matthew Neenan, a work that was first performed by the Kansas City Ballet last September as part of New Dance Partners, the Kansas City Ballet’s fruitful collaboration with the Performing Arts Series of Johnson County Community College.
Rounding out the first weekend is Jiří Kylián’s “Petite Mort,” a work now considered one of the most important ballets of the past 50 years. Kylián choreographed “Petite Mort,” set to the music of Mozart, for the 1991 Salzburg Festival to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death. The title comes from the French expression that likens the brief loss of consciousness during orgasm to a “little death.”
“It’s that moment when you are vulnerable,” Carney said. “The whole work has such a vulnerable quality to it. It has a very male and female feel to it, which is played out with the men using swords and the women wearing very French, 17th century dresses.”
Mejia says she’s excited to be featured in the ballet.
“ ‘Petite Mort’ is a piece that every dancer wants to do,” she said. “It’s one of those you want to check off before you retire. The challenge with this one is it’s barefoot. Kansas City Ballet has never done a Kylián ballet, so we’re all really excited to be a part of that.”
Mejia will go from bare feet to cowboy boots in James Kudelka’s “The Man in Black,” the featured work on the second weekend of the festival.
“It’s a whole new way of dancing,” Mejia said. “There are only four dancers onstage, three boys and a girl. It’s 25 minutes long, and we never leave stage.
“ ‘Man in Black’ is really challenging in its own way. With cowboy boots, your weight has to be a little bit more in back because of the heel, but in ‘Diamonds’ I push my weight forward. It’s a testament to this company that we are able to switch styles so much.”
Carney saw “The Man in Black” when it was first performed by BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, in 2010. After seeing the premiere, he says, he “got it.”
“ ‘Man in Black’ is a very poignant work,” he said. “James was really smart because putting the dancers in cowboy boots gives it the sense of the working class. And it really is about the working class. It’s physical, it’s emotional and has this American working-class grit, a sense of how our country was made.”
Carney says that the cowboy boots also become a “fifth member of the cast.” The sound of the boots is even incorporated into the ballet, as in the second song, when it’s synchronized with the music to sound like the clip-clop of horses on a trail.
“He lets the boots have a voice, too,” Carney said.
Stanton Welch’s “Play” will veer from the Midwestern melancholy of “The Man in Black” to a more urban ennui. Set to the techno sounds of Moby, “Play” explores the alienation endemic in contemporary American city life.
“It’s got this urban sort of sense about it, with people coming and going in their suits and ties,” Carney said. “You can kind of lose your soul in a big city because of the nine-to-five corporate life. ‘Play’ asks how we as individuals interact with each other and find friendships and connections in a big, huge city like New York City. Moby’s music gives it a very contemporary feel.”
Concluding the second weekend of the festival is a world premiere, “Klein Perspectives,” by Andrea Schermoly. The ballet was inspired by French painter Yves Klein, whose minimalist art emphasizes the color blue. In fact, Klein helped develop a special resin that preserves his favorite hue and that is now called International Klein Blue.
“There’s a velvety blue in the costumes that’s kind of a cobalt blue,” Carney said. “And there’s a large piece of rolling scenery that moves about the stage that will have blue lights cast upon it. Andrea has a history with the Netherlands Dance Theatre, where she spent seven years when Jiří Kylián was running the company, so there’s a connection to ‘Petite Mort.’ I like that we get to see how one choreographer affected someone else.”
Both weekends of the festival will celebrate the range and diversity of the company founded 60 years ago by French-born ballet dancer and teacher Tatiana Dokoudovska.
“There aren’t a lot of companies out there that are 60 years old,” Carney said. “It’s tough to keep the doors open for 60 years.
“Every artistic director and/or executive director that has come through the hall has continued to build this company in a way that keeps it vibrant, keeps it relevant and interesting for Kansas City audiences. We now stand on the shoulders of all these great leaders. It’s a great thing to have this kind of staying power.”
You can reach Patrick Neas at patrickneas@ kcarts beat.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at facebook.com/ kcartsbeat.
60th Anniversary Dance Festival
▪ George Balanchine’s “Diamonds,” Matthew Neenan’s “The Uneven” and Jiří Kylián’s “Petite Mort” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. April 6 and 7 and 2 p.m. April 8 in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
▪ James Kudelka’s “The Man in Black,” Stanton Welch’s “Play” and Andrea Schermoly’s “Klein Perspectives” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. April 13 and 14 and 2 p.m. April 15 in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.
Tickets are $40.50-$130.50. Call 816-931-8993 or visit kcballet.org for more information.