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Show Me 50
Celebrating Kansas City Ballet
When a ballet company in America’s heartland turns 50, it’s cause for rejoicing. Kansas City Ballet has been doing just that since October, dancing virtually nonstop in an eclectic repertoire representative of American ballet’s past and present, while looking to the future.
No surprise there. The collective experience of KCB’s three artistic directors links the 25-member company to virtually every major creator of American ballet, from Fokine to Balanchine, Robbins, Joffrey, and Tharp. Current artistic director William Whitener, who in 1996 succeeded Todd Bolender as leader of a company that was founded in 1957 by Tatiana Dokoudovska, is well aware of it. “I’m standing on Todd and Tania’s shoulders,” he says.
Bolender, building on the foundation started by Dokoudovska, professionalized the company, expanded the repertoire, and started KCB’s school. Along the way, both nurtured impressive community support. KCB starts its second half century as an AGMA company, with an annual budget of $5.5 million, an endowment of $4.5 million and, slated to open in 2009, a permanent home in the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity. Whitener says the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which will open in 2010 and is where KCB will share a theater with the opera, is just the right size. Both buildings will help expand the school, number of performances, and possibly start a second company.
In a season of premieres, plus Bolender’s Nutcracker and The Still Point (to be performed in the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America Festival in June), the demands on the dancers are huge.
The opening concert last fall included company premieres of Balanchine’s Mozartiana, Tudor’s Dark Elegies, and Paul Taylor’s Company B. After performing their repertory program this month in Kansas City, the company heads to the Joyce in March. “To say we’re busy would be an understatement,” says Matthew Powell (who came to KCB from Pacific Northwest Ballet seven years ago).“I love the diversity of the work, and with the New York performances, the new buildings, there’s a big buzz in the city, and it’s exciting to be ushering in a new era.”
Kimberly Cowen, a 17-year veteran who worked closely with Bolender, echoes Powell’s enthusiasm. “I’m proud that the community has been able to sustain a ballet company for 50 years and I feel part of something special,” she says. “It’s exciting to see the improved quality of the dancers and the expanded rep.” She attributes some of that to what Bolender and Whitener share: “Both appreciate the same qualities in their dancers and both love the theatrical side of dance.”
Theatricality, stylistic diversity, speed, and precision mark this month’s program, when KCB performs Tharp’s Brahms/Paganini (according to Whitener it has not been seen in New York in many years); a new work by Whitener set to Glazunov; and Donald McKayle’s Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City, honoring the golden age of Kansas City jazz.
Whitener says his dancers thrive on rehearsing multiple ballets. Logan Pachciarz performs the male solo in Brahms/Paganini, “one of the 10 roles in my head at any given time,” says Pachciarz. He also dances Romeo in Ib Anderson’s Romeo and Juliet, which calls for considerable mime. Pachciarz cites the closeness of KCB’s dancers as one of its greatest strengths. “This makes a healthy and supportive atmosphere,” he says. “We’re keeping our cool, weathering the pressure, taking it easy to get the best results.”
More cause for rejoicing in the “show me” state.
—Martha Ullman West
One night an all-girl group from Japan obsessively rocks back and forth, then lifts their red dresses to pull a shoe out of their ruffled panties. The next night, a company from China combines a majestic serenity with fierce force in an unearthly chess game. On yet another night, a motley crew of insolent, hilarious eccentrics from Argentina charges into brutal partnering with a wacky sexuality. All three companies—Batik Dance Company, Beijing LDTX Modern Dance Company, and Grupo Krapp—graced the stage of the 1,400-seat Teatro de la Ciudad in Monterrey, Mexico, for the 10th Annual Extremadura International Contemporary Language Dance Festival last October.
The brainchild of Hester Martínez, a choreographer with a flair for experimentation, the festival started as a way to broaden the local dance scene. “When I got here in the 1970s,” says Martínez about this city ringed with jagged mountains, “I was in love with modern dance. But I was the only one who knew about it.” She was asked to teach modern in the Juilliard-style Escuela Superior de Musica y Danza, but she felt she wasn’t experienced enough. “I had to find out for all of us how to make people believe in what we were doing.” She would get together with three or four other dancers and they would give themselves class. They danced outdoors in streets and in plazas. As the dance community grew, the funding was scarce. When Martínez suggested applying for grant money for a national festival, other dancemakers said, “Are you crazy? What we want is funding for our own work.”
Martínez had worked with Boston choreographer Paula Josa-Jones and had seen Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown. Those influences put her out of step with the conservative element in the community. “She’s the Merce Cunningham of Monterrey,” says Seme Jatib, a choreographer who helped organize the festival. “She’s very wild.”
Four years ago the festival added a seminar series, headed by Jatib, with invited critics. That same year the festival went international, and it later instituted a choreography competition. But it wasn’t until this year that the funding came through in a big way, with support from the Forum Universal de las Culturas, a huge international project affiliated with UNESCO. Now, says Martínez, “I dream of doing a prize of the prizes—the superbowl of choreography!”
The winner of the choreography competition at the professional level was Brisa Escobedo, whose piece, titled Cry for Your Soul, started off with a nicely creepy duet that yielded to interesting group dynamics. In the emerging choreographers category, Tzitzi Benavides’ On Blue, a reimagined Serenade for three women, took the prize.
But the dazzling events artistically were the three international companies mentioned earlier. Each was startlingly original: Batik in Shoku (Touch), choreographed by Ikuyo Kuroda; the Beijing Company in The Cold Dagger, by Li Han-Zhong and Ma Bo; and Krapp in their collectively created Mendiolaza. Audience response was warm, with the overflowing crowd for Beijing giving them a standing ovation. Post-performance dialogues with the artists spurred later discussion.
The highlight of the local offerings was a duet from Chocolate by Magdalena Brezzo for the company Camerino 4. Stephanie Garcia kisses, caresses, and sometimes bullies a man who is sitting and twiddling his thumbs. She’s a luscious mover and you can’t understand why the guy is ignoring her, but the piece is intriguing throughout.
As a participant in the seminar as well as a judge in the competition, I observed a level of enthusiasm and sophistication that one might not expect outside a major city. As dance festivals go, this one definitely took risks—and reaped rewards.
What better way to enjoy this milestone than to honor past recipients who were in the audience that night? Dance Magazine editor in chief Wendy Perron read the names of those in attendance including Carmen deLavallade, Damian Woetzel, Heather Watts, Arthur Mitchell, and 93-year-old Freddie Franklin who received a standing ovation. When someone yelled out that Christopher Wheeldon hadn’t been announced, Wheeldon quickly turned to point out that Paul Taylor, too, had snuck in under the radar. Where else would you find so many lovers of dance and legends of the field under one roof?
The evening’s presenters were also among the ranks of the celebrated—Jock Soto, Ann Reinking, and Judith Jamison were all past awardees. But the real stars of the evening—the 2007 Dance Magazine Awardees—were as humble as they were proud.
NYCB principal Wendy Whelan was introduced through a beautifully artistic film made by her husband David Michalek and set to the music of Arvo Pärt. In it she practices tendus in her kitchen and partners her cat (she’s also shown playing with a kitten as a child), scooping it up and twirling around the living room. Whelan, who said she’s never won anything before, thanked the three men in her life that have gotten her to this point—longtime onstage partner Soto, her husband, and Wheeldon, who has made work that has taken her from a neoclassical ballerina to a complex contemporary dancer.
The Paul Taylor Dance Company honored their rehearsal director and former lead dancer Bettie de Jong with a humorously animalistic excerpt from Cloven Kingdom, performed by tuxedo-clad Orion Duckstein, Robert Kleinendorst, James Samson, and Sean Mahoney. Carolyn Adams, another former Taylor star, shared anecdotes of their time touring together and read a note from de Jong’s family in Holland, addressed sweetly to “Tante Bett.” De Jong joked to the dancers that they should expect notes on their performance the following day.
Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking were stellar in footage of Chicago performed at the 1997 Tony Awards. With their fine-tuned Fosse moves, deep powerful voices, and sultry appeal, it’s no surprise they won two Tonys that year (Neuwirth for best actress, and Reinking for choreographer). When Reinking presented her remarks about Neuwirth, she called her a dance partner, mentor, and sister. Neuwirth, wearing black fishnets and red patent leather Mary-Jane heels, gave thanks to all of the dance teachers of her life including David Howard, Bob Fosse, and Reinking.
“Desmond . . . is a consummate artist,” announced Alvin Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison. “He is a prince whose armor shines from within.” A film of Richardson performing a Dwight Rhoden solo made it easy to connect to Jamison’s words about his intense and sculpted style as a dancer and a perfectionist devoted to his craft.
Richardson, co-artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, remarked that there are no words for the feeling that he has in his body when he steps onstage, but that all of the dancers in the audience understand how that feeling takes over during a performance.
For more DM Awards photos and video footage of the event, go to www.dancemagazine.com.
Photo: Steve Wilson, Courtesy KCB