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By Paul Horsley
During the first 54 years of its history, Kansas City Ballet has resided in a carriage house, a college dormitory, a firehouse (complete with pole), a warehouse under a Missouri River bridge, an elementary school, a National Cash Register building, and a former ladies’ apparel wholesaler. Even worse, for many of those years the company had to perform in Kansas City’s dispiriting Lyric Theatre—a former Masonic lodge with no fly space, paltry dressing rooms, and dry-as-dust acoustics.
Now all that has changed. In August KCB moved into its new $32 million renovated home, the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity. And the company is set to begin performing at the city’s new $326 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts—an iconic two-hall complex that will also house the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and a bevy of other groups.
Both of these new facilities will be put to the test this month when the company premieres its daring new Tom Sawyer, with choreography by artistic director William Whitener and music by Tony Award–winning composer Maury Yeston (Grand Hotel, Nine, Titanic). It is a big moment for the company, and for ballet—it’s quite possibly the first full-length ballet on an American subject produced by an entirely American creative team. “There are many stories that can be drawn from our own culture, rather than from Europe,” says Whitener, who has worked closely with Robert Joffrey, Twyla Tharp, and Jerome Robbins. “We have our stories to tell, and I think that these haven’t been mined fully.”
It’s hard to imagine just how these developments will change the company that was founded in 1957 by former Ballet Russe and American Ballet Theatre dancer Tatiana Dokoudovska, brought to the next level by Balanchine dancer (and choreographer) Todd Bolender, and, starting in 1996, led by Whitener. But these days the small, 25-member company is thinking big. The seven-studio, 52,000-square-foot Bolender Center, rebuilt from a massive 1914 structure that was originally the Power House for the city’s Union Station, will provide the company with its first real home. In addition, it will also house an expanded Kansas City Ballet School, which plans to nearly double its offerings. And architect Moshe Safdie’s state-of-the-art Kauffman Center, with its 1,800-seat opera/ballet theater, is already drawing attention in architectural circles.
“It will have a huge impact on our ability to draw the best possible dancers,” says executive director Jeffrey Bentley. Whitener concurs that the double move “puts us on the map as a community that is dedicated to the arts.” But, he says, it does not change the company’s fundamental mission: “celebrating masters of the past, while giving new choreographers opportunities to make their way in the world.”
Tom Sawyer is an inventive amalgam of ballet, folk dance, pantomime, comedy, games, and narrative. It’s also injected with the youthful playfulness that has been Whitener’s signature in works like Gingham Shift, the piece that brought Whitener to Yeston’s attention. “We’re focusing on a boy’s passage from childhood to his teenage years,” Whitener says, “and taking responsibility when he and Becky are trapped in the cave—having to grow up quickly.” The ballet is also about “the power of the Mississippi and the grandeur of the great outdoors—and the charm and vitality of youth.”
Enter 20-year-old Alexander Peters, a slender, red-haired newcomer to the company who seems born to dance the title role. “When he auditioned for the company I knew he was ideally suited,” Whitener says. “He’s the right physical type: He’s slight, he’s boyish—and he’s an extraordinarily gifted dancer and a brilliant technician.” All three of the lead dancers—Laura Wolfe is Becky Thatcher, and Charles Martin is Huckleberry Finn—need to be “free, both physically and mentally,” Whitener says. “Their imaginations need to be engaged throughout the creative process, so that it has the fresh and spontaneous quality that we associate with childhood.”
Peters, who studied at Allegheny Ballet Academy and the School of American Ballet, feels honored to land the role but finds it daunting. The challenge, he says, is twofold: keeping an audience engaged for an entire evening, and dancing something that’s never been danced before. And while male dancers spend much of their training learning to look poised and regal, this role has a “reckless abandon,” he says. “Playing a kid, versus playing a kind of princely adult—that’s definitely going to be a challenge.”
Whitener and his team, which includes set designer Walt Spangler and costume designer Holly Hynes, have focused on making the ballet a seamless flow of dance and narrative. “He tries to incorporate the story in the dance, in the movement,” Peters says of Whitener’s choreography. “It’s more challenging because you’re dancing the whole time.” The ballet includes two “age-appropriate” pas de deux for Tom and Becky—the first, in Act 1, awkward and hesitant; the second, toward the end of the ballet, more heartfelt and intimate. “They bond through their mutual fear and their yearning to return to their normal lives,” Whitener says. “They have to be brave, and I think that’s how kids grow up.”
Tom Sawyer is another step in a journey that has helped the Kansas City Ballet carve out a national profile in recent years. In fact, KCB has been on an upward trajectory since 1981, when Bolender took the reins and brought about a bracing rise of standards. Recent appearances at the Kennedy Center and New York’s Joyce Theater have been warmly received. “Kansas City Ballet is a sleek little company with a strong repertory and 26 excellent dancers,” Deborah Jowitt wrote in The Village Voice of the Joyce performance.
Kimberly Cowen, who trained under Bolender, is a perfect example of a Kansas City Ballet dancer: Long and lean yet powerful, she dazzles audiences as Giselle or the Sugar Plum Fairy with nonchalant precision. But she is equally at home in the jagged ritual of Mary Wigman’s Hexentanz or in the loose, loopy fun of works like Margo Sappington’s Cobras in the Moonlight. “The company has grown tremendously in the time that I’ve been here,” says the 20-year veteran of the company, who has had ample opportunities to move to larger companies but continues to feel challenged and inspired in Kansas City. “Which is partly the reason I’m still here, because it’s offered me so much.”
The company is mostly young and quite varied, offering a range of abilities. “I think a mix is a good thing,” says Whitener, “because dancers bring knowledge from all over the world, and everyone can be informed by that mix of ideas and training.” Over the years the quality of the men has improved, too. Geoffrey Kropp has leaps that seem to freeze in mid-air; Luke Luzicka excels at the tender, romantic pas de deux; and Logan Pachciarz can imbue the dizzying opening segment of Tharp’s The Golden Section with limpid, breathtaking detail.
KCB’s repertory is as mixed as it gets. In addition to full-length works like Giselle and Ib Andersen’s Romeo and Juliet, it ranges from Balanchine to Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Alonzo King to Duato, Graham to Lila York. In order to make this possible, Whitener says he works to train dancers “so that they will be capable and believable in a variety of techniques.”
How is one to explain such auspicious times for a modest Midwestern ballet company, when others around the nation are struggling? Partly it’s to be understood in terms of a sort of civic pride in “ownership” of a local company, says Whitener. “There’s a given here that a reputable city will have a symphony, a ballet, an opera, and at least one major art museum, so that they can stand tall amongst other cities in the country.” But the uptick in the company’s fortunes can also be viewed within the fabric of a larger local phenomenon: the belated coming-of-age of the city’s downtown. The last decade has seen some $5 billion in downtown investments, resulting in a boom of activity the city hasn’t seen in years.
The Bolender Center, it is hoped, will become a part of that thriving downtown, with classes for young and old, from modern to Zumba, jazz to flamenco, Pilates to tap—both in the community-based Studio program and the pre-professional Academy. “Going from four studios to seven just naturally lends itself to enhanced programming,” says school director Peter Pawlyshyn, who hopes to increase enrollment from the current 600 to 1,000 or so.
For now, the launching of two new facilities with a new evening-length ballet—with lavish music scored for a 53-piece orchestra—seems a big boost already. “I don’t think a company like ours can completely fulfill its commitment to the community and its donor base without also having a national profile,” Bentley says. The company’s mission, he says, is no less than “to make Kansas City a destination for dance.”
Paul Horsley is performing arts editor of The Independent in Kansas City.
William Whitener’s checklist: what KCB’s artistic director looks for in dancers
• Strong individuals who value the strength of ensemble dancing
• High level of technical ability and expressiveness
• Bold and intelligent, with keen acting instincts
• Open-minded, particularly in the creative process; a team player
• Musically sensitive
• Loving dancing so much that whatever they’re doing onstage is filled with joy and commitment
From top: Artistic director William Whitener rehearses Alexander Peters for Tom Sawyer. Photo by Kenny Johnson; The new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by David Riffel; Holly Hynes’ costume sketch for Tom Sawyer; Kimberly Cowen and Luke Luzicka in Ib Andersen’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Kenny Johnson; “The Golden Section” from Tharp’s Catherine Wheel. Photo by Steve Wilson; Students of the KCB School join Chelsea Teel in Balanchine’s Mozartiana. Photo by Steve Wilson, @Balanchine Trust; The new Todd Bolender Center. Photo by Lisa Lipovav. All photos courtesy KCB.