Kansas City Ballet

April 11, 2002

Choreography by Artist Russell Baker.
Photo by Steve Wilson

Kansas City Ballet

Lyric Theatre
Kansas City, Missouri

April 11, 2002

Reviewed by Arielle Thomas Newman

Former Joffrey and Tharp dancer William Whitener has brought Kansas City Ballet into the National spotlight since he was appointed artistic director in 1996. Not only has the company steadily improved technically, but Whitener has expanded the repertory to include modern dance works, revivals, (see “Heartland Salutes Stravinsky with Balanchine,” Reviews, Dance Magazine, June 2001, page 77), and commissioned ballets.

Wanting to give his dancers the unique experience of performing alone onstage, Whitener plucked six solos from the last century’s dance archives for the ballet’s April show. The dances were as distinctive in texture as the personalities who created them. As the solos were relatively short, they gained strength and substance by being presented collectively.

It Starts With a Step
, choreographed in 1968 by Lotte Goslar to music by George Frederic Handel, opened the show, which took its name from the this piece. The dance started simply, with Matthew Powell emphasizing the act of stepping forward by caressing the floor with his foot. He then began taking quicker steps, sequentially expanding his movement to include leaps, jetés, and turns, demonstrating, in effect, the building blocks of dance.

The Jewish lament for the dead provided the name and theme of Kaddish, a 1945 dance choreographed by Anna Sokolow to music by Maurice Ravel. With arms crossed over her chest, and then reaching beseechingly up to the sky, Stefani Schrimpf adeptly executed the choreography but failed to project the anguish that is at the core of this piece.

Totem Ancestor
was created by Merce Cunningham in 1942 when he was dancing with the Martha Graham Dance Company. In this short dance set to music by the merry prankster of chance operations, John Cage, Matthew Donnell worked a series of grueling squats. Dropping quickly to his knees and (unassisted by his arms) jumping right back up to his feet, Donnell successfully got inside Cunningham’s mechanical humanoid choreography.

Chelsea Teel delighted the audience in Agnes de Mille’s comic ode to Degas’s ballet dancers, Debut at the Opera. The 1928 dance to Leo Delibes’s music looked fresh with the tutu-clad Teel comically handling a series of mishaps?her shoe doesn’t fit right; she scratches an itch under her bloomers, and takes a tumbling pratfall before bowing demurely and heading offstage.

Daniel Nagrin himself came to Kansas City to set his 1948 solo Strange Hero, with music by Stan Kenton and Pete Rugolo. Keelan Whitmore as a cigarette-toting jazz hipster displayed attitude with an urban flair, one that erupted into violence against others and eventually himself.

The Dying Swan
solo, created by Mikhail Fokine to music by Saint-Saëns, was first performed by Anna Pavlova in Russia in 1907 (although some sources say 1905). Aisling Hill-Connor’s fluid arms and wrists gracefully reflected the contrapuntal rhythms of the harp in her final descent.

The program also included the ensemble piece The Cloud Chamber, choreographed by Kansas City Ballet dancer Russell Baker to music by Lou Harrison, which proved that Baker can design an abstract contemporary ballet with a sleek look. Women were suspended in arresting sculptural shapes in the partnering section and all eight dancers moved with strength in the allegro passages.

The show concluded with Whitener’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to Felix Mendelssohn. Based on Shakespeare’s play, this swift-paced, visually splendid one-act ballet featured an animated and athletic Christopher Barksdale as Puck and an ephemeral Kimberly Cowen as Titania. Members of the Kansas City Chorale, under the direction of Charles Bruffy and augmented by narrator Gary Neal Johnson, added color to the production.

In his pre-performance talk, Whitener stated that one of the missions of the ballet is to insure that dances are handed down from one generation to the next. Kudos to Whitener for carrying out that important task and for insisting on live musical accompaniment throughout the show.