Kansas City Ballet

February 20, 2003

Kansas City Ballet

Lyric Theater

Kansas City, Missouri

February 20—23, 2003

Reviewed by Jim Williams

In honor of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s fiftieth anniversary, the Kansas City Ballet made Cunningham’s Duets the centerpiece of a well-chosen trio of works.

KCB Artistic Director William Whitener introduced Cunningham repertoire last season with the solo Totem Ancestor, and Duets should further sharpen viewers’ appetites. The choreography has a crisp accuracy that looks great on a ballet company, and KCB’s dancers looked comfortable and confident doing it.

(1980) is a series of dances for six male/female couples, concluding with a section for all twelve dancers. The duets explore a fascinating range of partnering, while their emotional tone varies from aloof and mechanical to intimate and playful–suggesting a deeper structure that never became quite clear. It was the only frustration in this otherwise satisfying performance.

For viewers accustomed to ballet’s illusions of effortlessness and weightlessness, Duets is startlingly transparent: Everything is exactly what it seems. The bends, lifts, and turns are straightforward, yet the outcomes are fresh and interesting. It’s like a magician who shows you, step by step, how he’s going to do his next trick–but still amazes you when he does it.

The opener, Todd Bolender’s Chopin Piano Pieces, had a similar air of offhand genius. True, this plotless 1986 ballet is only fluff–but it’s brilliant fluff, superbly paced and enchantingly varied. It delivered a stream of pleasant little surprises–and some bigger ones, such as a cartwheel thrown into the middle of a classical variation –all well-danced with elegance and warmth.

The premiere of Whitener’s Haven, to music by Japanese film composer Toru Takemitsu, was weightier fare. Visually, it’s stunning: Kirk Bookman’s slashes of lighting, scenic artist Jason Pollen’s pierced and textured hangings, and Lisa Harper’s austerely beautiful costumes added up to a gallery-worthy vista.

Whitener’s sculpted movements fit this setting well, especially his inventive use of the pierced hangings to fragment dancers’ shapes. But with enough movement vocabulary for a dozen ballets, Haven’s sheer density obscured what it seemed to intend. Any ballet this gorgeous-looking is certainly no failure–but choreographically, as the other two works demonstrated, less might have been more.