Pictured: Kansas City Ballet Dancers and KCB School Students. Photography: Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.
By Abigail Trabue
When I was a young girl, dreaming of becoming a ballet dancer, the visions of sugar plums that danced in my head every holiday season were that of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The world of THE NUTCRACKER was an indulgent fantasy where I played Clara, The Rose, and danced the grand pas de deux with my Cavalier all in one performance. My stamina was endless. Fast forward a few years or so, and I am now the mother of a child who has his own visions of sugar plums; however, those tend to be more of the battling mice kind and being a hero Prince. Regardless, the world of THE NUTCRACKER remains a very real place, and as generation after generation gather every holiday season to indulge in the glorious Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky score and marvel at the deceptively effortless and stunning mastery that is ballet, we here in Kansas City are fortunate enough to have a company that not only excels in their interpretation of THE NUTCRACKER, but is also lead by an artistic director who clearly understands the importance of paying tribute to a classic, while being brave enough to reimagine Clara’s journey and usher in a new level of excellence.
Kansas City Ballet’s THE NUTCRACKER, fresh off a Thanksgiving holiday run at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., is simply one of the most charming productions I’ve seen in a long time, with some of that charm being attributed to the wide-eyed seven-year-old who calls me mom and accompanied me on opening night. It’s hard not to pick up a little of the child-like enthusiasm that fills a theater during NUTCRACKER season. And yet, you have to give it to Artistc Director Devon Carney for choreographing a piece that’s got a little bit of something for every age group. It’s a fine balance between a production that caters to the younger crowd and has kids peppered in almost every dance number versus a production that only brings kids in when absolutely – we have no other choice – necessary.
From the moment the curtain rises, we are invited to sit back and allow ourselves to drift between that place of adulthood and youth. This is my third year with Kansas City Ballet’s reimagined NUTCRACKER, and I grow to love the opening scene more and more each year. Charles Martin is endearing as Dr. Drosselmeier bouncing around his workshop preparing to bring magic to the Silberhaus household on Christmas Eve. Martin is incredibly charismatic, and his turn with Mother Ginger is adorably funny.
In Clara (Poppy Trettel), we have Kansas City Ballet’s best Clara to date. Graceful, youthful, expressive and beyond talented. Trettel holds her own as she dances around with the grown-ups at the party, or with her Prince in the Kingdom of Snow and the Land of the Sweets. She was lovely to watch, and I’m sure this isn’t the last time we will see her on the stage of the Kauffman.
As the ballet progresses, Dr. Drosselmeier’s magic brings Clara’s beloved Nutcracker to life, transforming him into human form as he battles The Mouse King one final time. My son’s delight during this scene echoed in the form of non-stop laughter. Here Carney has put together a scene that borders on the absurd, but in an incredibly thoughtful and deliberate way, and one that certainly appeals to the little ones in the audience. As the mice pop up and give us throwback dance moves or shake their micey bottoms at us, the audience giggles and smiles and parents laugh along with their children, and once again, the magic of THE NUTCRACKER embraces all of us. And it’s here that my son has asked me to commend The Mouse King (James Kirby Rogers) for his hilarious entrance and for striking a “savage pose” in a sardine tin.
It’s also here, within the battle sequence and continuing until the end of act one, that Set Designer Alain Vaës shines. As Clara’s world enlargens around her we are treated to the iconic moment where the family Christmas Tree begins to engulf the stage, and furniture becomes larger than life as mice wield silverware as battle instruments, and little soldiers march around blowing confetti out of a cannon. And as the battle comes to an end and Clara is whisked away to the Kingdom of Snow, a dreamlike sleigh arrives bearing the Snow King and Queen and snowflakes dance amongst the falling snow in a swirling and constantly moving scene that ends with Clara and The Nutcracker Prince boarding a magical vessel. In a moment that always draws a response from the audience, they are whisked up into the sky and sail away. Vaës certainly outdoes himself, and it is delightful.
As the curtain rises on act two, we are clearly in the Land of the Sweets, and it’s here the entire Kansas City Ballet company radiates artistry, most notably Tempe Ostergren (The Sugar Plum Fairy), Molly Wagner (Arabian Women) and Amaya Rodriguez (The Rose). Rodriguez’s center defies gravity, and while I loved her as The Sugar Plum Fairy last year, she is equally just as stunning as The Rose. Wagner, who makes Gumby look tight, is mesmerizing to watch, and along with Humberto Rivera Blanco, Liang Fu, Angelin Carrant, and Sasha Chernjavsky, delivers an Arabian dance that certainly lives up to the number’s reputation for featuring stunning flexibility and impressive lifts.
However, the night really belonged to Ostergren. She floats through the grand pas de deux filling every beat and breathing through every moment with a gentle grace and elegance that can’t be taught. It’s just part of your soul. Along with her Cavalier (Michael Davis), Ostergren makes Carney’s choreography sing. And in this grand pas de deux we find the most complete marrying of choreography and music in the whole show. Time seems to stop as Ostergren and Davis move across the stage and by the end I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat. It is the moment I wait for in every NUTCRACKER production, and the young girl in me, the one who so wanted to grow-up to be The Sugar Plum Fairy, was once again delighted.
From the first thrill-inducing note to the final beat of the grand-finale, The Kansas City Ballet’s THE NUTCRACKER is a visual feast, made all the more enticing by the resplendent costumes by designer Holly Hynes and a dazzlingly score brought to life by the Kansas City Symphony under Conductor Ramona Pansegrau. May we continue to reimagine and rediscover Clara’s world with the Kansas City Ballet for generations to come.
THE NUTCRACKER runs through December 24th. For more information visit kcballet.org.