Pictured: Dancers Kaleena Burks and Liang Fu with Kansas City Ballet Dancers. Photographer: Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.
By Bec Pennington
SWAN LAKE is an ancient Russian folktale commissioned in the Tsar era as a ballet set to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The now famous story follows a young prince, Siegfried, under pressure after his recent birthday to choose a bride. After reluctantly promising his mother to do so, he consoles himself with a hunting trip, in which he stumbles upon Odette who is enchanted in the form of a swan until her true love pledges faithfulness to her. If he betrays her, she will be cursed to forever remain a creature. After Marius Petipa overhauled the ballet in 1895, SWAN LAKE took its place in history as perhaps the most iconic of ballet art. To present a masterful performance of it is to take a huge leap into the elite of ballet companies.
By the time the curtain rises on this icy cold evening, the Kansas City Symphony has settled us in comfortably for an evening of fairytale delight, expertly filling the theatre with the familiar score. A majestic courtyard staircase sprawls upstage nestled amid the shadows of different cut drops and borders shaped like trees and ivy. It’s a typical ballet setting, a bright and open expanse with layers of scenery that create a magical depth. As the Acts unfold, the Kauffman Center’s stunning hall boasts its size, easily showcasing the impressively large cast.
Technically speaking, KCB continues to make strides toward that elusive premier company goal. They have not neglected the batterie, the fluttering beats in jumps unique to ballet that so many companies these days seem to cut out. The technical prowess required to float consistent entrechat sixes in a pointe variation is more rare, but we lucky Kansas City ballet goers are treated to this feat in the first act. The students interspersed throughout the choreography of Acts I & III blend seamlessly, their lush port de bras indistinguishable from the professionals around them. In perhaps the most difficult corps de ballet ever designed, twenty-six swans express their gorgeous lines and intricate formations in perfect ethereal unison. Costuming as well has thankfully grown in sophistication, the party goers’ rich textiles contrasting beautifully with the simplicity of the white swans. What remains of Ivanov and Petipa’s original steps is of course above reproach, easily surmounting the test of time, but Devon Carney has designed some truly incredible choreography to fill out the production. He obviously knows his dancers’ strengths and how to layer interest on a big stage.
Kaleena Burks is a natural Odette, strong and delicate as both wild bird and sorrowful maiden, held captive under the cruel spell of Von Rothbart. She preens and flutters gracefully, easily marrying the unrelentingly difficult pas steps to her otherworldly character. As Odile, she powers through her pas work, relishing her control over her lovelorn target, but the infamous difficulty of the variation steps occasionally pulls the sharpness from her delivery. The now standard 32 fouettes became 27 on this particular night – a noteworthy feat, but Burks is capable of them all. Cameron Thomas, filling in for an unfortunately ill Cast 1 dancer as the evil Rothbart, is nothing short of stunning. His leaps hang in the air, his confident command of the stage prompting a guilty desire to see more of his terrible self. For his part, Liang Fu shines best as Burks’ partner; his dancing as Seigfried is accomplished, but begs for a little more musicality, a bit more chewiness to the plié. Regardless of any shortcomings visible to a dance veteran, the leads are undeniably enchanting. Other notable standouts are the lovely Act 1 Pas de Trois dancers, Lilliana Hagerman, Taryn Mejia, and Craig Wasserman; the haunting Cygnets, Amanda DeVenuta, Emily Mistretta, Taryn Mejia, and Naomi Tanioka; and the spicy Spanish dancers in Act III, Danielle Bausinger & Lamin Pereira.
Altogether, Kansas City Ballet must be proud of their accomplishment. Since first setting the full-length production in 2016, the organization has developed some confidence and finesse to their efforts. Even with its flaws, SWAN LAKE is sweepingly gorgeous and worthy of the standing ovations it has received thus far. The success of this classic demonstrates that our home-grown company is coming into its own, worthy of its following.