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Retiring A Classic, Todd Bolender's 'The Nutcracker' In Its Final Year

Julie Denesha
Dew Drop (Sarah Chun) dances in 'Waltz of the Flowers.'

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR
Former Ballet Master James Jordan guides dancer Whitney Huell through the steps in the party scene during a rehearsal for 'The Nutcracker.'

The Nutcracker, with choreography by Todd Bolender, has played a role in the holiday season for Kansas City audiences since 1981. But, on Christmas Eve, the curtain falls for the last time on this version of the production.

The Sugar Plum Fairy lightly takes center stage in a gold tutu at the final dress rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.  

RELATED: PHOTOS: Take A Look Behind The Scenes of Todd Bolender's 'The Nutcracker'

Todd Bolender was already an internationally known dancer and choreographer when he arrived at Kansas City Ballet in 1981 to serve as artistic director. Bolender choreographed and launched his Nutcracker that December. 

On choreographing 'Dance of the Flowers'

No one knows each step better than James Jordan who served 23 years as ballet master at Kansas City Ballet. Jordan is now ballet master for Sarasota Ballet, but he returned to help stage this final season of The Nutcracker. 

Jordan was a young company dancer when Bolender first choreographed The Nutcracker

"I have particular memories of him (Bolender) choreographing the Waltz of the Flowers," he said. "He had purchased the old Waltz of the Flowers from the San Francisco Ballet so he had the whole color palette. So he pinned those colors to the girls so he could figure out all his patterns.

"Once the costumes arrived, it was just so magical and it’s always been such a highlight of Act 2 is the Waltz of the Flowers."

On a favorite part of 'The Nutcracker'

Kimberly Cowen danced with the company for 20 years. Now she works behind-the-scenes as the director of the youth ballet. "I have a lot of really wonderful fond memories of working with Mr. Bolender," said Cowen. 

"My favorite scene is The Waltz of the Flower scene. I danced pretty much every single year that I was in the company either as a flower or the dewdrop. So that one I did probably the most and it’s a beautiful luscious scene so I will miss that one greatly," she said. 

"I know that I will always remember it and even though I won’t be getting to watch it every year on stage I know when I hear Nutcracker in the malls that’s what I’m going to have running through my head."   

On Bolender bringing the influence of Balanchine to Kansas City

Credit courtesy: Kansas City Ballet
courtesy: Kansas City Ballet
Dancer and choreographer Todd Bolender.

Before coming to Kansas City, Todd Bolender spent many years in New York working with GeorgeBalanchine, a prolific Russian choreographer known as the father of American ballet.

Jordan says Todd Bolender brought shades of Balanchine with him to Kansas City and included them in his Nutcracker.

"As he came from Mr. Balanchine, that whole American physicality is in there. The moving out and the size and the drive and all of the dramatic content behind  that that drives that physicality, I think all of that is Bolender," said Jordan.

"He was just that quintessential American dancer and choreographer that just pushed everybody into great places."   

Bolender had a way of coaxing memorable performances from each dancer, said Cowen. 

"The thing I love the most about him is that he really knew how to get the best out of every dancer," she said. “Even on days when you didn’t think you had it in you, he knew how to make you push and continue to be your best and sometimes do things you didn’t know you were capable of doing."   

On strong female characters in Bolender's Nutcracker 

For Cowen, Bolender’sNutcracker offers strong characters that challenge female dancers.

"To me, what I think is really special about his Nutcracker is that he really has looked at from a young girl’s point of view," Cowan said.

"And he made sure that there were all kinds of female roles in the production. Not every woman has to be dainty and polite. From the Snow Queen to the Sugar Plum Fairy to the Mirliton to the Dewdrop, they all have a different dynamic about them and as a female dancer, it’s great for the women to have that opportunity to try out different hats in the show."

"And he pushed the men as well," Jordan added. "If someone came in and had a special whizz bang effect, that they had learned elsewhere, he would incorporate it into the Nutcracker. He just wanted it to be the best every time. Every show."

On laying down the foundation for dance in Kansas City

In 2006, Bolender died at the age of 92. Cowen says she will always remember Bolender’s passion for dance.  

"He was very unselfish," said Cowen. "He cared so much about the art form and the artists. He really just laid it all down for ballet here in Kansas City. So we all are grateful because he paved the way for so many others to have such great success." 

"These studios have been filled with skipping and marching children for many years and they meant a lot to Mr. Bolender and he really made an impression on a lot of people’s lives with this production," Jordan said.

"He really just raised the bar here. When Mr. Bolender passed away, Mr. Bentley (Executive Director Jeffrey J. Bentley) said that 'Todd was our North Star' and I always loved that."

Over the years, costumes were mended and sets were touched up as the decision to redecorate and rebuild was discussed.  But Jordan says a decision to retire the BolenderNutcracker was made when Devon Carney, who is also a choreographer, was brought on as the new artistic director.

With Carney at the helm, work on the new production is already underway and expected to open next year.

Kansas City Ballet presents 'The Nutcracker' through December 24 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Mo. 816-931-2232. 

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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