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The Kansas City Ballet Retires Its 34-Year-Old 'Nutcracker,' Rolls Out Dramatic New Version

For more than three decades, Kansas City audiences have gathered at the holidays to watch the classic ballet, The Nutcracker. This year, though, they'll be getting something much different.Kansas City Ballet has transformed the production with new costumes, new sets — and new choreography.

The man driving this production is artistic director Devon Carney, who's been with the Kansas City Ballet since 2013. It’s his first full-length Nutcracker and Carney has a special passion for the show every ballet company performs the most.

Like any world premier ballet, the dancers don’t know the steps until he creates them. And, with just a few weeks to go before opening night, Carney said there was still a bit more choreography to dream up. And he knew the clock was ticking.

“It’s kind of a moment in time where the puzzle pieces are starting to form into more than just indiscriminate colors and shapes and you’re actually starting to see pictures now which is really exciting, frankly,” said Carney. “But there is a lot of glue that still needs to be applied in order for the show to really be cohesive.”

Learning new moves

Work on the production was well underway at the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity back in mid-August, as more than 200 young dancers marched across the rehearsal space hoping to be chosen. This audition day was much like the start of any Nutcracker season, except the steps were all new and the stakes were much higher.

Music director Ramona Pansegrau said the all-new production was the beginning of a new era for the Kansas City Ballet.

“The tradition here with Nutcracker, it’s been a family treasure. But it was established (in 1981), at a time when the ballet was small,” Pansegrau said.

“There is nothing that is small in this production. It’s all big. We’re probably 18 to 20 months into it already, because not only do you have to make those decisions about the music, you have to make those decisions about the sets and the costumes."

"It’s hard, a lot harder than it was," she said. "So, do I slow down to give them more time, or do I speed up so they don’t get stuck in the floor and can’t get onto the air? So there’s a lot of those types of decisions for me as a music director to make.”

Crafting new looks

About a month after the auditions, dancer Sarah Chun stood in the costume shop before a mirror wearing a deep red bodice and antique green tutu — the beginnings of a rose costume designed by New York costume designer Holly Hynes. 

Costume fitters worked quickly to pin the satin fabric. Hynes designed all the costumes, from the smallest baby mouse to the Sugar Plum Fairy.

“The original inspiration on the rose was that she wasn’t a brand new, perfect rose," Hynes said, 'It was more a rose that you’ve enjoyed for a few days and then it starts to get a little dark around the edges and you know what’s coming but but you want to enjoy this richer, middle-aged look."

Hynes described the "crunchy, sort of twisted edge" of the rose as "still a pretty little petal but it’s just a little wiser, it’s just a little more seasoned."

The end result: "She is really going to be a stunner."

Creating every step they take

Once all the decisions are made and the curtain rises in December on the new version of The Nutcracker, Carney said he's looking forward to reactions from the youngest members of the audience.

“One of my favorite things to do is watch the moments where you see little girls’ eyes pop wide open. Or their mouth goes, Oh! You know. That, for me, those moments just make me wanna cry," Carney said.

"They’re just beautiful because, you know, that’s what the holidays are all about. And that, for me, is what Nutcracker is all about — the chance to discover, or rediscover their childlike heart. Because we all have it, we just gotta let it come out.”

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.

Kansas City Balletpresents 'The Nutcracker' from December 5 through December 24 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway Blvd, Kansas City, Missouri. Tickets start at $29. 816-931-2232.

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