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The Future Of Dance Is Daunting, Which Is Why The Kansas City Ballet Risks 'New Moves'

Elizabeth Stehling
Kansas City Ballet
New York-based choreographer Abdur-Rahim Jackson is one of three visiting choreographers in the Kansas City Ballet's New Moves program.

In an art form as brutal as it is beautiful, breaking through the tried-and-true blockbusters of classic ballet and strict company structure is difficult. New work and new talent is a risk. Creating new work not only requires learning new steps, but also changing perspectives, generating curiosity and challenging expectations.

Kansas City Ballet has figured out how to capitalize on that risk with New Moves, a showcase of six world premieres from new and emerging choreographers, performed at the Bolender Center's Michael and Ginger Frost Studio Theater to give audiences an intimate look at the future of dance.

For the fifth installment, Artistic Director Devon Carney has compiled a diverse group of thinkers and movers, choosing three choreographers from within the company and bringing three guest choreographers from out of town. Additionally, young dancers from KCB II, the Ballet’s program for pre-professionals, will premier a work by Parrish Maynard, the company's ballet master.

“It’s grown into a well-known production now, though every year it’s different,” says Carney. “But the concept is the same. Being so up close with the dancers is a unique experience as an audience member.”

One of this year’s more seasoned choreographers is New York-based Abdur-Rahim Jackson, who was back in town last Tuesday for his second round of rehearsals.

“I’m excited to see how it is still growing within them,” he said.

All the while mixing balletic terms with hummed musical effects and his own vernacular, Jackson led the dancers through a segment, reworking phrases and coalescing the ensemble into one extended, elaborate gesture of rippling, flowing momentum.

The dancers’ concentrated expressions made it clear he was presenting them with some thorny physical challenges. But Jackson was obviously enjoying the process.

“I love it! I love it!” he gushed, smiling.

New Moves is unique, Jackson said.

“We know ballet dancers are beautiful and they can execute. This company is very strong, but Devon knows what’s ahead. These dancers should be challenged to do different styles and work with their peers as well as people they don’t know, to really test how great they are,” he explained.

It’s also a rare opportunity for young choreographers to work with top-level professional dancers. Some reach out to Carney asking for the opportunity; some he approaches because he sees the creative potential. Each year, it’s a mix.

This year he selected Christopher Costantini, Michael Davis and Emily Mistretta from the Ballet. This is Davis’s second year, after a well-received piece last season, and a first shot for Costantini and Mistretta.

Carney says Costantini, who has been with the company since 2014, came to him with a well thought-out proposal.

“It’s crazy,” he said, “but there are always more guys who want to choreograph than women in the company.”

But Carney is keen to encourage female choreographers, so he asked Mistretta to take a creative leap. He’d known Mistretta since their Boston Ballet days, and she’s also worked with the Cirio Collective, a collaborative choreographic troupe out on the East Coast.

Credit Elizabeth Stehling / Kansas City Ballet
Kansas City Ballet
Kansas City Ballet dancers Humberto Rivera Blanco, Elysa Hotchkiss and Cameron Thomas rehearse a new work by New Moves choreographer and and Kansas City Ballet dancer Emily Mistretta.

“I wanted to give her a chance to try her thing,” he says, adding that he knew “she would be very game for contemporary, interesting, off-the-map kind of choreography.”

From outside the company, along with Jackson, Carney invited Monique Meunier and Mariana Oliveira.

Meunier was principal dancer with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and is now an assistant professor at University of California Santa Barbara. Her work is the program’s most classically based and the only piece with live music, performed by Ramona Pansegrau at the piano.

Oliveira, born in Brazil, started her own company in 2009: The Union Project Dance Company. Carney saw her work in a choreography competition in Arkansas and said it was so smartly done knew he wanted to bring her in. Her piece, set to Heitor Villa-Lobos, explores the concepts of relationships, gravity and enduring love.

Credit Elizabeth Stehling / Kansas City Ballet
Kansas City Ballet
Kansas City Ballet dancers rehearse a New Moves piece by guest choreographer Mariana Oliveira.

That means this year’s show has a nice balance of three female choreographers and three male, as well as diversity in backgrounds and experiences.

“I try to acquire individuals who bring a variety of viewpoints,” Carney says.

“It is vital and critical and important to be addressing, at least in our way, in Kansas City, the need for dancers of color choreographing, the need for women to be choreographing,” he says. “New Moves is one of those moments where I can really get at that.”

For a choreographer, New Moves is also a potential springboard to bigger opportunities.

“One of the goals is that you discover individuals who are able to move on to a higher-risk environment,” Carney said, citing Andrea Schermoly as one such success story. She first worked with the company in 2015’s New Moves and is now preparing a world premiere work for the Ballet’s Anniversary Dance Festival in April.

While the choreographers present different experience levels, each also brings different ideas, strategies and procedures into the studio. Part of the process is just finding out what works.

“As a choreographer I want to challenge the dancers,” Jackson said, “and as a dancer I want to challenge the choreographer.”

His work, “aBnOrMaL Normal,” explores the, he said, “perception of ourselves, versus the perception of how other people see us.” Jackson studied at Juilliard and Boston Ballet Summer Dance Program (where he first met Carney), danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and has choreographed for ballet companies, fashion shows, and music videos.

His style is “contemporary funk,” he said.

“The first step that I learned was on the street, on my block, so there’s always that groove, that funk inside me, but the contemporary aspect of it is all my training,” he explained.

“I think that’s the future of movement – you have to have a range.”

Jackson is also influenced by language. Arabic was his first language, and that’s noticeable in the fluidity and elegance of his movements, with gestures blossoming like lotus and phrases that flow like script. Even his stylized titles – “aBnOrMaL Normal” being one of them -- play with this, the mix of lettering making the words dance.

Credit Elizabeth Stehling / Kansas City Ballet
Kansas City Ballet
Kansas City Ballet dancer Michael Davis (in blue) rehearses with choreographer Abdur-Rahim Jackson.

There is risk in trying new artists and new ideas, but in that vulnerability is a chance to grow, and the opportunity to have the honest conversation about creativity, ability and challenges.

That’s what Jackson’s work aims to convey: listening to, and finding an appreciation for, the inner truth, despite outside pressures and perceptions.

In one moment, he asked the dancers to turn and face each other, to be still and truly look.

“We are all just a mirror of each other and we never really take time to do that in our lives,” he said, ”just stop and look at the person in their eyes and really take in their spirit, their energy.”

At first, he said, the dancers were uncomfortable, but then:

“Every time we did it I could see the dancers trust each other more. That’s the principle of the piece, the message to be shared on stage, to the world: that we just have to stop and really look at what’s in front of us.”

New Moves, Feb. 15-18 at the Bolender Center, 500 W. Pershing Road, Kansas City, Mo., 64108; 816-931-8993.

KCUR contributor Libby Hanssen writes the culture blog Proust Eats A Sandwich. Follow her on Twitter, @libbyhanssen.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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