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Kansas City Looks For Joy During A Holiday Season Without 'The Nutcracker' Ballet

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Julie Denesha
Emily Meiring (left) and her mother Rachel Thompson examine the date marked with a sharpie on the base of a nutcracker. Going to see 'The Nutcracker' ushers in the holidays for them.

The Kansas City Ballet's first performance of "The Nutcracker" was in 1972. And for many families across the metro, the production is a holiday tradition. But for the first time in nearly 50 years a pandemic has put the show on hold.

On the day after Thanksgiving, as she does ever year, Rachel Thompson pried open some tubs and began unwrapping toy nutcrackers. Each one contains a memory of the many times she and her twin daughters watched the Kansas City Ballet perform the beloved holiday production.

“Either before the show started or during intermission, we would go and they would pick out their nutcracker for that year," Thompson says. "So it was quite an event. And you can imagine, that started when they were 5 and they’re 22 now, so we have an arsenal of nutcrackers. ”

Thompson’s daughter, Emily Meiring, says she remembers the first time she saw the ballet performed on stage.

"We sat there watching the show with our nutcrackers and it was like, it was special," Meiring says. "And so that's something that we do every year and take that special feeling with us. It means Christmas, it means the holiday season. I love that. ”

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Julie Denesha
Seventeen years of collecting nutcrackers makes a colorful holiday display for Thompson and her twin daughters.

Normally Emily’s sister Amy would be at her mother's home in Overland Park, Kansas, for the ritual unveiling of the nutcrackers. But this year, in the dance of the pandemic, Emily was practicing social distancing.

That same pandemic means the Kansas City Ballet’s glittery Nutcracker performance won’t take place in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts this year. So Thompson is grateful she has memories to hold in her hands.

“Every time we pull out a nutcracker, it puts us right back at that performance, that year," Thompson says. "It embodies everything about that experience. And so then we get to relive it, and it's a lot of fun.”

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Julie Denesha
The Kansas City Ballet's second company dancers Josh Kiesel and Talia Lebowitz, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, perform for an audience for the first time in eight months at Powell Garden’s Festival of Lights.

The Kansas City Ballet made the difficult decision in July to cancel its annual run of "The Nutcracker." But recently its second company performed two dances from the ballet outdoors at Powell Garden’s Festival of Lights. Dancer Katie Wolfe says she was glad to be in front of an audience again.

“A few months ago, I was dancing in my living room, holding on to a chair for a bar, so I'm just grateful to be here,” Wolfe says.

She has been working with small pods of dancers until the full company can be together.

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Julie Denesha
Devon Carney, Artistic Director of the Kansas City Ballet, says he won’t be experiencing the holidays in quite the same way this year.

“You know, Nutcracker will come again," Wolfe says. "I know that for a fact, but it's better to be safe than sorry." She says she's proud of the precautions Kansas City Ballet has taken to ensure the safety of its dancers, staff and community.

But for many in Kansas City's arts community, from tiny children dancers to the staff at the Kauffman Center, "The Nutcracker" is a big part of December.

Devon Carney, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, says he won’t be experiencing the holidays in quite the same way this year.

“For me, it's the first time in 40 some years that I've not been involved in Nutcracker either as a performing artist or as a ballet master or as artistic director," Carney says. "'The Nutcracker' has been such an annual milestone. To not have that, it's kind of like the world's not quite spinning right, you know?”

Carney says he dreams of the day the company can perform together.

The Kansas City Ballet
The Kansas City Ballet staged its first full-length 'Nutcracker' in 1972. This archive image was taken in 1974.

“We're going to come back," he says. "We have to. Somehow, some way, we're going to get past this. And when that day comes that we're back at the Kauffman Center with a full audience, not a socially distanced audience, but a full audience, it is going to be glorious."

Rachel Thompson and her daughter Emily say they also are anticipating the day they can enter a theater, settle into seats, and watch the curtain rise on another production of 'The Nutcracker.'

“It's about making a connection with you guys," Thompson says to her daughter. "And that's the most meaningful part."

For now, with the stage lights dark and the music on pause, they'll forge the connection through wooden toy nutcrackers from performances gone by.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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