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The show will go on: 'The Nutcracker' returns to the Kauffman Center with a fully vaccinated cast

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Julie Denesha
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KCUR 89.3
At the Christmas party, Clara is gifted a toy nutcracker by Dr. Drosselmeier, played by Elise Pickert and Cameron Thomas, during a dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" performed by the Kansas City Ballet at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 2, 2021, in Kansas City, Missouri.

A holiday tradition for many families is back this year at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. After a pandemic year off, Kansas City Ballet’s "The Nutcracker" returns but with some changes.

Many ballet dancers start training at an early age, and landing a role in "The Nutcracker" is part of it. Kansas City Ballet includes roles in its annual holiday production for company members as well as students.

Artistic Director Devon Carney has had a long career in dance, as a dancer and choreographer. So, when the company canceled "The Nutcracker" last year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was, as he put it, "very strange."

“Bringing it back this year makes this time of year complete,” Carney said. “So I really feel this resurgence, this wonderful energy, as the holidays are approaching and in part of our lives now.”

Even though "The Nutcracker" is back, COVID protocols are still in place: masks during rehearsals and all cast members are fully vaccinated.

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Julie Denesha
/
KCUR 89.3
Dr. Drosselmeier's Harlequin, Gavin Abercrombie, leaps into the air to the delight of children attending the Christmas party during a dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" performed by the Kansas City Ballet at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 2, 2021, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Elise Pickert, 13, plays Clara. It’s her sixth time in the production, but her first as Clara (she’s one of two dancers as Clara this year).

“Clara is a young girl who gets a Nutcracker as a gift for Christmas from her godfather. And she just falls in love with it,” Pickert described. “And it kind of goes into this whole battle scene where the Nutcracker saves Clara ... (it’s) just a fun experience for Clara to explore.”

Until November, children under 12 were not eligible for the vaccine which eliminated some of the roles and made room for new cast members.

Olivia McFadden, 19, started dancing at the age of four. She grew up in a military family that’s moved around, so she’s danced in productions in Oklahoma and Alaska. But this marks her first with the Kansas City Ballet.

“Obviously the masks are quite a bit different, but I feel like it's helped my stamina quite a bit,” McFadden said. “So I'm able to dance freely and focus more on my artistry.”

As one of the angels, McFadden helps usher in Act 2 in the Land of the Sweets. This is where audiences meet the Sugar Plum Fairy.

“Nutcracker is a very special ballet for ballerinas,” said dancer Lilliana Hagerman. “You know, you want to do Clara when you're little and then you want to do the Sugar Plum Fairy when you're older.”

The company members perform multiple roles and Hagerman is one of seven different dancers cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s an iconic role, she said, requiring a lot of stamina — so an audience is critical.

“When you have the audience there, they give you something that just helps you get through it,” she said. “Even more, they just give an energy to you and you automatically are the Sugar Plum Fairy and you can get through that variation because they're enjoying it, you're enjoying them.”

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Julie Denesha
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KCUR 89.3
Russian dancers Andrew Rossi, Paul Zusi and Joshua Bodden perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" performed by the Kansas City Ballet at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 2, 2021, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Dancer Joshua Bodden was introduced to ballet at a young age in the audience of "The Nutcracker" — and he says it sparked joy. Every year, he said, it’s a “special moment” to revisit what led to a career in dance.

“It was a combination of the whole experience from start to end,” he recalled, “live music, the lights, the costumes, the transition, the effects of the battle scene with the cannon. The snow scene when the snow falls.”

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Julie Denesha
/
KCUR 89.3
Snow Queen and Snow King, Emily Mistretta and Liang Fu, dance together in the Kingdom of the Snow during a dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" performed by the Kansas City Ballet at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 2, 2021, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Bodden also plays a range of roles in this year’s production, including his first time as the Nutcracker Prince.

“I think returning to the stage this year with 'The Nutcracker' is the perfect opportunity to believe and dream for the holiday season,” said Bodden. “Coming back from a very dark time, it's like a little light at the end of the tunnel as we bookend this 2021.”

Kansas City Ballet's Carney, who choreographed the company's production, said it’s often a white or Asian American dancer who plays the Nutcracker Prince — in part because of costuming.

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Julie Denesha
/
KCUR 89.3
The Nutcracker Prince and The Mouse King, Kevin Wilson and Humberto Rivera Blanco, do battle during a dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" performed by the Kansas City Ballet at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 2, 2021, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Bodden is African American, so the company commissioned a new mask, a Nutcracker head to match his skin color.

The ballet world continues to be a place where diversity is something that's not as full as it should be,” said Carney. “And it's a passion of mine to change that.”

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JULIE DENESHA (913)980-6256
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The Sugar Plum Fairy, Whitney Huell, dances during a dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" performed by the Kansas City Ballet at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts December 2, 2021, in Kansas City, Missouri.

In 2018, Whitney Huell was the first African American dancer to take on the role of Sugar Plum Fairy for the Kansas City Ballet (and she opened this year's production reprising the role).

Just as more diverse casting has changed "The Nutcracker" over the years, so has COVID. But Carney said he hopes that some changes, like more dancers of color in lead roles, are here to stay.

Kansas City Ballet’s "The Nutcracker" runs through Dec. 24, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Note: All audience members will be required to provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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