Review: The Kansas City Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’ at The Kennedy Center

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The Kansas City Ballet’s The Nutcracker, with its classic composition by Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Artistic Director Devon Carney, is a stunning and opulent spin on a classic ballet. This timeless story about a nutcracker come to life is sure to dazzle those who have seen other productions and enchant those who are seeing it for the first time.

The Kansas City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. Photo by Brett Pruitt and East Market Studios.

The Nutcracker opens with danseur Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye, as Dr. Dosselmeier, in his workshop. Harlequin Kevin Wilson and Harlequinade Amanda DeVenuta provide comedic movement. The Harlequin shakes like his legs are made of springs and the Harlequinade maintains a doll-like stiffness. Dosselmeier manipulates them as he prepares to deliver them to the children at the party to come. Early on, this ballet establishes a technical spectacle with large, moving parts that unfold as the dancers go deeper into the set.

At the party we meet our Clara, performed by the consistently delightful and elegant young ballerina, Maggie Crist. Tchaikovsky’s “March” plays to pairs of children dancing in celebration of Christmas. They are soon joined by their parents. Carney’s choreography leans towards the modern, yet retains a classic flair that lends itself well to dances requiring high energy. Drosselmeier, more magician than toymaker, delights the children and the audience with magic tricks before night falls and Clara reappears. Drosselmeier has returned after the party to take us to the next chapter in this ballet as Clara’s dreams become our setting.

Rounding out act one is the battle between the mice and the soldiers. The mice enter, each pulling a move from hip hop dance styles to distinguish themselves. The children reappear, this time dressed as soldiers. Each group moves frantically across the stage as the set grows in size –  literally – to accommodate the battle. Mouse King Christopher Costantini delivers as humorous a Mouse King performance as there has ever been. It is here that Drosselmeier produces the Nutcracker Prince, danseur Dillon Malinski.

The Kansas City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. Photo by Brett Pruitt and East Market Studios.

For those unfamiliar with The Nutcracker, this is where we’re magicked away from Clara’s home to the Kingdom of the Snow. The dazzling entrance of the Snow Queen and Snow King – Danielle Bausinger and James Kirby Rogers – as they are pulled in their sleigh while it snows, marks the turning point of this production. Ice crystals Amanda DeVenuta and Tempe Ostergren, in their gorgeous tutus and tiaras, float across the stage with the company of snowflakes. The Snow King and Queen perform a lovely pas de deux prior to their exit, with movements that are clean and complementary. Clara, escorted by the Nutcracker Prince and flanked by a flying Drosselmeier, is then whisked away in a hot air balloon to the Land of the Sweets.

The real fun begins in act two. This is where the production’s technical marvels and the dancers’ skills shine. Eye candy in the form of the dances of the various sweets allows the audience a glimpse into how nimble Tchaikovsky’s score is and how well the Kansas City Ballet handles these transitions. Many of the sequences are kinetic and high-energy, requiring each group of sweets to build upon the movements of the former. The Russian Trepak dance was the most successful. Led by danseurs Kevin Wilson, Charles Martin, and Cameron Thomas, who were flanked by young ballerinas holding oversized matryoshka dolls, the dance incorporates traditional elements which successfully support Tchaikovsky’s frantic score.

“The Waltz of the Flowers” saw the ballerinas dressed in delicate pink outfits, which complimented their airy and graceful flow during this number. We do catch glimpses of Petipa here, though Carney relies more on a certain lightness in the movements instead of bravura. In examining Carney’s choreography, I found a few of the larger company numbers to lack finesse, but he really shines in his duets. The pas de deux which follows the “Waltz of the Flowers” between Sugar Plum Fairy Amaya Rodriguez and Lamin Pereira dos Santos is easily one of the most beautifully appointed dances in this production. Rodrigues and dos Santos’ tenderness in motion permeates their duet and matches perfectly with the melancholy nature of the composition. Rarely have I been moved to tears at a ballet, but this was one of those times where all the elements aligned to create the perfect synergy between two dancers. “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” again showcases Amaya Rodriguez’s skill in capturing the mood.

The Kansas City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. Photo by Brett Pruitt and East Market Studios.

The Scenery and Properties Designer Alain Vaës is to be commended for the beautiful sets which make the Land of the Sweets come to life. Costume Designer Holly Hines provides a flexible array of outfits to compliment the culturally-influenced sweets dances. One area that could be improved upon is sensitivity displayed in the representation of these various cultures. While The Nutcracker reflects the values of its time, the costuming – the Chinese outfits in particular – veered into stereotypes in ways that I feel could have been avoided. Many of the costumes were purposefully garish and, though the prior issue detracted somewhat from the overall experience, the spectacle nonetheless made for an enjoyable viewing.

The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, led by Director and Conductor Ramona Pansegrau, deserves a special mention. This is one of Tchaikovsky’s more diverse works and requires musicians to pivot very quickly between the various movements. There is a lot of room for error, but the Orchestra maintained its grasp on this complicated score and performed quite marvelously.

By the time you get to the final waltz, you will be completely under the spell of the Kansas City Ballet’s The Nutcracker. This bright, colorful production bursts forth on the stage with its abundance of joy and holiday cheer, which is immensely satisfying for any balletomane or ballet newbie. An impressive production that will dazzle young and old alike, the Kansas City Ballet’s The Nutcracker is truly unique and the perfect complement to the holiday season.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

The Kansas City Ballet’s The Nutcracker plays through November 26, 2017 in the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.