WELLSPRING OF DANCE: KC Ballet artistic director draws from many sources for new ‘Nutcracker’

By Paul Horsley

When you create a new Nutcracker, you’re inventing from your own personal ballet experience but you’re also drawing on several centuries of dance history. “Nutcracker has always been a part of my life, from the time I was a child to this very minute,” said Devon Carney during a recent break from choreographing the Kansas City Ballet’s new version of the holiday classic, which opens on December 5th at the Kauffman Center.

“We draw on our background. A lot of the fun of it is to look back at all the Nutcrackers I’ve done and think about what it is that I’ve loved about all of them.” Devon, who danced with Boston Ballet and was associate artistic director at Cincinnati Ballet before becoming artistic director in Kansas City in 2013, has a firm footing in the vocabulary of Nutcracker: He first experienced it as a seven-year-old ballet student in his native Louisiana and has continued to refine his knowledge and conception through four decades. His guide to creating KCB’s first new Nutcracker in more than 30 years has always been to find the parts that are true. “What struck me? What really rings true still to this day?”

Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye and Sarah Waller work out 'Nutcracker' moves, led by Devon Carney, far right

Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye and Sarah Waller work out ‘Nutcracker’ moves, led by KCB Artistic Director Devon Carney, far right / Photo courtesy Kansas City Ballet

Sometimes it’s a question of asking yourself why you choreograph a passage a certain way. Is it simply because you’ve always done it that way? Is that reason enough? Devon gave as an example a passage in which the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier are summoning all the Divertissement dancers onto the stage (“Spanish,” “Russian,” “Arabian” and so on). He had the lead couple downstage right, beckoning everyone to enter from the opposite corner, upstage left. “And that night I’m thinking to myself, Why did I do that? It wasn’t even planned. It’s because most of my life I’ve seen it done that way.”

For that reason, he opted not to do it that way. “So I’m going to go against my own grain, and explore other alternatives. Because what happens is, it’s just this conveyor belt of people coming in, coming in, coming in.” As a result, each of the groups in the scene will enter from a different spot, thus invigorating the action and keeping the eye interested. It’s more work, but it’s all in keeping things fresh, Devon said. “What I love about this process, after being exposed to Nutcrackers for 40 years, is listening to that informed side of me … stepping away from myself and saying, Okay, wait a minute!”

The KC Ballet 'Nutcracker' team includes, from left, Devon Carney, lighting designer Trad A Burns, costume designer Holly Hynes and set designer Alain Vaes / Photo courtesy Kansas City Ballet

The KCB ‘Nutcracker’ team includes, from left, Devon Carney, lighting designer Trad A Burns, costume designer Holly Hynes and set designer Alain Vaës / Photo courtesy Kansas City Ballet

Kansas Citians will be seeing other changes in this new Nutcracker, which will become KCB’s “official” version for the foreseeable future. There will be some Tchaikovsky music we haven’t heard here before, and some clarification in the story-telling that Devon already began in 2013. The character of the Nutcracker is now danced by a company dancer instead of a student, and to complete the change from doll to person, the same dancer plays the Prince. Just as notably, the production comes with spectacular new sets (by Alain Vaës), costumes (by Holly Hynes) and lighting (by Trad A Burns).

But beyond the sheer visuals, the heart and soul of Devon’s new version is the choreography. Classical ballet has only a certain number of steps available, he said, and making a piece authentic to its 19th-century roots means pushing yourself to use those steps in ways they’ve never been combined before. “Here’s a language,” Devon said, “and it has a certain number of words. And you can put those works together in a variety of different ways to create some really beautiful and eloquent sentences and paragraphs and chapters. And a book, with intonation and phrasing.” When creativity falters, the dancers often come in to inspire, he added. “When things are clicking, it’s a beautiful process.”

Some of the role names in Devon’s version differ from those of Todd Bolender’s Nutcracker, which the Kansas City Ballet performed from 1981 to 2014. The dancers formerly called Reed Flutes, for example, are now Shepherds (“to represent a French pastoral feel,” Devon said). There are homages to older classical foundations as well, he added, as there are in nearly every Nutcracker danced today (including that of George Balanchine, who learned the piece as a boy in Russia). Among the bits of choreography that link today’s versions to the original Nutcracker (introduced by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1892) is the celebrated Grand Pas of the Sugar-Plum Fairy toward the end of the ballet. It has deep roots in the original: Devon’s teacher learned it from the ballerina Olga Spessivtseva (1895-1991), who danced with the Imperial Russian Ballet and in Paris before coming to the United States in the 1940s. So there’s a little bit of connection to tradition through that,” he said of the famous pas de deux.

KCB dancer Charles Martin stands for a costume fitting

KCB dancer Charles Martin stands for a costume fitting

Devon also rejoices that he’s been able to put more advanced ballet students to use in this Nutcracker. Traditionally when ballet kids lose their dimply cuteness there aren’t many roles for them, and Devon has remedied that in scenes such as Angels, where he has replaced the conventional wobbly tots with young women from the school. “There just aren’t many parts for girls that age in Nutcracker,” Devon said. “It’s something that makes me terribly sad, and it was something I was committed to changing.”

KC Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs from December 5th through the 24th at the Kauffman Center. For tickets call 816-931-8993 or go to kcballet.org.

At top: Devon Carney, Logan Pachciarz and Hannah Zucht rehearse Act I of the KC Ballet’s new Nutcracker / Courtesy Kansas City Ballet

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To reach Paul Horsley send email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).