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Jack Anderson

Kansas City Celebrations


Kansas City Ballet Dancers Deanna Hodges, Paris Wilcox, Lateef Williams & Caitlin Cooney. Photo by Steve Wilson

Kansas City Ballet
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
March 11-16, 2008
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., $44, $25 Sunday evening
Tickets: (212) 242-0800 or www.joyce.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson. March 13, 2008

The Kansas City Ballet, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this season, brought part of its birthday party to New York. Two of the three ballets it offered could be considered toasts: one to the company's past, the other to Kansas City itself.

The tribute to the city proved especially agreeable. Donald McKayle's new "Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City" took its title from the name of a legendary Kansas City speakeasy, the Hey-Hay Club, and it was set to recordings by artists who were an important part of the city's jazz scene: Euday Bowman, Jay McShann, Jesse Stone, Mary Lou Williams, Charlie Parker, Buster Smith, and Count Basie. McKayle and Melanie Watnick, his inventive costume designer, established a convincing sense of urban atmosphere with depictions of lively people having a night on the town. Chelsea Wilcox became a sassy no-nonsense woman followed by three doting admirers, while Kimberly Cowen and Luke Luzicka were a coolly elegant couple.

But McKayle also reminded us that city life was not entirely blissful. One scene showed shabbily dressed, and possibly homeless, people huddling around a fire. Another was an ensemble for frantic young men presumably high on drugs. Giving well-timed performances in still another episode, Nadia Iozzo, Christopher Barksdale, and Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair staggered drunkenly in what became both an absurd comic sketch and a poignant depiction of people whose life had gone out of control. Such traces of urban grit made "Hey-Hay" more than hokey Americana.

"First Position (A Reminiscence)" also avoided wallowing in clichés. This new work by William Whitener, the company's present director, paid tribute to Tatiana Dokoudovska, the group's founder, and Todd Bolender who, as director, 1980-1995, brought it increasing acclaim. Filled with lovely groupings for sylph-like maidens and their male companions, Whitener's choreography to several compositions by Glazounov was essentially Romantic in its idiom, gentle in manner, and sweet in tone: indeed, so sweet that it could easily have turned cloying. What helped prevent it from doing so was the presence of its leading male dancer, Matthew Powell, who occasionally joined in the action to leap along with the cavaliers. But he spent much of the time just sitting casually on the floor gazing upon the sylphs and their cavaliers. Here was a well-mannered man of today affectionately contemplating the balletic manners of yesterday and letting himself be inspired by them. Whitener himself may be such an observer.

"First Position" suggested that, as a director, he is developing a fine sense of graciousness and ease in his dancers. But "First Position" may be more meaningful to Kansas City balletomanes than it is here, for we have no way of knowing how it reflects anything in the teaching or the aesthetics of either Dokoudovska or Bolender. The company's press kit lists a very large repertory for the Kansas City Ballet. Surely a more striking opening ballet could have been chosen for New York.

The evening's one work that had nothing to do with Kansas City was Twyla Tharp's "Brahms Paganini," of 1980, created to both sets ("books" Brahms called them) of piano variations on that catchy Paganini tune that has inspired many composers to write variations of their own. "Brahms Paganini" is one of Tharp's several choreographic raids upon imposing classical scores. Unfortunately, it is not one of her best.

Brahms's entire Book I of variations is a solo for a man (the nimble Logan Pachciarz, on the night I attended) who, after bounding onstage, twitches and shrugs through sequences of little movements that look pinched, rather than intricate. For Book II, Tharp has devised sequences for three women and two men who keep running in and out, with no apparent sense of purpose. This is Tharp at her most contrived.

Yet the dancers looked quite at home in Tharp's style. The Kansas City Ballet appears to be versatile; it is certainly agreeable to watch. A rare visitor to New York in the past, it would surely be welcome here again, especially in a broad repertory.


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