Ballet: George Balanchine / Jewels

KANSAS CITY BALLET
Choreography: George Balanchine
Music by Gabriel Fauré, Igor Stravinsky, and Peter I. Tchaikovsky
Kansas City Symphony / Conductor: Ramona Pansegrau
Staging: Jennifer Ringer (Emeralds), Victoria Simon (Rubies), and Deborah Wingert (Diamonds)


Off to my first evening at the KC Ballet tonight. My instincts told me it would be a good one. And I was right!

The show was George Balanchine’s Jewels. I’m no ballet genius but I do know and love the composers whose works make up the score. The music in Jewels is Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande and incidental music from Shylock, Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, and Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Symphony (minus the first movement), and since I could be happy just listening to a KC Symphony performance of those works, disappointment with the event was an impossibility.

Legendary choreographer Balanchine’s inspiration for Jewels came from his many visits to the Van Cleef & Arpels store in New York, where he was so taken with the beauty of their designs and the quality of the precious stones used in their creations that he created this ballet as a storyless homage to visual opulence rendered in costumed movement.

The ballet is composed of three acts representing gemstones, sequenced in order of market value: I. Emeralds, II. Rubies, and III. Diamonds. Balanchine was playing with the idea of adding a fourth act, Sapphires, but he felt the color blue was too hard to get right on stage.

Too bad Balanchine never met Nick Cave‘s lighting director. I’ve seen shows with the Bad Seeds where Cave was bathed in such a wash of indigo some of us thought that he had OD’d and died right in front of us. No choreographer in the audience that night would ever think of being afraid of staging a ballet in the color blue.

So we’ll never know what Balanchine’s Sapphires would have looked like, and we had to content ourselves with just the three. Personally I’m glad he didn’t do anything with amethysts, since it happens to be my birthstone. I’ll maybe pick that one up for my first ballet composition in the unlikely event I can hustle a grant for such a thing.

House lights down. Opening remarks by KCB Artistic Director Devon Carney. Curtain.


I: EMERALDS

Gabriel Fauré / Pelléas et Mélisande, Shylock
Amaya Rodriguez, Paul Zusi, Emily Mistretta, Angelin Carrant
with
Amanda Devenuta, Marisa Deette Whiteman, Joshua Bodden, Aysia Bates, Emma Blake, Lauryn Brown, Sage Guillot, Laila Madison, Malerie Moore, Olivia Pearsall, Reagan Pender, Maya Sprague, Hannah Waldon

The cool lush green of the costumes and backdrop pulled us in to hear that Fauré’s music is very ballet-friendly. Made a note to myself to add some more Fauré to my music hoard.

When we were well into the first part of Emeralds, I was impressed with Ramona Pansegrau‘s handling of the orchestra for Pelléas et Mélisande. I had never heard of her in relation to the KC Symphony so I didn’t know what to expect, but she did a fine job of backing up the dancers as they whirled around in their breezy emerald skirts and Medici waistcoats or whatever you call those things the guys had on.

Joshua Bodden‘s poised physicality made him compulsively watchable. Ditto for Amanda Devenuta, whose ebullience was such that if she was a real emerald in a necklace studded with dozens of them Van Cleef would have to remove her and put her into a ring all by herself. She deserves the opportunity to shine in a solitaire setting.

The costumes in Emeralds, as in the rest of the acts, were really first rate – well color-balanced with the lighting and backdrops, and also impressed in their construction. I wasn’t in the first row but from mid-Orchestra they did not look cheap, which would have of course blown the desired effect.

At the curtain I saw that the three acts are treated as mini-ballets. The audience gave a standing O, there were whistles and bravos, and someone from administration galumphed out from the wings to deliver flowers. I thought Jewels would be treated like a symphony with the huzzahs coming only after the final movement. But I guess it’s customary to give all the love they can to these crews who drill so hard for months on this stuff.

II: RUBIES

Igor Stravinsky / Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra
 (Piano Solo: Jordan Voth)
Taryn Pachciarz, Cameron Thomas, Kelsey Ivana Hellebuyck
with
Isaac Allen, Alladson Barreto, Gabriel Lorena, Kevin Wilson, Ava Bernardo, Georgia Fuller, Sidney Haefs, Olivia Jacobus, Mei McArtor, Amelia Meissner, Marisa DeEtte Whiteman, Gillian Yoder

When the curtain came up on Rubies, the entire audience let out a very audible gasp as an absolutely stunning tableau was revealed. The stage was a luminous ultraviolet blue hue. The background was totally black save for some dainty red lights arrayed like stars. Against this canvas the cast stood frozen in costumes of the most brilliant crimson.

Honestly, my review could stop with noting this, because that overwhelmed reaction describes completely the visual impact of Rubies, and the utter pleasure it gave to the assembled crowd. I think if we had watched the dancers standing still for 20 minutes we might have felt we got our money’s worth.

But of course Stravinsky had other ideas. I’m very familiar with works from Stravinsky that were commissioned to accompany ballets – Le Sacre du Printemps, Apollon Musagéte, Orpheus, The Firebird, and The Fairy’s Kiss are all among my favorite classical compositions of any type. So it’s ironic that the first ballet I see with Stravinsky is one using his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, which was intended for orchestra and soloist. Like many choreographers, Balanchine seemed to prefer to source music for his ballets that he found just laying around. But I guess that’s the choreographer’s power trip; in clearing the rights you only have to deal with Boosey & Hawkes instead of some composer who’s probably as temperamental and snitty as you are.

Balanchine picked a winner with the Capriccio. It’s rhythmical enough to provide an energetic and upbeat shot of adrenaline to the triad, but not so rhythmical that the dance director will lose control of the whole thing and before they know it the ballerinas are strutting around sticking their crotches out like Rhianna’s posse at a Super Bowl halftime show (minus the Hazmat suits).

It was a joy to watch the KCB dancers navigate Balanchine’s ebullient notation to this neoclassical-meets-Russian-emigré-jazz music. I am convinced from her dizzying performance that Taryn Pachciarz has liquid silicone in her joints – there were a few fleeting moments when I wondered if it was really possible for a human to move like that. Cameron Thomas was a capable match for her in their pas de deux, and had some dazzling moves of his own throughout the 3-movement, 20-minute act. And that production design! As the cast lept and pirouetted over the stage it was as if they were skating on blue ice at the top of the world.

The Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra is really a piano concerto incognito. Pianist Jordan Voth was, by necessity, hidden in the orchestra pit for his bravura playing of this piece. But as any multibillionaire who travels to their private island in a 24-hour on-call Learjet will always tell you in their TED talks: Life isn’t fair. So we didn’t get to see Voth at work in playing what sounded so wonderful.

What should wonderful soloists receive in recompense for laboring mightily in anonymity? I think Voth deserved something extra. The KC Ballet should have sent someone down to the Costco on Linwood and gotten a couple of those gold bars they’re selling now, and leave them in a little gift basket for him backstage. After getting a look at the KC Ballet’s FY 2023 asset sheet I don’t think a itty bitty gratuity like that would add an excessive amount to their production costs.

III: DIAMONDS

Peter I. Tchaikovsky / Symphony No 3 (movements 2-5)
Kaleena Burks, Andrew Vecseri
with
Amanda Devenuta, Georgia Fuller, Whitney Huell, Naomi Tanioka, Gavin Abercrombie, Joshua Bodden, Angelin Carrant, Kevin Wilson, Ava Bernardo, Emma Blake, Natalie Boese, Lauryn Brown, Amira Hogan, Olivia Jacobus, Laila Madison, Mei McArtor, Amelia Meissner, Malerie Moore, Olivia Pearsall, Gillian Yoder, Isaac Allen, Ian Anderson-Conlon, Alladson Barreto, Aidan Duffy, Chase Hanson, Joshua Kiesel, Jake Lapham, Gabriel Lorena, Brock Maye, Troy Monger-Levin, McKibben Needham, Elliott Rogers

As we returned from intermission for Diamonds, the final act of the evening, we wondered how they were going to top the gorgeous visuals for Rubies?

Simple. You evoke the concept of diamonds by creating a blazing light and showcase the stage, the costumes and tasteful side stage draping, all in a subtly diverse palette of white that Monet or Manzoni might admire. Queen Elizabeth’s wedding cake should have looked this elegant. And when the curtain rose again to show us all of it the crowd once more drew in a dramatic breath.

It was all hands on deck for this finale, with up to 26 dancers on stage in some places. The complicated ensemble movements seemed to go off without a hitch. Catching my attention for their grace were Naomi Tanioka, Amira Hogan, and – once again – Joshua Bodden. In both movements he appeared in there was something about his verve that continued to catch my eye. When it comes to ballet I’m just a noob but there was something about this dancer that oozed star power.

Kaleena Burks and Andrew Vecseri danced a compelling pas de deux in the Andante elegiaco 3rd movement which lit a fire under the crowd and had us giving louder and louder applause with every pirouette of Vecseri and the exits of Burks when she would coyly tiptoe into the wings.

At the vigorous conclusion of the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 3rd froze the cast in a triumphant pose, we erupted in raucous cheers and bravos. More flowers. Directors and stagers taking well-deserved bows.


WOW!

And the curtain came down on my fine first night at the KC Ballet. In doing a bit of research for Jewels, I looked at legacy videos for a half dozen past performances from top ballet companies. After seeing these I have to say that the our stagers Jennifer Ringer, Victoria Simon, and Deborah Wingert have brought this to life on an elite level of visual design surpassing anything I saw from those big sister cities. Lighting Designer Trad Burns also deserves a callout for his role in creating a bewitching, glowing platinum setting into where the precious stones of the KCB cast were secured.

From my first look at the KC Ballet, I’m really looking forward to next season where the lineup includes Septime Webre‘s Alice In Wonderland, Anna-Marie HolmesDon Quixote, and a night featuring a quartet off short works: Tulips and lobster, In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, Celts, and an offering from local choreographer Caroline Dahm, World Premiere.

OMG, what am I doing? Can you believe this? I liked last night’s performance so much I’m turning into a publicist. I don’t even have time to source a publicist for my own stuff and here I am raving like a Salesforce AI bot about upcoming performances I haven’t even seen yet.

Oh well – KC pride dies hard. With the local press being such laggards at promoting culture here I guess someone has to do it.