Kansas City Ballet opened its 62nd season with a triple billing, culminating in the world premiere of Adam Hougland’s Carmina Burana. The original title in Latin extended to include a reference to “magical images”, and here with the creative setting and lighting of Trad A Burns and the full-on flamboyance of Christian Squires’ costuming, we certainly got that in spades. It’s not the first time that dance has been integrated in the context of the cantata; the Minnesota Dance Theater put forward a version back in 1978. Dance was originally Carl Orff’s intention, envisioning a kind of Theatrum Mundi, in which word, song and movement would be brought together. Hougland’s choreography was spot-on in the details, and alluring in its overall effects.

Danielle Bausinger and Liang Fu in <i>Carmina Burana</i> © Ali Fleming
Danielle Bausinger and Liang Fu in Carmina Burana
© Ali Fleming

A great variety of mood was captured and communicated: from the fierce energies of O Fortuna, to the sensualities of bodies combining in space, through to the existential Angst, particularly visible in the soliloquies (as it were) of the male dancers. The Angst of mortality was the central Leitmotif, grounded in the heap of sand, downstage right, invoking images of time running through one’s hands like sand, and also the sense of the imminent return to dust of all those “golden girls and lads”. Strips of gold, indeed, electrified the costumes – part medieval gold leaf, part contemporary metallic bling. Whatever was meant, it worked: we were in the realm of magical images.

Movements and gestures were briskly punctuated, something that tallied very well with the assertive and often brash rhythms of the score. The Kansas City Symphony Chorus were initially concealed by drapery and gradually, as the work progressed, the drapes came down little by little, until at last we saw both dancers and vocalists sharing the stage. It made for exciting theatre, a way of hearing and seeing this celebrated work in a wholly new way. Small or not so small quibble. Why not offer the movements’ titles or even text within the programme notes or via the surtitle screens? I don’t think it would have detracted from the whole, on the contrary – it would have assisted the sense of meaning.

Kansas City Ballet Dancers in <i>Tulips and Lobster</i> © Mike Strong
Kansas City Ballet Dancers in Tulips and Lobster
© Mike Strong

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Tulips and Lobsters was first performed last year in a local community college; its runaway success there made it an excellent choice to open the season to a bigger audience. Inspired by Dutch traditions of still life – flowers and food – in the 17th century, this was more of a loose evocation than anything else. Yes, tulips came into it – often wittily so: tulips passed from hand to mouth, tulips used like swords, like wands, and (more predictably) in romantic encounters; fans were omnipresent also, used as shields, as veils, as gestural accessories, as reprimands, and again as romantic gambits. A lobster came into it too, although we were kept waiting and wondering when it would. Finally, it was lowered from above the dancers, who startled into the final tableau... pleasing, tongue-in-cheek post-modern stuff. Eclectic was how I’d best describe the whole: there were shreds of narrative, then it splintered, and went down another track: from thigh-slapping courtly hi-jinks to stylized postures. One stopped worrying about the piece as a continuous whole and just concentrated on the enjoyments of the moment. Ochoa was clearly having fun with this; the unisex black shirtlets had a little hint of the antiquated about them (it might have been a sort of doublet in a certain light), but were properly modern also. In short, a piece in which Ochoa had her cake and ate it too.

Dancers Kaleena Burks, Lilliana Hagerman, and Lamin Pereira with Emily Mistretta in <i>Petal</i> © Ali Fleming
Dancers Kaleena Burks, Lilliana Hagerman, and Lamin Pereira with Emily Mistretta in Petal
© Ali Fleming

Helen Pickett’s Petal placed in a warm yellow space, with the dancers glowing in yellow and blue. Excerpts from Philip Glass provided that minimalist but yet insistent accompaniment to the energies communicated in the choreography. Arms and shoulders were elongated and turned effectively; beach bodies sinuously traversed the stage. Whitney Huell was particularly striking in her role.

It is always good to be challenged at the opening of a season, when the audience is at its freshest and likely to respond to new works. I thought tonight’s programming was excellent, and the performance committed and energizing.

****1