The Kansas City Ballet rounded off its season with enjoyable performances of two company and one world premieres. It is a very positive sign to see a very decently-filled full-scale auditorium gathered, on this the fourth of six nights of the run, to watch three works by living American choreographers. With the alienating effect of its deliberate false start, and the initial insolence of its attitudes (so anti-ballet as we have come to know it, with its reverences and curtsies), William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, sets out to do its own thing. Indeed, so successful is a fusion of the classical and modern idiom does it propose, that it has, since its Parisian premiere in 1987, become something of a classic itself. It has aged well over its 30 year history, so that it still feels new and exciting, existing less in the middle but more on the edge. Designed to be an abstract part of a post-modern ballet, the piece pushes the dancers beyond the usual boundaries of their traditions. Thom Willems and Leslie Stuck’s pulsing electronic score is a kind of confrontation in itself: dancers have to try and be as large as that, and layer their own off-centred balances, their pulsing partnerships, their disjointed movements, in sync with its relentless 4/4 time. The dancers were elegantly aggressive, which was just what was required; some fine performances from Taryn Meija, Liang Fu and Emily Mistretta.

Emily Mistretta and Liang Fu | In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated
© Ali Fleming

We were pulled back from the edge, by an unexpectedly retro affair: the world premiere of David Parsons’ A Play For Love. I say unexpected, because although irony is plenty in evidence in contemporary choreography, a sort of innocent fun is a rather rarer commodity. This work was a tongue-in-cheek Shakespearean affair, tapping into The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and although the casting referenced Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, it surely might have been a little more in keeping with the Bardic spirit to reference Anthony and Cleopatra. There was plenty here to find jovial and amusing and how often do we get to say that about contemporary ballet? The spirit was robustly Renaissance, slapstick and mime included. Courtney Nitting made for a coy, cheeky Bianca, with her nickenpoop serenaders; Danielle Bausinger for an aggressively vibrant Katarina; James Kirby Rogers, a ticklish mock-hero, with his nonsensical lackey and fainting girls, and his camp mannerisms. So as to teach these sparring pair a lesson in love, scenes from love stories throughout history were presented to them – love lost (the fated Veronese couple), and love found (Emily Mistretta, a beguiling Cleopatra). The whole was framed in a contemporary theatrical setting, which made it endearingly meta. Light-hearted, easily-digestible stuff, set to ‘best bits’ of Rossini, Bizet, Bach, Rachmaninov, de Falla and Puccini. A romp. Perhaps one could transform something like this into a full-scale ballet skit?

Danielle Bausinger and Company Dancers | A Play for Love
© Ali Fleming

Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room rounded out the evening with something more to think about. It presented striking visuals; staging by Shelley Washington and Gil Boggs had dancers emerge from the smoke/ smog into the repetitive and insistent clarity of the Philip Glass music. Costumes by Norma Kamali were striking – both in looks and in potential implications. Black and white stripe jumpsuits matched with white trainers (yes, you can dance elegantly in trainers) for men and some of the women. Other women wore red pointe shoes from the start; red made more of an appearance as the work advanced. Was there some kind of social reflection going on in the different ways the women wore themselves? In trainers and trousers, they danced more alongside men, more aggressively, less relationally. And in the more traditionally feminine outfits, it felt quite the opposite.

Lilliana Hagerman, Liang Fu and Kevin Wilson | In the Upper Room
© Kenny Johnson

Strong performances here from all the cast, I felt, and a real sense of connection and at times, playfulness and collective joy. It’s a pretty demanding work, a kind of perpetuum mobile of dance, and I don’t think they let up for a moment. In the conclusion – a lengthy one, Glass bringing in a sense of inexorable progress towards euphoria – a loud voice which seems to be saying “Ah”, as if evoking an Amen: there’s a lot of momentum to maintain here, until the music finally exhausts itself and maintain it they did. The pity about not having live music is that the final notes do not linger in the air; both there and in A Play for Love, the ending sounded over-abrupt.