Dancers do not live on the fumes of the grand narrative ballets alone. Indeed, truth be told, there may well arise a certain jadedness from repeated performances of box office favourites. So an evening like tonight at Kansas City Ballet, showcasing new choreography must be an especial treat, presenting the company with a range of fresh challenges and a liberation from the admitted constraints of the canon.

James Kirby Rogers in Men in Red
© Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

The programme ‘New Moves’, featuring seven world premieres, bore a certain unity. On the downside, it could have been criticised for a certain sameness; the mood of all pieces was certainly not light, and already by the third dance, the whole began to feel quite greige – the very costumes spoke of this, except in the notable use of the colour red in Haley Kostas’ About Looking and Courtney Nitting’s Men in Red (which did what it announced through the patterns of a quintet of males). Of joy or wit there was little. That said, the last piece Gary Abbott’s Parallel Lives had fleeting moments of the former; Emily Mistretta’s Prism Break ended wittily with each dancer filing out doing their own thing, rather randomly, in casual defiance of any sense of corps de ballet. Her intention was indeed to portray a snap of individual freedom, of finding your own way.

Prism Break
© Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

Mostly, however, ambiguity, sobriety, violence and even torment seem to be common hallmarks. The dysfunction was most concretely portrayed in the convulsive twitchings of James Kirby Rogers' This is just to say and the jerks of About Looking; it was also evident in the elaborately contorted movements of Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye’s Eternal Concerto. A shout-out to the lead male dancer here (from the second company), who really was first rate: like a figure in a Michaelangelo purgatory or an El Greco soul in torment, his body took on an exaggerated stylisation and he sank preternaturally deeper into his movements and held them longer, evoking a sculpture in motion. Relations between dancers and indeed with the audience were often abstractions or positively conflictual – very strikingly in the accusatory, aggressive gazes common in About Looking, (Joshua Bodden’s bold performance a particular highlight). There was some neat work here with a stretch of long red fabric – a veil, a carpet, a shroud, a screen, a head covering, a rope, and at the last a gagging hood of murder, a violence later evoked in This is just to say. Musically and in the animation of bodies, there was often a progression from the minimalist to the propulsively rhythmic and I think the company tended to find their energies more in the latter parts, notably in Men in Red and Price Suddarth’s White Noise. At least, if there wasn’t resolution or any lessening of angst, we got a certain salve from dynamic attack.

Parallel Lives
© Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

The odd one out in the programme, Abbott’s Parallel Lives, I found perhaps the most convincing at an emotional level. Conceptually an easier sell than the others, it still managed to be profound as well as accessible, by portraying, in the vigorous movements of six female dancers, the lives and work of poor and working women. Dressed in shirt dresses or blouses and skirts, the costumes emphasised just those features that ballet, in all its fetishisation of the ethereal, most elides: bosoms and bottoms. There was a sort of brisk, no-nonsense Rosie the Riveter look, in the shaping of the arm movements and in the ‘we can do it’ gestures, and references to the constant labours of such women, physical and spiritual – scrubbing floors, sewing, bearing children, pleading for clemency, the importunity of protest – lives marked by a perpetuum mobile of activity, lives in which leisure is never even a dream. There were moments of collective solidarity between women and rare but real glimpses of joy. How often do we see poverty and hard work danced, in a way that isn’t condescending or coy? Recall all those ruddy-cheeked, rambunctious rustics doing jolly dances in the classical canon, or perhaps a lean-cheeked, consumptive lady of the urban night fallen on hard times? But real-life women courageously facing a life of unremitting labour and service? I’ve never seen them on stage before. And it’s about time. An intriguing idea, and energetically and indeed passionately communicated. I was convinced.