I think we’ve all become vividly aware, in the massive disruptions of the last twenty months, of the importance of ritual. A really good performance, of course, is more than just a ritual, but we do need those rituals – the getting up and going out, the regularity of a season, the predictability of subscription tickets, the set-pieces grounding our yearly reality with more experimental stuff in between. The Nutcracker certainly has ritual status in ballet companies throughout America in the ramped-up holiday season, and I’m suddenly particularly glad about this. If there was ever a time when we might have been a bit bah-humbug about its repetition, a bit snooty about its clichés, a bit condescending to those whose only knowledge of ballet has to do with dancing sweets, dolls and mice, 2021 is not the year. We were completely sans Nutcracker in 2020. That is to say, no preposterous Nutcracker dolls, no ringleted Claras, and, heck, absolutely no Sugar Plums in sight. And goodness, how we missed it. 

Kansas City Ballet Dancers in Devon Carney's The Nutcracker
© Ali Fleming

Back to charm on the stage of the Kauffman theater was Devon Carney’s wittily choreographed Nutcracker with Ramona Pansegrau conducting the Kansas City Symphony in a lively, pleasing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s score. It’s my second time seeing it and, pleasingly, some new aspects emerged to delight.

There can be too much pretty in ballet – too much pretty in this ballet, at any rate, although it might sound Scrooge-like to say so, and perhaps at another level I don’t really think so. At any rate, I think Carney is onto a good thing by adding wit to sentimentality: it leavens the whole, lightens it and stops it from being overly-mawkish. I love, for instance, the sideshow of the elderly couple in the ballroom scene. Suddenly, we get it – it’s Christmas and there are always embarrassing elderly relatives in attendance, tipsy from start to finish, coughing and spluttering, and wiping off steamed-up spectacles so as to fondly watch the young ones, nodding off on sofas and breathing noisily, full of aches and pains and blithe doddery goodwill... even permitting themselves a bit of dancing. Every detail was beautifully observed and marvelously comic. I took time off from looking at the main scene, to look towards Kelsey Ivana Hellebuyck's grandmother in all her benign aged foolishness. What marvelous acting. That’s great stage-work, when there’s narrative detail everywhere on stage, for anyone who cares to see. And later – a connection I had never really made before – the uncoordinated, benign, super-sized Mother Ginger seems to recall in her persona and movements, the fond old Grandmother herself. Intentional? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it struck me this time and was somehow appropriate. Wouldn’t a ridiculous Grandma be magnified in Clara’s dreamland?  

Kansas City Ballet Dancers in Devon Carney's The Nutcracker
© Ali Fleming

Presumably because of vaccination status (with vaccinations for those under 12 rolling out too late to count), the crowd of children in the ballet were uniformly older than usual – tweens we will say, rather than pint-sized little ones. This did make the Nutcracker-breaking incident a little less plausible, in a boy of 12 than a boy of six, but Elliott Daggett was still a marvelously sulky Fritz, and ringleted Clara (Madeleine Mullin), a lyrically, gracious young dancer, with a vibrantly sincere stage presence. Certainly, we missed those scurrying, scampering little sweets and animals and mice in later scenes, and the ‘cute’ factor has definitely taken a post-Covid hit. But still, there was plenty of visual gorgeousness, from the ballerina reindeer pulling the sleigh to the hot-air balloon (reminiscent of Dorothy and Oz, of course), taking Clara back and forth from dreamland. As well as Dorothy, I was also reminded by Carney’s choreography, how much Clara shares with Alice, especially the scene where all the furniture and the Christmas tree itself grow to massive proportions. And Carney, like Lewis Carroll, is of the mind to celebrate nonsense, not just comment on it, hence those marvelously belligerent mice, with their cutlery weapons.  

Paul Zusi, Andrew Rossi and Joshua Bodden in Devon Carney's The Nutcracker
© Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

The Arabians were a highlight; Kelsey Ivana Hellebuyck (again) and her male consorts were absolutely compelling, not least the mesmerizing overhead throws at the end which landed just perfectly. The Russians were a vigorous whirlwind of thigh-slapping leaps. I felt Taryn Mejia's Sugar Plum was a little tense this afternoon, and not showing as much ease as she might have in the role. But all in all, the company was in excellent shape, and in all the celebrated set-pieces gave us some lovely performances, smiling in a way that would have made old Scrooge himself horribly uncomfortable. 

****1