The Kansas City Ballet’s Nutcracker is a justly-loved production, now into its third year, having travelled successfully to the Kennedy Center in DC in 2017. Devon Carney’s choreography has many delights and even a certain freshness to it. In particular, the eccentric figure of Dr Drosselmeier (James Kirby Rogers) is front and centre. The curtain opens with his comic miming, in a daintily-crafted workshop, where he is at once intrigued and flummoxed by the incompliance of his life-size toys (doll, nutcracker, and clown), replacing them with miniature figurines, easily boxed up and gift-wrapped. After his entertainment monopoly over the children at the party, he became a near-constant background presence, guiding and directing the fantasy world to which he has brought his goddaughter, Clara, danced with youthful charm by Aysia Bates. In short, he was more of a point of unity than in many productions. Indeed, he became like an on-stage choreographer himself, especially in Act II, lured once into a slapstick pas de deux with the Giant French Shepherdess. Quite properly, he then hurried away on an errand, to leave the stage free for the Waltz of the Flowers, where his presence would have been a distraction.

Kansas City Ballet in <i>The Nutcracker</i> © Brett Pruitt
Kansas City Ballet in The Nutcracker
© Brett Pruitt

His centrality had the effect of highlighting an angle of the story that had escaped me before. As the chief intermediary between the world of the grown-ups and that of the children, he is responsible for all that extraordinary re-sizing and re-inventing of the staid world. Small people and things become big and vice versa in topsy-turvy land, and Clara, like Alice, is left to marvel at how things get curiouser and curiouser. Indeed, adult/child relationships in general emerged strikingly in this production. At the Christmas party, mothers danced with sons and fathers with daughters (perhaps not altogether Victorian form, but did it matter?). Later, shepherdesses danced with child lambs, bringing out that this was a season like none other, with carnivalesque inversions of order.

Another main element in the production was a certain cheeky irreverence. The tipsy grandparents indulged in a crazy bit of dancing – including ‘The Floss’ (very 2018) as the Christmas party drew to a close: how we love embarrassing relatives. The Mice were not wicked but lovable rogues, scratching, wagging, jiving and twirling tails. Their trumped-up king arrived in a wagon-tin labeled ‘sardines’, and their battle was played to comic effect with giant weapons, a broken fork, chewed spoon, butter knife and pen. They were much more fun than the boring soldiers and stiff Nutcracker. Of course, this was a subversive read on the supposed hero, but again, did that matter?

Kansas City Ballet in <i>The Nuctracker</i> © Brett Pruitt
Kansas City Ballet in The Nuctracker
© Brett Pruitt
Alain Vae’s sets were gracious without being overly saccharine. It is true that the Christmas tree in the Victorian parlour was rather pitifully fake-looking – rather better when inflated and cartoonish. Act II’s backdrop of formal court gardens, with candy cane pillars in the foreground, was pleasing and not too sugary. The sparkling dances of the divertissement were genially complemented by a set of 6 foot tall Matryoshka dolls, from behind which the Russian dancers sprung, a giant Spanish fan as backdrop for the balletic Sevillanas, and brightly-coloured lanterns and paper and bamboo parasols for the Chinese dance. I’ve seen more lyrical Snowflakes and Waltzing Flowers for sure, and the orchestra, under the baton of Ramona Pansegrau could have lent some more grandeur to these celebrated set-pieces, and more dramatic contrast in general.

Still, it all carried on frothily and enjoyably until the on-stage accident. Dancers are a hardy bunch: they have to be. It’s a job where your body’s every move is on show. Humberto Rivero Blanco’s fall front of stage in his courtier’s solo from the Grand Pas de Deux in Act II was just such a rare occasion, and had got me thinking of the vulnerability of dancers and the illusion of their physical inviolability. He bravely and elegantly carried out his port de bras, walked his partner through her steps, and managed, heaven only knows at what physical cost, to catch her in a fish dive at the end. Even a passable fish dive can on occasion be heroic. He was lucky in his matinee audience; they were overtly sympathetic and impressed (although the brief fall of a member of the corps soon after left us jittery). Sadly, he could not appear for his finale, or indeed for the curtain call. Among the theatrical professions, it is notable that dancers never say ‘break a leg’ to wish each other luck. Even in irony, it's unthinkable.  

***11