Friday, October 10, 2008

'Rodeo' forms centerpiece of KC Ballet's rewarding season opener

By Paul Horsley

If you still doubt that ballet is drama, as opposed to pretty poses in the service of abstract concepts, look no further than the Kansas City Ballet’s performances that began Thursday, October 9 at the Lyric Theatre. The program featured three capital works by American choreographers bent on showing that ballet can tell narratives while maintaining an abstract core. Thursday’s premiere was an auspicious kick-start for the company’s 2008-2009 season, even if opening-night gaffes were apparent — an errant spotlight here, dropped insect antennae there, fuzzy ensemble-work in the corps and a scary moment or two in the orchestra pit.

The big draw, perhaps, was Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, a staple of the company’s repertoire. Take one of Aaron Copland’s best scores and put it with dance by one of the most influential figures of the 20th century and you have an irresistible American classic. The restaging by legendary dancer Paul Sutherland, who worked with De Mille and other choreographic giants, was lovingly meticulous. Deeanna Doyle burst with poised energy as the Cowgirl, who sheds her awkward ranch-hand ways to become the belle of the hoe-down. She delved a flighty comedic vein at the outset, where she couldn’t seem to control her “horse,” and gradually she expanded her bag of tricks to woo the graceful Champion Roper.

Kansas City Ballet newcomer Michael Eaton was her match as the Roper, confident but not swashbuckling, brimming with leonine energy. His famous tap dance scene in the Ranch House scene — the first use of tap in a ballet, historians tell us — was delightfully top-of-the-line. He is an impressive new addition to the company, one of five new members this season, four of whom are men.

The winsome little moments between Doyle and Roper showed a natural ease and chemistry, as did those between real-life married couple Juan Pablo Trujillo (Head Wrangler) and Stefani Schrimpf (the ├╝ber-feminine Ranch Owner’s Daughter). Oliver Smith’s scenic design is looking dated, as are the costumes (though the Ballet’s men looked pretty hot in their tight-fitting cowpoke digs) but the company dancers were in good form throughout, bringing off the opening scene’s little country plies with understated care.

The other hit was The Naughty Boy, the Kansas City Ballet’s first performance of a work by the young, much-talked-about American choreographer Trey McIntyre. Set to Mozart’s G-major Violin Concerto, which was played live in the pit, it is a breathless tale of Cupid and his methods, told in a jam-packed style that is like ballet in fast motion. Something’s happening every second: It almost wears out the eyes. Perhaps because the work of Jerome Robbins had opened the evening, I couldn’t help seeing similarities in the way McIntyre elevates vernacular movement to balletic refinement, so that distinctions almost, but not quite, blur. Sexy and delicious to watch, it has a sort of continually merry undercurrent.

Kimberly Cowen was a madcap Cupid, playful but generous in her ministrations to the four love-couples. She gave the role an innocence, even when it appeared she was suggesting amorous positions to the lovers. Costume designers Kirsty Munn and Liza Prince dressed her in a pumpkin-and-brown plaid cheerleader’s outfit, complete with pumpkin-colored coon’s-skin cap. (I know: Huh?) Lead couple Breanne Starke and Luke Luzicka worked like devils in the spectacular pas-de-deux-with-interference, in which Cowen sometimes intervenes to show them, perhaps, the true nature of love and romance.

Starting the evening with Robbins’ The Concert, also a Ballet reprise, was a nice touch: It’s a piece that ostensibly pokes fun of classical music but is in fact a powerful parody of ballet itself. Angelina Sansone stood out in her roles as groupie and hat lady, and Logan Pachciarz as a hip-swiveling loco was choice. The women’s sextet, a classical romp with one girl who’s never quite right, delivered its nutty humor. But on the whole, The Concert didn’t strike me as being as deeply funny this time around. It wasn’t, perhaps, the fault of the dancers: Some of Robbins’ humor just doesn’t wear well, at least not to me. And visually I was offended by the ugly sight of a wheel-stand beneath the piano, which together with the Lyric’s unsightly, scuffed stage eroded the sense of faux-refinement necessary to set up Robbins’ fragile humor.

The Ballet’s fall performances continue through Sunday, October 12. For tickets call 816-931-2232 or go to kcballet.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.