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Review: KANSAS CITY BALLET: THE NUTCRACKER at Kennedy Center

Review: KANSAS CITY BALLET: THE NUTCRACKER at Kennedy Center

The production is a return of the crowd-pleasing, child-filled production.

Like the growing Christmas tree, the grand Tchaikovsky score and the sparkle on the snow queens, there are certain things audiences expect from their annual viewing of "The Nutcracker," and the Kansas City Ballet production of it currently at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, provides most of them.

If the sight of small children tumbling from the petticoats of Mother Ginger is delightful, why not add the impossibly cute children in as many scenes as possible - as lambs among the Marzipan, substitute soldiers in the battle against the rodents; why not the mice themselves?

The company production choreographed by artistic director Devon Carney does all that and more, even briefly presenting child versions of the costumed dancers from Spain, Arabia and China in act one, shortly after seeing a puppet theater that had all the same anticipated costumed dancers represented as well. It's a nifty foreshadowing of what everyone knows will be coming, one of a few variations in the production.

Chief of them, possibly, is beginning the production not in the decked-out halls of the family parlor Christmas party, but in the well-appointed workshop of the ever-mysterious Dr. Drosselmeier. There, with his eyepatch and ponytail, the doctor devises the various dolls that will enchant the young partygoers - the pair of mechanical dancers (Sidney Heafs and Joshua Kiesel), the stiff Nutcracker prince (Joshua Bodden) and -- why not? -- a big floppy Dancing Bear (Ben Zusi).

With a flourish of magic (and hiding behind the book cases), he turns the lifesize dancers into doll-sizes for easier transport and packaging before his arrival at the party.

There, Clara (a well-cast Elise Pickert) is properly delighted; her mischievous brother (Madison Luna) caught up with envy in a scene where only Amaya Rodriguez stands out as the presiding lady of the house with grace and grandeur. The focus often turns to the cheap visual joke or rump-shaking winks to the audience, including an exaggeratedly wobbly set of grandparents (Georgia Fuller and Gabriel Lorena).

Things move pretty fast in this "Nutcracker" with a swiftly decided war of the toy soldiers vs. the mice - featuring oversized rodents who oversell every slapstick move or TikTok style shimmy for audience laughs.

Transport to the Kingdom of Snow and Land of Sweets is classy - first by sleigh and then by hot air balloon.

Drosselmeier himself, in his swooping cape, becomes something of a bat, flying through the scenes when he's not hovering in the background, turning into that ultimate holiday party guest who will never leave.

Great care and detail is taken in the elaborate and fanciful sets by Alain Vaës, but the best of them is the long perspective, gumdrop-flecked Land of the Sweets, onto which the array of favorite dances unfolds.

If there's one thing a bit lacking in this crowd-pleasing array of candy-colored sets, swirling costumes (by Holly Hynes) and large cast with added stuffed animals, it's dance itself.

The sheer popularity "The Nutcracker" is great enough to fund many a ballet company's whole season, while fueling countless youngster's future dreams of dance. But the irony in the Kansas City production is that there is so little spectacular dance on display.

Even in the serious showcases by the the Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier (Kaleena Burks and James Kirby Rogers) it seems more an array of respectful poses and careful spins than anything than grand movement.

One drawback of seeing "The Nutcracker" every season is recalling how past dancers have risen to the score's swelling crescendos in other productions, while these prettily attired figures stay pretty close to the ground. Unfettered in his own solo showcase, Rogers, notably the one guest artist borrowed from the Pacific Northwest Ballet, briefly brings some excitement, but such moments are rare.

Kelsey Ivana Hellebuyck is alluring in her dance of the Coffee, but maybe it's a lapse of choreography that half her attendants don't have much to do.

Even the affable jocks in the Russian trio didn't do the kind of kicks one imagined were ingrained in the segment.

Whatever technical lapses are nearly irrelevant to the occasion though - a colorful kickoff to the holiday season brought by scores of dancers, a full Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra conducted by Ramona Pansegrrau, and an Arlington Children's Chorus, 80 members of which are credited in the online program (but who could be heard so faintly, they seemed to be singing in an adjoining theater).

It's production that goes out of its way to please the audience, and the crowd is only too pleased to receive it like a treasured gift.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

Photo credit: Kansas City Ballet's "The Nutcracker," photo by Brett Pruitt and East Market Studios.

Kansas City Ballet's "The Nutcracker" with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, continues through Nov. 27 at the John F. Kennedy Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington.



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Roger Catlin, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a Washington D.C.-based arts writer whose work appears regularly in SmithsonianMagazine.com. and AARP the Magazine. He ha... (read more about this author)


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