A Bittersweet Farewell to an Incredible Season.
Masters of American Dance
Kansas City Ballet
Friday night saw the premiere of the closing presentation for the Kansas City Ballet's 2011-2012 season in a celebration of American choreography. This season has been one of note for several reasons: the inaugural season in the Kauffman Center, the world premiere of "Tom Sawyer", and - on a less joyous note - the final season of Kimberly Cowen, who with this production finishes her 20-year career with the Kansas City Ballet. As the appreciative opening-night crowd witnessed, her time with the company - and indeed the season itself - is finishing in a grand style.
There are four dances on the program, each a 20th century work representative of a different aspect of dance. The first work is "Serenade", an ensemble piece by George Balanchine that takes place on an empty stage. It is an abstract piece of sorts, a series of tableaux vivants in movement and music. Said to be inspired by the day to day comings and goings in a dance school studio, it follows a stage full of dancers in identical costume, working through their movements. The feel is poised, formal, almost regal. Soloists emerge, then are absorbed back into the corps. From the opening strings of Tchaikovsky the exploration of dance as poetry and discipline is the unifying theme that runs throughout.
Second on the program is "Afternoon of a Faun" - not the Nijinsky, though it shares the theme and of course the Debussy score. This is Jerome Robbins', a mid-century take steeped in smirking cynicism. The fantasy garden is replaced with a stark dance studio, where a lone 'faun' and 'nymph' perform a technically excellent but coldly formal pas de deux. The sensuality that brought outrage in 1912 has evaporated: in its place the nodding acquaintance of two dancers who happen to be in the same place at the same time and might as well get some practice in. They go through the motions, moving with sensuality but never able quite to tear their gaze away from the mirror. In the end, the nymph wanders off and the faun, watching the object of his mild interest drift away, curls up again.
The third item is Peter Martins' "Les Gentilhommes", the most recent work in the program and the only one making its Kansas City debut. As the title suggests, this is an all-male work. All too often the male members of the troupe are relegated to support, so it is good to see them getting a showcase for their talents. To this opportunity they rise ably, performing a triptych of sorts on the theme of the movement and manners of 18th century gentlemen. We are given views of the Georgian nobleman as courtier, fighter, and reveler. The movements are elegant, yet unmistakably masculine. The music of Handel is aptly suited to this piece, evoking the elegance and understated grace of the age. Special mention must be made of Yoshiya Sakurai, who ably leads the way.
The final act of the evening is Todd Bolender's "Souvenirs", a charming tribute to the era of silent film set to the music of Samuel Barber. For this last, the whole troupe is in force and in costume, evoking the Silent Age in all its Art Nouveau glory. Taking place at a luxury seaside resort, this piece lovingly renders the slapstick and romantic tropes that defined the dawn of motion pictures. Fans of silent comedy will of course know all too well that it has always been a dance of sorts. Here, the idea is fully expressed and explored with wit and grace. There are fine performances all round, but without doubt the high point was The Vamp, played by Ms Cowen in full Gloria Swanson mode to the utter delight of the audience. Watching this, one quickly got the impression that the performers derived as much enjoyment from performing it as the audience did from watching it. It was the perfect way to cap off the evening, the season, and Ms Cowen's time with this wonderful company.
When all was said and done, it was a marvelous evening, with wit and beauty and grace and the poetry of movement combining for a terrific capstone to this season. It is sad that we are losing Ms Cowen, but there is perhaps some compensation in knowing that she is taking up duties as principal & associate director of the Kansas City Ballet School, so we can look forward to her influence continuing to be felt for quite some time to come. The performers rotate through the performance run, so those wishing to catch a particular cast are advised to check with the Center for the best night to go (for example, Ms Cowen takes her role in "Souvenirs" only twice more, on the 11th and 13th of this month. This reviewer strongly recommends scheduling your attendance on one of these dates).
It is always bittersweet to watch the season end, particularly a landmark one such as this, but it helps to know that preparation for next season is already well under way, with an exhilarating program in the works. "Masters of American Dance" is a fitting capstone to a landmark season, and one what will undoubtedly stay with this reviewer 'til it is time to begin again.