Founded in 1957 by Tatiana Dokoudovska, taken over and galvanized by Todd Bolender (a founding member of the New York City Ballet) in 1980, and directed since 1995 by William Whitener, the Kansas City Ballet is a sleek little company with a strong repertory and 26 excellent dancers. Its visit to Manhattan can be considered as a climax to its 50th anniversary celebration.
The centerpiece of its Joyce program would test any company’s mettle. Twyla Tharp’s 1980 Brahms Pagannini begins with a 10-minute solo for a male dancer, set to Book 1 of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Pagannini, and Book 2 continues with the exploits of a pair of rambunctious couples. The music might almost have been a challenge Brahms flung to Pagannini: “Anything you can do on your violin, I can do on the piano. You want fast fingers? Listen to this.” And Tharp, a master of rapid feet topped by complex articulations of every other part of a dancer’s body, responded in her own way about 120 years later.
Whitener, who left the Joffrey Ballet and joined Tharp’s company in 1978, originally shared the solo with Richard Colton, and he has triple-cast Kansas City’s Logan Pachciarz, Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair, and Charles Martin in the role. That the company has three men who are up to this gleaming ordeal says something about its level (and Whitener’s coaching). The solo never stops; it keeps unfurling like a long ribbon of dancing—now rippling at top speed, now settling into legato loops, now spiraling, now fluttering in the wind of its own passage. Pachciarz, the only dancer I saw perform it, rendered it with the fluidity and easy-going introspection it calls for. His springy chassés are soft-footed; his jumps don’t pressure the air. He moves his hips, head, and shoulders with that jazz-influenced nonchalance we associate with Tharp’s style, while his feet play with those fiendishly fast bursts of piano virtuosity.
Whitener enlisted Shelley Freydont, an original Brahms-Pagannini dancer, to set Book 2. One excellent cast pairs Deanna Hodges with Paris Wilcox, Caitlin Cooney with Lateef Williams, and introduces Stacye Camparo as the enigmatic, sinuous wandering female—perhaps in search of a good party. The quartet is as almost as daring as the male solo, and dangerous in ways it is not. Tharp creates all manners of witty tangles, slides, and dives, without ever emphasizing effort or positions. Will this guy catch the hurtling woman? Whew! The mood is always companionable or teasingly adversarial, and, as usual, Tharp creates within the ongoing flow more dynamic variation and rhythmic or directional shifts than most choreographers dream of.
Whitener’s own First Position is subtitled A Reminiscence. He might be recalling his own history in ballet, but the piece alludes to the traditions of the art itself, as does the music. Alexander Glazounov is noted for his ballet scores, Raymonda among them. In the first movement, eight women in long tutus form engaging patterns, displaying neat feet and an admirable pliancy in their upper backs. Matthew Powell wanders among them, chases after Chelsea Wilcox, or sits and watches admiringly. He’s half the besotted ballet hero who can’t distinguish the woman he loves from all the other nymphs in net, half an admiring young dancer watching his peers from the sidelines. Kimberly Cowen seems to be doing her fouettés and tour jetés just for him. The four men ( Christopher Barksdale, Marty Davis, Pawlicki-Sinclair, and Willams) seem a bit pompous at first, as if some whispered, “Remember you’re a prince!” just before they went onstage, but they brighten up in a rapid display of beats and jumps with Powell.
The ballet is cleverly designed and ingratiating. Almost all of its dancers get a brief chance to slip out of the ensemble passages and make themselves known. At the Joyce performances, the only flaw was the disconcertingly loud music. What are those in charge of sound thinking—that we’re all slightly deaf? Here and throughout the evening, the volume is cranked up so that the quiet passages are set at a level that would be appropriate for the more bombastic passages, and those passages are so strident that they actually divert attention from the dancing.
This problem is less serious in Donald McKayle’s new Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City, set to original recordings of jazz classics by Euday Bowman, Jay McShann, Jesse Stone, Mary Lou Williams, Charlie Parker, Buster Smith, and Count Basie. Melanie Watnick’s costumes are a major asset. The men look sharp in their jackets and fedoras, or shirtsleeves and suspenders. The women wear a fabulous array of 1930s dresses and hats—from flowered prints to lavender satin evening gowns to red velvet negligées.
McKayle rehashes a few old Broadway-jazz clichés—the high-heeled women who twist their shoulders as they strut saucily, the emphatic hip action that’s harder and tauter and less cool than the music. But he and the dancers put on a very good show with plenty of contrast. Six dancers in overcoats huddle around a spotlight-fire to Stone’s “Starvation Blues,” luscious Kimberly Cowan lazily vamps Luke Luzicka (here’s where the split-up-the-front red velvet gown comes into prominence), five men dance with terrific verve to Parker’s “Max Making Wax,” and Nadia Iozzo tangles in drunken abandon with the equally sodden Barksdale and Pawlicki-Sinclair (the latter, tall and skinny, is a marvel of boneless dissipation). Not bad as a 50th anniversary bash.