Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Elements Of Style

On Saturday night, Joshua and I attended a performance of Kansas City Ballet at the new Kauffman Center For The Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City.

Kansas City Ballet is a fine regional ballet company. It employs 25 dancers, and performs a full season in its new home, which it shares with Lyric Opera Of Kansas City.

It was American dancer and choreographer Todd Bolender that put Kansas City Ballet on the map. During the period Bolender headed the company (1981-1995, when it was known as The State Ballet Of Missouri), Kansas City Ballet transformed itself from a minor civic enterprise into a full-fledged Balanchine company, offering faultless and deeply-considered stagings of Balanchine classics. My father traveled to Kansas City on business many times in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he attended several performances of the company during its peak period. My father has always contended that The State Ballet Of Missouri was America’s great unknown dance troupe while Bolender was in charge, rivaling if not exceeding other regional Balanchine companies such as Miami City Ballet.

Bolender’s successor was William Whitener, a much lesser figure than Bolender. Whitener, from the Canadian dance world, dropped the company’s Balanchine emphasis—and, within a couple of years, the company more or less fell off the dance world’s radar screen. The company’s work today is of interest primarily to persons in Kansas City and environs; it receives little or no national attention. Whitener, seventeen years after Bolender’s retirement, remains Artistic Director of the company.

I found the quality of the company’s dancing—in a very unchallenging program—to be a notch below that of the other regional ballet companies whose performances I have attended the last five years: Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, Miami City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Texas Ballet Theater. Nonetheless, the standard was high, high enough to warrant attending any and all of the company’s performances. If I were a resident of Kansas City, I would buy a full-season subscription each year.

Saturday’s program opened with George Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade” (which Josh and I had last seen in February 2008 at New York City Ballet). “Serenade”, the first ballet Balanchine created in the United States, was the only Balanchine ballet on the bill for Kansas City Ballet’s entire 2011-2012 season.

“Serenade” was beautifully (if somewhat carefully) danced; tempos were slower than at New York City Ballet, and one never had the sense that virtuoso dancers were about to break out of the work’s constraints and offer something individual and unique, as can happen on occasion at New York City Ballet. Nevertheless, “Serenade” was a pleasure to see in the Kansas City performance; The Paris Opera Ballet cannot dance “Serenade” half as well.

The performance continued with Jerome Robbins’s 1953 “Afternoon Of A Faun” (which Josh and I had last seen danced by Boston Ballet one year ago). “Afternoon Of A Faun” is a narcissistic pas de deux of little inherent dance interest. I have always disliked the piece.

Peter Martins’s 1987 “Les Gentilhommes” was next on the program. It was the only work of the night I had not previously encountered.

As a general rule, I dislike Martins’s choreography. Martins knows how to construct dances as well as anyone, but his work, more often than not, is not good. His choreography is synthetic, an artificial amalgamation of the work of other, better choreographers, primarily Balanchine.

Martins’s work as a choreographer reminds me of conductors Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler, Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter in their composer modes. All three conductors, on occasion, wrote music—expert, professional music, crafted to a high standard—but all three lacked the sheer creativity and originality to write music worth hearing. They ended up recycling the music of Anton Bruckner—just as Martins has built a career recycling the ballets of Balanchine.

“Les Gentilhommes”, recycled Balanchine or no, was an unexpected pleasure to experience. Created for nine male dancers, “Les Gentilhommes” is danced to excerpts from two Handel Concerti Grossi from the Opus 6 set.

The ballet requires all nine dancers to demonstrate a comprehensive mastery of Balanchine style. The steps are sometimes suggestive of Renaissance dances and sometimes suggestive of Baroque dances—but the purpose of the ballet, fundamentally, is to teach young male dancers how to dance the ballets of Balanchine. Virtually every element of the Balanchine syllabus for the male dancer is covered in “Les Gentilhommes”—and Martins knows that syllabus better than anyone alive. “Les Gentilhommes” is fun for the dancers, and fun for the audience. It is one of a handful of Martins ballets I have actually enjoyed.

Over the last twenty-five years, “Les Gentilhommes” has become part of the curriculum for advanced male students in the nation’s pre-eminent ballet academies. The ballet’s shorthand name, I am given to understand, is “E. B. White”. The fact that the ballet’s costuming is white makes the joke wittier still.

The Kansas City Ballet performance of “Les Gentilhommes” was not good. The company’s male contingent was simply not strong enough to carry the ballet. “Les Gentilhommes” requires a level of virtuosity and a polished elegance that the Kansas City dancers were unable to muster.

The final work on the program was Bolender’s “Souvenirs”, one of the great American “character” ballets. “Souvenirs”, set in the era of the silent screen and involving numerous characters vacationing at a seaside hotel, is danced to Samuel Barber’s charming score and features superb stage and costume design by Rouben Ter-Arutunian.

“Souvenirs” was created for New York City Ballet in 1955, but New York City Ballet has not presented the work for decades. The ballet is kept alive today by America’s regional companies.

I think “Souvenirs” is a great entertainment, as appealing as “Cakewalk” or “Fall River Legend” or “Rodeo”, other American “character” ballets that have maintained a stronger hold on the repertory than “Souvenirs”. I am surprised the ballet is not produced more often.

The Kansas City “Souvenirs” was excellent. In fact, it received the best performance of the evening. The dancing was excellent, the characterization was excellent, the staging was excellent. Everything was pointed, and underplayed; nothing was too broad. The great wit of the piece came across.


Josh and I disliked the Kauffman Center For The Performing Arts, which opened last September. It is nothing more and nothing less than a giant eyesore, an eyesore that in no way fits into or complements its surroundings.

On the outside, the Kauffman Center looks like a very bad airport terminal—a very bad airport terminal plopped down smack in the middle of an ugly American city. (And Kansas City is an ugly city indeed; it is the ugliest city I have ever visited.)

On the inside, the grand promenade that dominates the full length of the interior also looks like an airport terminal.

The Kauffman Center, funded solely by private contribution, cost over $400 million. It looks more like a $100 million building. In fact, the whole complex looks cheap and tacky (which I think is also true of the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis). Kansas City did not get its money’s worth, any more than Minneapolis did.

The architect for the Kauffman Center was Moshe Safdie, whose work I have never admired. Safdie’s designs for the front half of the building were stolen from Eero Saarinen; Safdie’s designs for the back half of the building were stolen from Frank Lloyd Wright. The mixture is not pleasing. Isn’t there a design version of E. B. White that architects may consult?

The Kauffman Center For The Performing Arts received virtually no national press attention when it opened, in sharp contrast to the mountains of national press coverage devoted to the openings of Minneapolis’s new Guthrie Theater in 2006 and Dallas’s new Winspear Opera House in 2009.

Two months after the Kauffman Center opened, The New York Times finally sent a stringer to catch a couple of performances at the facility. The stringer, in an idiotic article that should never have been published, used the occasion to lobby for government involvement—and funding—for such arts centers. His argument: government knows best. (The stringer apparently missed large swathes of the 20th Century.)

Safdie was also architect for the new Crystal Bridges Museum Of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which opened only eight weeks after the Kauffman Center. Crystal Bridges, apparently not the architectural disaster Safdie inflicted upon Kansas City, DID receive overwhelming national press coverage at its opening. It is odd that the Safdie project for Bentonville was deemed newsworthy, while the Safdie project for Kansas City was not.

In any case, 2011 was clearly a good year for Safdie in the lower Plains states!

The opera house at the Kauffman Center is named The Muriel Kauffman Theater in honor of one of America’s great philanthropists, the late Muriel Kauffman. Mrs. Kauffman was a noble and remarkable woman. Everyone who ever met Mrs. Kauffman, including my mother, lavishes praise upon her memory. Mrs. Kauffman died ten years before she should have been summoned home—and several years before planning for the center got underway. Mrs. Kauffman’s daughter, an influential figure in her own right, was instrumental in seeing that the Kansas City performing arts center came to fruition—and succeeded in having the opera house named for her mother.

The Muriel Kauffman Theater is a small, European-style opera house, with multiple levels of terraces and balconies. It seats 1800 persons. It is an ideal theater once the house lights go down and the audience’s focus is on the stage. Until then, one is confronted with an unattractive if not gaudy theater interior.

The Kauffman Center also houses a 1600-seat concert hall, which we did not visit.

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