Visions of Sugar Plum Fairies

Devon Carney’s reimagined version of the holiday classic The Nutcracker, created for the Kansas City Ballet, is set to dazzle audiences this month.
Kansas City Ballet The Nutcracker

     It’s Christmas time in the city — Kansas City, that is. And as any good Kansas Citian could attest, The Nutcracker is as integral to the holiday cityscape as the Plaza lights, Topsy’s popcorn and the Mayor’s Christmas Tree.

     But this year, The Nutcracker will look and feel a little different to audiences. On Dec. 5 at The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Kansas City Ballet will unveil the world premiere of Artistic Director Devon Carney’s production of The Nutcracker, which promises to charm audiences with its fresh choreography and majestic new sets, costumes and lighting. In fact, according to Carney, this new production of a beloved classic includes changes in just about everything except the imaginative storyline and Tchaikovsky’s memorable score (performed by the Kansas City Symphony) and promises to carry audiences into a world of childlike wonder.

     “It is The Nutcracker,” Carney says. “So when you come, you will get the story of The Nutcracker. There’s a tradition to this show that you just don’t alter. But I wanted to bring a sense of joy to the stage in a way audiences haven’t experienced before.”

     The show, which will run through Dec. 24, is the ultimate marriage of a classic tale laced in a beloved score, Carney’s creative ingenuity and dream team of internationally regarded designers including Alain Vaës (sets), Holly Hynes (costumes), and Trad Burns (lighting).

Devon carney rehearses the nutcracker with his dancers


   Carney, who was tapped to take over as creative director of the Kansas City Ballet in 2013, boasts an impressive résumé as the former principal dancer for the Boston Ballet and associate artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet. And though he has staged his own versions of many popular narrative ballets such as Swan Lake and Giselle throughout the years, Carney’s The Nutcracker might just be the pinnacle of his distinguished career. “I have been a big fan of The Nutcracker since I was a child,” he says. “And there’s not a male role in the show that I haven’t danced, so my ties to this production run deep.”

     When Carney began dreaming about leaving his own mark on such a classic Christmas tale, it became very apparent that finding the right kinds of artists to execute what he saw in his mind’s eye was imperative. When it came to revamping The Nutcracker’s set, Carney had just one name in mind — Alain Vaës. Vaës, a French-born artist and author and illustrator of children’s books, made an impression on Carney early in his career when Carney danced the lead in Romeo & Juliet with the Boston Ballet nearly 30 years ago. Vaës’ Shakespearean sets were permanently etched in Carney’s mind thanks to their unique, vibrant details.

     Since the 1980s, Carney had dreamed of collaborating once again with Vaës but had deemed it impossible as Vaës had given up set design to focus on book illustrations.  Carney had all but given up on the dream of a reunion when fate stepped in in the form of renowned costume designer Holly Hynes. Carney had heard of Hynes’ lush, colorful, masterful costumes and began to study the diverse work she had done with the Paris Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, La Scala Theatre Ballet (Milan, Italy) and the National Ballet of Canada, to name a few. While attending a show at the Houston Ballet for which Hynes designed the costumes, Carney was introduced to her backstage. The pair hit it off immediately, and Hynes became the obvious choice for Carney’s Nutcracker.

     “She has a whimsical mind that can successfully make the fantasy aspect of costuming really come to life on stage,” Carney says. “In this show, there’s an importance of color in everything that happens on stage. And there’s a sense of celebration and energy, even when the dancers are not moving.”

After a bit of persuasion, Hynes convinced Carney to go against the odds and proposition Vaës to mastermind The Nutcracker’s scenery, despite his rumored retirement. The rest, as they say, is history. Vaës and Hynes signed on, and with the addition of lighting master and Carney’s longtime friend Trad Burns, plans for the new and improved Nutcracker were well underway. Production began well over a year ago on what could be the most dynamic re-vamp of a classical ballet this town has ever seen.

     The show’s physical elements — though produced in no less than four set-building studios and 27 costume studios — are all being made in the United States — a point of pride for Carney.

   “The annual production of our Nutcracker is certainly the single most popular event of the year,” says Kansas City Ballet Executive Director Jeffrey J. Bentley. “It constitutes well over 60 percent of our total annual ticket revenue and draws in excess of 35,000 people to the Kauffman Center.”

     Perhaps that is why the Kansas City Ballet has invested more than $2 million into revitalizing The Nutcracker. Not to mention the fact that Carney’s Nutcracker provides more opportunity than ever for the more than 2,000 students of the Kansas City Ballet School. In fact, The Nutcracker now provides 213 total roles for KC Ballet School students within the show’s two casts—35 percent more than in year’s past.

     To that end, perhaps the biggest change Carney is making to the show is the addition of a scene at the beginning of Act 2 that incorporates a handful of the Kansas City Ballet School’s most superior students.

     “The most advanced girls in the school tend to get left out of The Nutcracker because they are too big for the party scene or to be soldiers, but they are not advanced enough to dance with company dancers in the ‘Waltz of the Flowers,’” Carney says. “It’s really a shame that there’s not a part for them in such a widely loved production.”  

     So, as a solution (spoiler alert!), Carney masterminded a “Dance of the Angels” to be danced by advanced students on pointe to lead into the whimsical, dreamy events of Act 2.

     “My dream is that the audience be in a constant state of ‘wow,”— in awe of the costumes, the set and the whole show,” Carney says of his production. “With the breathtaking set that Alain created, Holly’s colorful, unique costumes and Trad bringing it all together with his ‘invisible paint,’ I think that’s exactly what will happen when the curtain raises.”

     For more information about the Kansas City Ballet and tickets to The Nutcracker visit or call the box office at (816) 931-8993. The Nutcracker will be performed Dec. 5-24 at The Kauffman Center for Performing Arts. Tickets start at $54. 

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Dance