The Kansas City Ballet's season opener, Fancy Free, makes a spirited introduction to Devon Carney, the institution's new artistic director. Subtitled Joy That Knows No Bounds, the five-ballet collection spans eras and styles in playful pursuit of pure delight — a delight very much in evidence last Friday.
The title ballet, Jerome Robbins' "Fancy Free," is the only one of the bill's offerings that centers on a clear storyline. The curtain rises on an angular 1940s bar, on a set that looks familiar — we might have stepped into Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks." Warm, hazy lighting suggests a sweltering summer night in New York City, and Leonard Bernstein's music rolls out breezy brass and chattering bassoons.
Three swaggering sailors on shore leave spar over two women passers-by, and their individual dances for the ladies' attentions capture all of the bravado and sexual posturing of a mating strut. The looser, jazzier movements recall the popular dance styles of that era, and the sustained lifts look effortless, belying the performers' formidable strength and skill. This is ballet for theatergoers, a bewitching blend of storytelling and spectacle.
The second ballet, "Triple Play," trades the lavish set and symphonic soundtrack for a bare stage and pianist Sam Beckett's sparse but breathtaking rendition of Francis Poulenc's "Trois Novelettes for Solo Piano." Dancers Molly Wagner and Logan Pachciarz engage in an intimate pas de deux, blending sharp micro movements with elegant lifts and long lines. Don't let the first movement's playful feel fool you: This is a seduction. The third movement is one of the evening's high points. As the lights dim to a romantic glow, the dancers pulse with Beckett's keystrokes, and the chemistry between them is made palpable in William Whitener's sensual, rolling choreography.
"Keep Me Wishing in the Dark" offers more experimental fare, setting Jodie Gates' contemporary choreography against Bach's baroque piano. The curtain flies up to reveal a stunning tableau: The dancers stand, facing away from us, in flowing, backless gowns. The only movement seems to emanate from the proscenium arch, where high spotlights catch slow-swirling fog in their beams.
The ballet begins as a tapestry of gesture, weaving dynamic duets through group choreography. One pairing poses a female dancer like a music-box ballerina, her stooped spins seemingly controlled by her partner. In another section, the performers shift in jerky patterns, as if yanked by marionette strings. At times, the piano stops and the company moves in silence, punctuating the dark with short, sharp claps.
For "Keep Me Wishing," costumer Melanie Watnick has clothed men and women alike in gowns, and the rippling fabric lends the company an androgynous quality. The floor-length skirts allow male dancers to create the smooth, elongated lines typically reserved for their female counterparts. Kirk Bookman's evocative lighting design pairs with the costumes to complete the atmosphere, splashing gradient color washes against the cyclorama that transition with each new duet.
George Balanchine's "Allegro Brillante" moves away from abstract expression to plant us firmly in neoclassical romance. Pairs of dancers pirouette and flutter en pointe under white, radiant light, echoing rapid-fire choreography. Dance is a visual language, and Balanchine might employ a few clichés: performers spinning in time with piano glissandos, for example. But for the most part, the dance proves as brilliant as the title suggests, even if Friday's principal performers occasionally lacked the clarity and vitality that the allegro dance demanded.
That was not a problem in the final ballet, the world premiere of Carney's "Opus 1." Friday's principal dancers, Laura Hunt and Michael Davis, attacked the moves with exuberance and skill. Hunt in particular captivated with her tensile strength and ecstatic expression.
Carney's piece indulges the audience with a candied digestif of classical ballet: glittering tutus, lords a-leaping, firelight gleaming from high chandeliers. When a third chandelier descends from the fly rail in the final, symphonic swell, Carney seems to be winking at us.
"Opus 1" crowds the stage with the full corps de ballet, including the Second Company, Carney's new addition. Though the precision and alignment aren't always clean in the full-company dances, the buoyant choreography is appropriately footloose — hinting at the grander, more extravagant future that Carney is already talking about for this ballet.