All the Right Moves

Kansas City Ballet's Artistic Director Devon Carney talks about the local art scene, his ambitious plans for the ballet and his latest production, "Giselle."



   On the eve of Devon Carney’s choreographed rendition of the classic “Giselle” by the Kansas City Ballet (March 13-22), 435 Magazine spoke with the artistic director —  less than two years into his tenure here —to discuss his ambitious plans for the ballet, his opinion of the local arts scene and which contemporary dance icons he would like to bring to the local stage. Carney also divulges how his childhood background in downhill ski racing and playing high school band with the Marsalis brothers informed his future dance career. A 20-year veteran of the Boston Ballet, Carney has been featured in Dance Magazine and has toured the world with legendary Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

435: Tell us about your version of “Giselle,” which we will see on stage this month.

DC: It is my interpretation of a 173-year-old choreography, after those who came way before me, in this case, dating back to 1841 when it was first done. It’s a great romance with grand costumes and sets and makes for a great for date night.

What dream ballet would you like to present in the future?

   Oh my goodness, there’s so much! Well, I am starting with one that is very near and dear to me.  I grew up with “Giselle” as a teenage dancer and have had the opportunity to perform all the male roles you can perform in it. It also means a lot to me artistically. It’s the longest running ballet out there. “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty” are also dream ballets, but they came later in the 1800s. “Giselle” is one of those great ballets; it has certainly stood the test of time. Other ballets that I would like to present: George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” Harold Lander’s “Études” and Twyla Tharp’s “Celts,” an expansive work based on Celtic music. The list goes on and on!

What are some of your goals for the Kansas City Ballet?

   Well, within weeks of my arrival, we started a Second Company. I am excited that we got it off the ground right away. They made about 15 appearances last year and this year they are up to 25. The reason for the Second Company was to create an avenue from the ballet school to the company. When dancers finish high school and ballet school, they are often not yet ready for a professional company. There was a gap there that the Second Company begins to close. This year I also started a trainee group of right-out-of-high-school dancers who need a couple more years of training but have enough technique to join the Second Company for performances and outreach. If you’ve got talent you don’t want to lose it. This provides an avenue to prepare dancers and bring them into company ranks with a lot of hard work and talent.

Who are some of your ballet icons?

   A big influence was Rudolf Nureyev, who I had the chance to work with for five or six years together on tour, traveling the world. He was an amazing individual on stage. He commanded such attention from the audience. He always gave the audience the best performance he could. He was always very consistent, dramatic and in-the-moment.

 What is your approach to programming classical versus contemporary works at the Kansas City Ballet?

     We are not a museum, but it’s great to recognize the past. You can’t go forward without that. The word ‘ballet’ is in the title of our organization — we are not called ‘Kansas City Dance Theater.’ We have to offer a full range of works and meet the tastes of our audiences and have the broadest reach. It’s important to do the classical repertoire on a regular basis to build your company. Dancers are refined through this classical canon. But the challenge is finding the balance. If you don’t perform contemporary regularly, the dancers won’t do well in it. Artists need to grow in both areas and you need to do both to succeed professionally in today’s world.

What contemporary choreographers would you like to bring to Kansas City?

     Everybody wants to do something with William Forsythe and Yuri Killian. Both are geniuses in their own right and have created their own vocabulary, language and style. Helen Pickett is also one of the most sought-after choreographers in the country. Helen is spectacular. We have had a relationship for at least seven years. Now that I am here, we are definitely working on things. It’s bound to happen soon.

What was your first impression of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts when you arrived here?

     I was amazed how beautiful the Kauffman Center was. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. It is one of the best performing arts centers in the country, by an amazing architect. It is really thought-out, the sightlines are good and there is not a bad seat in the house. It’s on the radar nationally and definitely a game changer. For us to have that and the Todd Bolender Center, with seven studios in a state-of-the-art space, is fortunate. We’ve built the infrastructure to attract a higher level of dancers. We have everything in place now. I believe the arts, not just the ballet, are in amazing ascension in terms of quality because of the art that’s here, the artists here, the inspiration of The Crossroads, etc. We have The Nelson-Atkins Museum with a nice contemporary wing and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is really pushing it in terms of its art collection. We, as a city, are set for meteoric growth in the next 10 to 15 years. I can feel it happening.

Are you interested in collaborating with some of Kansas City’s other art institutions?

     Yes, collaboration is essential to the arts. I’ve worked twice with the opera here and the symphony works with us quite often, which I am very grateful for. That’s quite unique. The director of The Nelson-Atkins Museum and I have collaborated and we have done a few performances at the museum. I have a dream of doing something with the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art as well, involving a visual artist, media artist, musician, composer and dancers. I want to do a cool presentation, something really out there. And I would like to commission local artists that aren’t necessarily scene painters to create backdrops for the ballet.

I read that your own family is made up of artists.

     Yes, my father was a painter and arts professor at Tulane University and my mother had a Ph.D. in comparative literature. My daughter is an artist who graduated from the Art Institute of Art and my son is a rock ‘n’ roll musician about to release his second CD.

Your wife, Pamela Royal, was a prima ballerina. How did you two meet and did you ever get to dance together?

     We met as dancers. I was very young. I first saw her when she was performing in a city in which I was living and she was visiting. She definitely made an impression. Then we ended up a few years later at the same ballet company in Boston. She made quite an impact on me. I was smitten. She’s a bit tall for me when she dances on point, so she needed the 6’3” and 6’4” partners but we danced once together when my partner got sick. We laughed our way through the whole thing. It was so much fun.

You grew up partially in New Orleans. I imagine the musicality of that city had an effect on you. I read you played high school band with the Marsalis brothers.

     Branford was a saxophonist and Wynton was on first chair for the trumpet, the instrument I also played. We all knew he was the next Louis Armstrong. He put us all to shame in eighth grade. He was this little wiz kid with a big afro and he was amazing — clearly a prodigy. I got to say ‘hi’ to him the last time he was in town performing at Helzberg Hall and the ballet was in the other performance space at the same time. Of course we would love to do something with him in the future.

How did you transition from your boyhood dream of being a competitive downhill skier to being a dancer?

     I spent my first five years in New Orleans and returned there in high school but I spent the interim period in Indiana and Massachusetts. When I was in Massachusetts, I skied every weekend, competing. I loved the idea of racing. Jean-Claude Killy was my inspiration. That was taken away from me when my family moved back to New Orleans but it was a blessing in disguise. Skiing is an art in itself, much like dance — the rhythm and movement quality — but in the end it is very cut and dried. It’s about who gets down the hill fastest. In the arts and in dance it is more subjective. You could be who you wanted to be in ballet.

 

     “Giselle,” the classic ballet of a young peasant girl who falls tragically in love with a nobleman, will be performed March 13-22 by the Kansas City Ballet at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The season concludes with a program of four contemporary works, “Dances Daring (Then and Now)” May 8-17.

   For tickets, more information and the recently announced 2015-2016 season visit kcballet.org.