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Review | Christmas Whirls Into Town With Kansas City Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’

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Bad Thanksgiving, overshadowed by Christmas before the turkey is even in the oven. It has become a new tradition. At least at the Kennedy Center, where “The Nutcracker”—performed this year by the Kansas City Ballet—opened Wednesday night with a vibrant blizzard of satin and tulle, along with smartly running marzipan, a towering Mother Ginger, and all the trimmings.

The ‘Hamilton’ choreographer couldn’t find a show he liked. So he wrote one.

“The Nutcracker” has always been a child-friendly ballet, but this performance is mainly aimed at young people. Wonderful comedic touches abound, and quick-thinking toys and clever animal characters grab the spotlight. A pot-bellied, roly-poly teddy bear, grown to gigantic size, is both fierce and sweet. He is the star of the Silberhaus family’s Christmas Eve party in Act 1. Drosselmeier, the puppet maker who made him, and whose other enchanted gifts fuel the ballet’s fantastic journey, likes to whiz about in the air, his black cape flapping in flight.

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The ballet’s many children’s performers freely steal the show. There are, of course, bouncy, excitable little revelers in Act I, and the little puppets that spring to life at midnight as the Silberhaus parlor is enchanted into a battlefield. The tin soldiers employ a particularly deft battle strategy to crush an invasion of mice. What collective strength (and dynamic choreography) it takes to hold their own against their endearingly bloated foes, who bravely – hopelessly – push on with broken forks and fountain pens!

Inspired by the Rockettes, this “Nutcracker” also features reindeer leaping through the kingdom of snow in antlers and slim, long-legged bodysuits. A giant hot air balloon, decorated with unicorns, carries away the young protagonist Clara – the cheerful Elise Pickert, a dancer with beautiful musical phrasing – and her nutcracker prince, embodied with brilliance and elan by company member Joshua Bodden.

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The Kansas City Ballet last appeared here in 2017, when this highly appealing version of “The Nutcracker,” created by the company’s Artistic Director, Devon Carney, was fairly new. It’s still fresh and bright, with colorful sets and props by French painter Alain Vaes: gifts piled by the tree, snow on the window panes, and in Act 2, a sugary wonderland where colonnades of peppermint sticks overlook a garden of gumdrops. Veteran costume designer Holly Hynes devised the Victorian dress in tastefully subdued shades that don’t compete with the sets. A very important detail: the lavish gowns and girls’ dresses look even more beautiful in motion.

The professional dancers are charming and skilled, but keep in mind that this company is generally not quite the caliber that the Kennedy Center typically presents in its ballet subscriptions. The Kansas City Ballet is a relatively small group, about 30 dancers and students. The “Nutcracker” roster includes the second company, KCB II, trainees and many young ballet students. Showcasing where the company stands in terms of technical strengths, it employs a member of Pacific Northwest Ballet – guest artist James Kirby Rogers – as the cavalier of Kaleena Burks’ endearing Sugar Plum Fairy. This is a wise move; Rogers’ high classical genius and regal demeanor lend considerable star power to the closing moments of the ballet.

Kansas City Ballet music director Ramona Pansegrau led the Opera House Orchestra in one of the greatest pleasures of any “Nutcracker” performed at the Kennedy Center: the incomparable Tchaikovsky score, performed live.

The Kansas City Ballet will perform “The Nucracker” at the Kennedy Center Opera House through November 27. $49-$189. www.kennedy-center.org.

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