Traditionally footnotes are used as a format for comments or reference points at the bottom of a page (end notes, of course, are printed at the end of the book). But for the Kansas City Ballet’s Belger Footnote Series, the Ballet’s artistic director, Devon Carney, gives an entertaining prologue—commenting on the featured program—prior to the performances. It’s far more than a footnote. It’s a short (about 25 minutes in length) lecture that provides a fresh new look at the production.
Carney has his work cut out for him condensing the rich history and colorful background information available for the three historic ballets—all Kansas City premieres—he selected for the May “Director’s Choice” performances at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The Kansas City Ballet will showcase the vibrant, jazz-infused Interplay by Jerome Robbins (the legendary choreographer of West Side Story, among others); choreographer Val Caniparoli’s shocking The Lottery (based on the 1948 Shirley Jackson short story of the same name); and George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.
Kansas City Spaces: You say that you work very hard not to make the Belger Footnote Series talks feel like academic lectures—and yet both of your parents were college professors. How did they influence your role as a public speaker?
Devon Carney: That’s a good question! My father was a professor of art, my mother taught comparative literature. She was a little more traditional in her approach to teaching. My father’s personality, as a teacher, was larger than life. He had been a jazz musician and had a very flashy, splashy relationship with art. But both my parents influenced my decision to be comfortable in a public forum.
KCS: You offer the pre-show talks—you’re literally on the stage of the Muriel Kauffman Theater—one hour before each performance. Before you joined the Kansas City Ballet, the Footnote Series was offered in a separate room. Why did you choose to do them on the stage instead?
DC: We never know how many people are going to attend the lectures. Sometimes we have a large group, other times we can get 25 people. It’s more interesting when it’s in the actual theater space. The greatest thing about the Footnotes Series is that we illuminate what the audience will be seeing for the next two hours. Everyone has a chance to learn something. And yet, there’s no requirement that the audience has to attend them. Not knowing a thing about the ballet is not a terrible thing. We just ask that patrons enjoy a performance for the sheer beauty and the movement. And don’t be afraid of only wanting to see the performance.
One of the best things about the Footnote Series is the opportunity to share all the things that don’t go in the printed program. Every production brings a new set of challenges and we can share those with our audiences in a very fresh way.
Some audiences might be a little intimidated by attending a “lecture” prior to a performance thinking it might be an academic exercise. That’s the exact opposite of my intention. We use a lot of plain talk, although the ideas are not dumbed down. We make the art of putting on a ballet understandable and approachable.
KCS: The idea of presenting Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery as a ballet is fascinating. It’s considered, like many of Jackson’s stories, as a horror tale and ends in violence. The 1969 movie version actually ends in bloodshed.
DC: We had to get permission from the estate of Shirley Jackson, who died in 1965. The ballet has been choreographed so that the audience is led up to the brink of the final moment without ever seeing anyone as the victim of stoning. That’s left up to the imagination. And in our ballet, it’s done as a real lottery onstage. No one knows which of the 14 cast members in the ballet is going to be chosen as the “winner” of the lottery. The audience doesn’t know. The dancers don’t know. It could be a different person at every performance. It’s really kind of fun.
The Kansas City Ballet’s Director’s Choice performances and Belger Footnote Series run May 12 to May 21. For more information, go to kcballet.org.