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The Nutcracker—Celebrating 45 Years

KCB Company and School Dancers. Photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.

In 2015 Kansas City Ballet Artistic Director Devon Carney choreographed a brand new record-breaking, critically acclaimed production of The Nutcracker for Kansas City Ballet and built on a legacy that KC audiences have treasured for 45 years.

Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City

Carney’s $2.1 million version brought even more in the way of updated special effects and delightful details, thanks to his captivating choreography and the help of his amazing creative team: Alain Vaës (sets), Holly Hynes (costumes), and Trad A Burns (lighting). The production has been so well received that the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., extended an invitation to perform it there this year during the week of Thanksgiving.

Carney stated: “We have the honor of being invited to our country’s national theatre for a limited engagement to present our acclaimed production during our 60th Anniversary Season, and I am especially proud to represent all Kansas Citians in our nation’s capital during the Thanksgiving holiday.”

The Nutcracker has touched Kansas City audiences since the first performance in the Southwest High School Auditorium on Wornall Road. It began with Founder Tatiana Dokoudovska and her choreography and vision in 1972.

KCB’s first Clara, Lisa (Merrill) Hickok, played the role for the first four Nutcracker performances. During the first two years, the Company performed the Nutcracker Suite, but by 1974 they began performing the full-length ballet. Hickok described her experience those early years as “exciting and scary.”

Miss Tania had a reputation for her incredible work ethic. She insisted on the best from her dancers. And, she knew all of the ballets by heart.

“One of my fondest memories involves Miss Tania. It was the final performance for me after four years as Clara. The production staff presented roses to Miss Tania on stage after she was brought out at the final bows. She gave them to me and it truly touched my heart. I’ll never forget that moment of her acknowledgement of my dedication…even as a 12-year old,” recalls Hickok. “It has impacted my desire to help this Company for the rest of my days.”

Bolender’s Nutcracker

In December 1981 under the direction of Artistic Director Todd Bolender, The Nutcracker premiered to full houses. During his tenure, Bolender revamped the choreography, most notably in the Waltz of the Flowers. He also arranged for new costumes and in 1994, new sets designed by Robert Fletcher.

Former KCB dancer and current Kansas City Ballet School Principal, Kimberly Cowen, had the privilege to work with Bolender. “Todd made you feel like you had to be on top of your game every step you took,” Cowen says.

Cowen remembers Bolender wanted the first act to be all about the children. Not surprising since Bolender made it a point to start the KCB School. In 1996 when Artistic Director William Whitener took the helm, the tradition of focusing on the kids continued.

The Spirit Lives On

The Nutcracker is more than just a holiday tradition. It’s an important training tool for the dancers. “Nutcracker is one of the only times a dancer gets to perform his or her role more than just a few times,” Carney says. “They have the chance to improve…grow. It’s interesting to see how much they can develop their role during the run and perhaps again in subsequent years.”

In 45 years, Nutcracker has continued to draw audiences and student performers alike. Many families attend every year as part of their holiday traditions. In the end, it’s about dreams.

“As the end of the run draws near, the company is usually excited the holiday is here. But the kids are so sad Nutcracker’s over. They’re nervous at the beginning of December but by the end they’re having fun. You really see them change,” says Cowen who, since retiring from the stage in 2012 has worked for Kansas City Ballet School and helps rehearse the children’s casts.

Maybe that is where the magic comes from…

Featuring dozens of colorful characters, Kansas City Ballet’s The Nutcracker is one of the region’s most successful presentations, all led by the extraordinary professional Kansas City Ballet Company, Second Company and 163 students selected from Kansas City Ballet School.

Kansas City Ballet will once again present The Nutcracker this holiday season this December. The enchanting costumes, stunning sets, stellar choreography by Artistic Director Devon Carney, and Tchaikovsky’s memorable score, continue to tell the timeless tale of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince as they journey to the unforgettable Land of the Sweets.

The Nutcracker runs Dec. 7-24 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, downtown. Visit for tickets or more information.

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