“This company is a little different from most ballet companies because we do such a variety of stuff…Working here has really been great.” So says Aisling Hill-Conner, dancer with the Kansas City Ballet and soloist in the comedic and colorful George Balanchine piece Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which opens the company’s 53rd season this Thursday.
Along with the Kansas City Lyric Opera and the Kansas City Symphony, this will be the Ballet’s last season at the Lyric Theatre before moving into the spectacular new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts next year. Recently, I attended a company dance rehearsal, then sat down with four of the dancers to speak about their peripatetic backgrounds, and their feelings on the soon-to-premiere piece.
Aisling Hill-Conner, whose current solo work is precise yet lighthearted, grew up in Texas and completed her schooling at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, “then came here directly out of school, got a job here, danced here for a while.” After an unfortunate injury sidelined her for a few years, she’s happy to be back dancing.
Like Hill-Conner, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue male lead Michael Eaton hails from Texas, “and kind of went all over the place studying—Boston, New York. I danced with the San Francisco Ballet for seven years…and then went to Tulsa for five years and then came here. This is my third season.”
Married company dancers Logan Pachciarz and Rachel Coats are also Southerners—Pachciarz from Tennessee and Coats from Florida. “I actually went to school with Aisling at the [University of] North Carolina School for the Arts,” Pachciarz says, “and I danced in Boston, and that’s where I met my wife.” Coats, who also spent time at the Nashville Ballet, soon joined Pachciarz in Kansas City, where she’s danced for nine seasons.
While certainly well-trained and -seasoned, the Kansas City Ballet’s company seems a relatively young one, fresh-faced and attractive all, something that Slaughter on Tenth Avenue tends to bring out in them.
The jazz-influenced ballet, with music by Richard Rodgers and choreography by Balanchine, was originally worked into the plot of the 1936 Broadway musical On Your Toes. In the 25-minute piece, set in a tacky strip joint, the corps de ballet play tawdry, underworld denizens with zeal, watching as lead Eaton falls hard for dance-hall girl Hill-Conner, then finds himself the target of a hit-man hired by a rival dancer. There’s a Keystone Kops-like number featuring three bumbling policemen, spoken-word passages with local actor Phil Fiorini as a hard-boiled yet comical assassin, and even numbers for which Eaton dons his tap shoes and hoofs.
Eaton says of the tap dancing, “I did it for a long time, and then kind of put it on the back shelf when I started doing ballet (Eaton actually performed a tap dance number for First Lady Barbara Bush at the 1992 Republican National Convention). So it’s fun to actually put into a show.” Further exploring the light-hearted nature of the piece, Eaton says “Stuff like this is more fun because there’s more acting involved…It’s more free—you can come up with a character…It’s not just like ‘Lift the girl, part with the girl’ (as in traditional ballet).”
Coats agrees with Eaton’s assessment: “You feel like you’re dancing with your friends,” she says of the crowd scenes set in the underworld joint. “Because everyone has a different character that they can portray, you can make more eye contact and play off what somebody else is doing. It just makes it feel more like a party—it’s more fun to dance.”
These comments point out one of Kansas City Ballet’s key attributes—the startling diversity of its repertoire. The fall program perfectly illustrates this: Beside Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, there’s the Tchaikovsky/Balanchine menuet Mozartiana and the technically showy Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. And the diversity of this program is not just a one-time thing, as my story on the Ballet’s 2009-10 winter program shows.
Logan Pachciarz says “It keeps for a versatile company…When you’re training growing up, you’re given a lot of different types of classes—ballet and tap, jazz and all that stuff…It’s nice to keep flexing those muscles so you don’t lose part of your trade.”
Kansas City Ballet Artistic Director William Whitener has done an admirable job selecting a distinct repertoire for his ballet’s last season before moving to the new Kaufmann venue, one with a stage specifically designed for dance.
Perhaps Rachel Coats put it best when she says that “[Diversity] only increases your artistry. Everything you do will lend itself to something else in one way or another. I think we all enjoy that.”
For tickets, and for more information on the Ballet’s fall program, visit their website.