The name St. Petersburg is, of course, known for being the source of some of the most magical ballets and ballerinas of all time. It’s also the name that Mark Twain gave his fictional town along the Mississippi River in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It might be hard to suggest that the latter was influenced by the former since there are no historical records to support the idea that Mark Twain was a balletomane. He once ascertained from his own experience that the waltz and polka were “precisely the same” dance, but that may be the extent of what is known about his interest in dance. You have to think, though, that Twain would howl with delight if he heard that his Tom Sawyer was about to be made into a ballet.
William Whitener, Artistic Director of Kansas City Ballet, is collaborating with Tony winning Broadway composer Maury Yeston to createTom Sawyer – A Ballet in Three Acts for the inaugural season of the spectacular new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in October 2011. The Kansas City Symphony will play in the pit for all of the performances. The Kauffman Center will be the new permanent home of the Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, and Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
Whitener immersed himself in the choreography of Joffrey, Arpino, Tharp, Robbins, Ailey, Jooss, and Fosse during his performance career with the Joffrey Ballet, Twyla Tharp Company and on Broadway. He is the former Artistic Director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. His choreography credits are broad-ranging – ballet, opera, Broadway, ice skating theater. Yeston’s Broadway music includes Titanic, Nine, and Grand Hotel and the “in the works” Off Broadway production of Death Takes A Holiday as well as film and concert compositions. Whitener and Yeston are the artistic anchors for an eclectic team of creative artists, who suggest the possibility of a collaboration that could reinvigorate the effort to make new story ballets in this country.
The orchestrator, Brad Dechter, is a jazz lover with his own octet who has worked extensively in films and was mentored by the Ellington trumpeter, Bill Berry. The set designer, Walt Spangler, has designed productions for the Lincoln Center Festival, English National Opera, Lithuanian National Opera, Papermill Theater and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The costume designer is Holly Hynes, long associated with the New York City Ballet and now the resident costume designer for the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. The lighting designer, Kirk Bookman, has done a ton of work on Broadway, Joyce Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theatre Club, and on and on and on. The Assistant to the Choreographer, Shelley Freydont, danced with Twyla Tharp, Louis Falco, and is a published author of a mystery series. The conductor, Ramona Pansegrau, is the current music director for the Kansas City Ballet. She was the music director of the Tulsa Ballet and conducted the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra in their ballet performances. Prior to that she was the principal pianist at the Boston Ballet and much more.
When was the last time we saw a full-length ballet created by an American choreographer and composer for an American company based on a famous American literary theme? Kansas City Ballet thinks this may be a first. This is just the sort of production that would be a winner for PBS. Hope it’s on their radar. Let’s keep it on ours and also keep an eye out for good fall fares to K.C.
From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving.