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“The Nutcracker” has always been a child-friendly ballet, but this production is especially geared to youngsters. There are wonderful comic touches galore, and quick-thinking toys and clever animal characters seize the spotlight. A potbellied, roly-poly teddy bear, grown to gargantuan size, is equal parts fierce and lovable. He’s the star of the Silberhaus family’s Christmas Eve party in Act 1. Dr. Drosselmeier, the doll maker who created him, and whose other enchanted gifts ignite the ballet’s fantastical journey, is given to whizzing about in midair, his black cape winging him into flight.
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The ballet’s many child performers freely steal the show. There are bouncy, excitable little partygoers in Act I, of course, and the diminutive dolls who spring to life at midnight as the Silberhaus parlor is magicked into a battlefield. The tin soldiers deploy an especially nimble battle strategy to crush an invasion of mice. What collective might (and dynamic choreography) it takes to stand strong against their endearingly fluffed-up enemies, who pressed forth bravely — hopelessly — shouldering broken forks and fountain pens!
Drawing inspiration from the Rockettes, this “Nutcracker” also features reindeer, prancing fetchingly through the Kingdom of the Snow in antlers and sleek, leggy bodysuits. A giant hot-air balloon festooned with unicorns whisks away the young protagonist Clara — the buoyant Elise Pickert, a dancer of lovely musical phrasing — and her Nutcracker prince, embodied with polish and élan by company member Joshua Bodden.
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The Kansas City Ballet last appeared here in 2017, when this deeply 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 windowpanes, and in Act 2, a sugary wonderland where peppermint-stick colonnades overlook a garden of gumdrops. Veteran costume designer Holly Hynes devised the Victorian attire in tastefully subdued hues that don’t compete with the sets. A most important touch: The lavish gowns and little-girl frocks look even more beautiful in motion.
The professional dancers are charming and able, though be aware that overall, this company is not quite the caliber typically presented by the Kennedy Center on its ballet subscription series. The Kansas City Ballet is a relatively small troupe, around 30 dancers and apprentices. Its “Nutcracker” roster includes its second company, KCB II, trainees and many young ballet students. As an indication of 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 to Kaleena Burks’s winsome Sugar Plum Fairy. This is a wise move; Rogers’s high classical brilliance and regal bearing lends considerable star power to the ballet’s closing moments.
Kansas City Ballet music director Ramona Pansegrau led the Opera House Orchestra in one of the chief pleasures of any “Nutcracker” performed at the Kennedy Center: the incomparable Tchaikovsky score, performed live.
The Kansas City Ballet performs “The Nucracker” through Nov. 27 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. $49-$189. www.kennedy-center.org.