Ballet meets Broadway for ‘Tom Sawyer’ premiere

NY composer’s music drives the steps of the KC company in a full-length, all-Amercian program.

Maury Yeston, an award-winning Broadway composer, already knows one thing to expect when he takes his seat Friday night for the world premiere of “Tom Sawyer: A Ballet in 3 Acts.”

He’ll experience a rare level of satisfaction because he knows the performance will be the first of its kind — a full-length ballet by an American composer based on American literature. 

This ballet was a long time coming — the idea came to Yeston in the mid-1980s, not long after he collected his first Tony Award for “Nine” — but it marks a bold step for the Kansas City Ballet and choreographer William Whitener. It will be the company’s inaugural production at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Yeston describes the creation of his new ballet as something like an out-of-body experience, as if his fingers began working independently of his conscious mind.

But it’s better if he tells it. Yeston gets animated when he describes the creative process and sometimes his tone and volume escalate with his level of excitement.

“I said, ‘What’s my favorite American, full-length ballet?’ ” Yeston relates one morning at a downtown hotel. “I know I love ‘Swan Lake.’ I know I love ‘Gisele’ and ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ and the Prokofiev ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the Tchaikovsky ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the Tchaikovsky ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Cinderella.’ ” But when he considered American ballets he came up empty.

“I adore ‘Rodeo’ and Agnes DeMille and that’s about 30 minutes long,” he says. “And I love ‘Billy the Kid,’ which is probably around the same. But for the life of me I couldn’t remember seeing or hearing a full-length, orchestral, three-act, two-intermission, all-night-long American ballet by an American composer” — and here his voice begins rising — “based on any kind of American literary masterpiece mounted by an American choreographer in America!”

Yeston says he looked at ballets registered at the Library of Congress. He could find no record of a full-length American ballet. Ever.

“So I thought, ‘What an obvious idea. I’ll write ‘Tom Sawyer.’ It just popped into my head and the minute it popped into my head I knew it was something that’s gonna fly. Because it’s America’s favorite book. It’s Americana. It’s like ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and Tom is Peter. You could write it like Prokofiev. … The thing leaped into my fingers and I went to the piano and for a period of weeks. I just started playing furiously with these ideas that just came out of me.”

But then he stopped. He knew if he kept at it the result would be a concert piece, not a ballet. So the idea lay dormant.

Whitener and Yeston had been aware of each other for decades, but two years ago they discovered they shared an agent. That’s when Yeston saw a DVD of a short dance piece Whitener had choreographed called “Gingham Shift,” set on the Midwest Plains to music by Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer, and he knew he’d found the right person to bring “Tom Sawyer” to life.

“Bill and I got together, I played him the music I had and described my scenario, and he instantaneously said, ‘Let’s do it in Kansas City,’ ” Yeston says. “We thought we’d do a small ballet in Kansas City, but then the fact materialized that somebody was building a gigantic $400 million building and that it was going to open about the time I would be finishing this ballet.”

All the pieces fell together in perfect alignment, as though fate had a hand in bringing Yeston’s original vision to the stage.

“And you know what? That’s been worth waiting 27 years for.”

• • • 

William Whitener has been functioning as director and choreographer in staging “Tom Sawyer.” He likes to keep research materials close at hand, and keeps his head in mid-19th-century Missouri.

He keeps a big box that contains video recordings of rehearsals, his notes — including ideas he’s had in the middle of the night — as well as notes by Yeston, a copy of  “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” as well as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and a copy of Mark Twain’s autobiography.

And lately he’s been listening to an audio recording of “Tom Sawyer” in his car.

“So I’m immersed,” Whitener said.

About three weeks ago, when Tommy Tune was in town to perform at the star-studded opening-night gala at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, he made time to swing by the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity to catch part of a “Tom Sawyer” rehearsal.

Tune and Whitener are veterans of the Broadway universe. And Tune had directed “Nine,” and so had known Yeston almost 30 years.

“Tommy and I have been friends for many years and I was an extra set of eyes during (‘Nine’ rehearsals) and Tommy Tune was an extra set of eyes for ‘Tom Sawyer’ when he was here,” Whitener said. “He loved the Bolender Center and he sat next to me during rehearsals. He saw the trial scene and really liked it. He didn’t have any suggestions because he thought it was riveting as is. And then he saw the opening of Act 2 with the drunken dance and the flask, and he saw a bit of the funeral procession.”

Whitener is calling on all the extra sets of eyes he can, because staging a three-act ballet from scratch is a gargantuan task. Ballet master James Jordan has been at most rehearsals, as has been ballet mistress Karen Brown, who plays Aunt Polly. And Whitener brought in another long-time colleague, Shelley Freydont, to assist with some of the staging.

Freydont was an assistant choreographer on the film “Amadeus,” in which Whitener and Freydont both were dancers.

One afternoon at a recent rehearsal, Whitener was working on the opening moments of the ballet, when the town is waking up and all the principal characters — Tom, Becky Thatcher, Injun Joe — are introduced. Most of the 26 dancers and seven students in the show were present, and Freydont was keeping an eye on those playing townspeople.

“I know this feels a little strange, but when you don’t have any other business, just sway,” Freydont told the young dancers. The youngest dancers at one point played a game tossing small hoops and catching them with sticks. “I want you practicing,” Freydont said. “I don’t want one of those rolling into the orchestra pit.”

“This is like a Broadway street scene, or a movie,” Whitener told a visitor.

Indeed, the word “Broadway” keeps coming up in discussions of “Tom Sawyer.”

When Whitener heard the score the first time, he was in Yeston’s apartment in New York. Yeston played it on his piano without written music because it was all in his head. At that time Yeston had about 30 minutes of music. Now there are almost 90 minutes.

What they agreed to do was a narrative ballet, one with specific characters and a story that moves forward. And for that the collaborators are relying on their Broadway experience.

“He is at the apex of the classical world and he’s also a Broadway dancer,” Yeston said of Whitener. “We know all about putting a show together and collaborating. All of the culture of how you create a Broadway show flowed into the culture of how we create this colorful, popular story that will reach out to an ordinary audience — but at the same time earn its artistic rights by our having the integrity to do justice to this great literary masterpiece. And here we are in Missouri getting ready to launch America’s first truly full-length ballet.”

Whitener said he has to wear two hats — director and choreographer — because of the ballet’s scope.

“Everything needs to be specifically directed so that our storyline is consistent and our motivation is true,” he said. “But I try to work that way in all ballets, actually. There’s a very subtle difference between a piece I call ‘pure dance’ and one that has distinguishable characters. We have to be more specific with something like ‘Tom Sawyer’ because we are suggesting a particular era in American culture and people behaved somewhat differently.”

• • • 

At another rehearsal Whitener worked with Alexander Peters, who plays Tom, and Laura Wolfe, who plays Becky Thatcher, in an upstairs studio at the Bolender Center. They, like most of the company dancers, weren’t even born when Yeston began working on the ballet.

One scene is a sort of prepubescent courtship dance. In another, they enter the cave where they will find Injun Joe’s corpse.

Ramona Pansegrau, the ballet’s musical director, provided accompaniment on the piano, working from printed arrangements of Yeston’s score. In performance, Pansegrau will conduct the Kansas City Symphony using charts prepared by Brad Dechter, a Hollywood orchestrator.

“A little less classical, Alex, and a little more boyish,” Whitener said at one point.

“When the music is lyrical the dancers tend to be lyrical, so we’re working against that,” he told some onlookers.

As the dancers entered the imaginary cave, Whitener reminded them that they must convey fatigue and apprehension. And they need to strike a balance between youthful beauty and gawkiness.

“Love is heightened by fear, otherwise we wouldn’t have movies,” Whitener said.

Yeston, who grew up in New Jersey and was going to hear Thelonious Monk in New York’s Greenwich Village when he was in his teens, talks about the significance of “Tom Sawyer” like a born Westerner.

Twain’s novel captures the tension between civilizing forces and pure, wild freedom, the way Yeston sees it. Huck will be wild forever; Tom, though it pains us to see it, will settle down.

“Let’s not forget,” Yeston said, “that the greatest and most magnificent epic poem in American history is by Hart Crane: ‘The Bridge.’ He tried to make Brooklyn Bridge literally the dream of the American West and the American frontier. Wester-ing is in our blood. … There’s a West of the American consciousness that always yearns for that new place, that new idea. That lives in all of us. That’s why kids in New Jersey read ‘Tom Sawyer.’ That’s me.”