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TRAILBLAZERS: A scrapbook of Kansas City performing artists whose impact is being felt throughout the region and beyond

 Vanessa Severo 

The actor, writer, choreographer, and director is the daughter of Brazilian immigrants. She has appeared on all the major stages in Kansas City and on quite a few others around the country. In 2019, she presented the world premiere of her one-woman show, Frida: A Self Portrait at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and since then has taken it to other cities around the country. 

What I love about Kansas City performing arts: Theaters like Spinning Tree Theatre, employing local artists, designers, directors, and playwrights while supporting youth of all abilities to showcase their talents; the Unicorn Theatre, which employs more female directors than any other theater in Kansas City; artists like David Wayne Reed, who consistently go outside the box and represent different voices of Kansas City in his podcast, Shelf Life; and the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, which provides free theater in the park for everyone. 

What I would love to see more of in the future: Local artists being employed, nurtured, and supported by the larger theaters of Kansas City. There is a large community of diversity in this beautiful, ever-growing city, and the talent is here.

Upcoming: April 26th through May 5th, 2024: Rubik, world premiere play (Spinning Tree Theatre); February 3rd through March 3rd: Dracula, by Vanessa Severo in collaboration with Joanie Schultz (Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park) 


 Amado Espinoza

Performing artist, composer, and instrument maker from Cochabamba, Bolivia, who respects his folk traditions of the Andes Mountains “while creating compositions that are sincere to his musical-wanderlust personality.” He is a 2017 Charlotte Street Foundation Generative Performing Arts Fellow, and won a 2022 Spirit of Folk Award from Folk Alliance International. 

What I love about Kansas City performing arts: Kansas City is a city with a lot of high-quality artists, great cultural variety, and strong supporters of art and culture. I like how it is a priority for so many artists to build an inclusive community that expands over different genres and disciplines.

What I would love to see more of in the future: I would love Kansas City to be known as much for its arts scene as for its sports teams. 

Upcoming: October 1st: The Andes: A Musical Journey, presented by the Colombian Cultural Association; (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art); October 21st: Iskay (Brookside Farmers’ Market)


 Pablo Sanhueza

Kansas City’s premier Salsa and Latin Jazz percussionist and bandleader arrived here from Santiago, Chile, in 1996. He has toured the world and appeared at major international jazz festivals, and in 2018 he founded the Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra/Latin Jazz Institute. He has won multiple awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support a commission from pianist, composer, and bandleader Eddie Palmieri. 

What I love about Kansas City performing arts: There are many factors that encourage me to continue developing as an independent working musician, such as the support and genuine comradery with the nine steady musicians in the orchestra (KCLJO) and with our audiences; and the established and new professional connections we generate every time we perform. 

The future: An important reality is the growing Latino demographics, from which arises the growing necessity for our bilingual music education program and workforce development … as we employ those musicians who show a deeper interest in the art form.

Upcoming: October 7th: Blanco y Negro (Guadalupe Center gala); October 19th: Second Annual Beefsteak Dinner (The Savoy); regular appearances at the Blue Room (Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District). 



Instagram: @pablosanhuezamusic 

Fedra Cooper Barrera

Fedra is a singer, actress, and model from Veracruz, Mexico, who began her career as an actress with Televisa (Mexico’s primary television network). She has performed on tour as a backup singer for pop superstar Luis Miguel and has recorded a solo disc with legendary producer Pablo Ortiz. She has performed tango, Fado, rancheras, boleros, and many other types of music, locally with such groups as Cubanisms, Ayllu, Ensemble Ibérica, and La Sonora KC. 

What I love about Kansas City performing arts: As a Latina, I feel really very proud to be part of this portion of the Hispanic community that brings art and music to the people. I was always taught from a young age that for every situation there is nothing like music to fix it. Whether it is a problem, a worry, an illness, stress in everyday life … it is best fixed by listening to music. What I enjoy and admire most about the people who appreciate art in Kansas City is that they always invest in listening to a good concert, and that stimulates their senses and their hearts. Here, musicians are appreciated and supported, and any artist who comes from outside with a proposal is received, applauded, and listened to.

What I would love to see more of in the future: We have very talented people in the city, and a loyal audience: Perhaps we could use this platform to project artists more outside of here, publicize them more for the entire country so others could learn more about what we can contribute. I feel privileged to be able to participate … in the best bands in this city, starting with the Ensemble Ibérica. … I am also the lead singer of the Ayllu group, which performs Central American and Latin music. This kind of music always brings me and centers me to earth, to my roots as part of this world, and as an extension of the earth.

Upcoming: October 5th: ArtOberfest: World Cultures Day performance by Gamelan Genta Kasturi and Cucharada (Rockhurst University) 

Instagram: @fedracooper

 Daniel Velasco

Daniel is a flutist and University of Kansas associate professor who has performed with orchestras throughout North and South America, with such conductors as Carlos Miguel Prieto, Gustavo Dudamel, Claudio Abbado, Ben Zander, Cristian Măcelaru, and Carl St. Clair. He has won prizes at the Claude Monteux Flute Competition and the William C. Byrd Competition, among others. 

What I love about the Kansas City-area performing arts: Since moving to Lawrence, I have been fortunate to connect and work with a world-class community of arts organizations and musicians. I have enjoyed performances and involvement with the Lawrence Public Library, the Kansas Public Radio, the Kansas City Symphony, the Ruel Joyce Series at JCCC, and the Kansas City Flute Association, to name a few. 

What I would love to see more of in the future: My goal in the near future is to connect more with the western part of the State of Kansas, and I hope that my upcoming performance with the Salina Symphony will be a step in that direction. 

Current and upcoming: November 5th: Michael Daugherty’s Flute Concerto: Trail of Tears, which deals with the forced displacement of Native Americans (the Salina Symphony with Music Director Yaniv Segal); in August 2022, Flauta Andina, his first solo album, was released on the NAXOS label, with Pianist Ellen Sommer, featuring music for flute and piano by composers from Ecuador and Mexico.  


Alladson Barreto

Kansas City Ballet company dancer from Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil; studied in his home country and then at Philadelphia’s Rock School before dancing with Ballet West II and worked with Kathryn Morgan, world-renowned former ballerina with New York City Ballet. In 2018, he was a finalist for the Youth America Grand Prix. 

What I love about the Kansas City performing arts: The diversity of performances. The talent and creativity of all artists is a great inspiration, and I am happy to know that dance here is in a strong community where everyone wants to share this art and take it to places without easy access to the arts. … I remember every detail about my audition and the feeling I felt when I was taking the first class: I felt inspired and welcomed by Kansas City Ballet. … It is always difficult to make changes and start from scratch in a new company, to leave your home country to pursue your dreams. When I arrived at Kansas City Ballet, under the direction of Devon Carney, I was welcomed by all the staff and the other dancers. I started to refine myself and express everything that the art of dance means to me. The Company has always been there to help me. … I’m very happy to say that I’m part of the Kansas City Ballet family. 

The future: I want to continue expressing myself through dance. … Kansas City continues to be home to so many other artists, and our community continues to grow and strengthen itself to develop more programs that engage wider audiences and collaborations. 

Upcoming: October 13th through 22nd: Jekyll & Hyde; and December 1st through 24th: The Nutcracker (both with Kansas City Ballet) 


 Leilani Vaughn

Leilani moved to Kansas City from Los Angeles with her family in 2008 and grew up in the Armourdale/Argentine neighborhood. She studied music education at Kansas State University and currently teaches music in the Shawnee Mission School District. In 2021 she formed Voces Festivas, Kansas City’s only Spanish-language chorus. This adventurous and accomplished choir performs music of Mexico, Colombia, Spain, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Chile, and other nations.

What I love about Kansas City performing arts: I love that the performing arts in KC are alive and thriving! From musicians traveling through the Kauffman Center to Broadway shows lighting up the stage at Starlight, there is something for everyone. I also love to see how supportive KC is of the performing arts. From citizens filling up the audiences to building organizations committed to helping performing arts groups. It makes me very proud of my city.

What I would love to see more of in the future: I would love to see the diversity of our city represented more through the performing arts! It’s definitely present, but I feel as there is still room to grow. As our city and its members grow, so should the performances available to the community. The more we understand each other, the better we get along, and there is no better way to understand each other than through the arts.

Upcoming: October 4th: JOCO Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration (Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center)


Featured in the September 30, 2023 issue of The Independent. 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.