Nevada Ballet Theatre’s turning pointe

‘Dance event of the year’ will showcase director James Canfield’s range

Photo: Leila Navidi

So there's this guy who did a stint selling duct tape wallets in Hawaii, running a gas station and taking a break from a successful 30-year dance career.

He comes to Nevada Ballet Theatre in its 2009 season, leads the company through a performance of Giselle demonstrating athleticism, brilliance and poise unseen in the three-decade-old company. He's good, we're thinking, and he's hired as artistic director.

But then the economic downturn hits, the company's budget is slashed, its traditional hierarchy is swapped for ensemble dancers, and longtime principals are gone, as are adored story ballets. Budget cuts delay a final 2008-2009 season performance, moving it to the next season, which is already filled with avant-garde, contemporary works. It's a head-spinning change for those more warm to staged fairy tales.

Soon, longtime NBT fans begin to wonder about James Canfield, the 6-foot-3 tattooed artistic director, who looks more punk rock than Swan Lake and is preceded by a reputation (good and bad) of edgy, contemporary, sexy performances. So when Nevada Ballet launched its 39th season last month with a performance in the parking lot of the downtown Brett Wesley Gallery — accompanied by a photo exhibit of the dancers posing with Harley-Davidson motorcycles — it's possible that the old guard started thinking, "Oh, no, not again."

NBT Director James Canfield


Nevada Ballet Theatre 2010/2011 Season
FALL SERIES October 15-17, Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall at UNLV "Preserving the vision and legacy of the late Robert Joffrey."
THE NUTCRACKER December 17-26, Paris Theatre at Paris Las Vegas
SPRING SERIES March 4-6, Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall at UNLV Presenting George Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations."
BEYOND WORDS & TEXT: THE STUDIO SERIES April 7-17, Nevada Ballet Theatre's Summerlin Studios
• A CHOREOGRAPHERS' SHOWCASE with Nevada Ballet Theatre and Cirque du Soleil May 2011, dates TBA, Viva Elvis Theatre at Aria.

Well, hold that thought.

You haven't seen all of Canfield yet. And no one wants to convince audiences of this more than the director himself.

Sure, he's choreographed works to the music of Pink Floyd and Edith Piaf, collaborated with street artists and pushed the envelope once in a while, but, Canfield insists on a recent afternoon in his office, he's never wanted to push anyone away. He states that his aim is only to expand audiences, push the boundaries of dance, while remaining loyal to his classical core: "I'm a classicist at heart. The body of my work is me being a classicist. I never want people to feel that we're doing away with all of that."

Canfield will make his point next weekend when Nevada Ballet dancers dressed in white, romantic tutus perform the most traditional, grueling, beautiful and athletic moves of classical ballet. Their performance is for Canfield's own "Degas Impressions," a series of 11 vignettes inspired by and named after Degas' paintings that will likely remind everyone that Canfield can kick it classically. But more than that, the entire program is a tribute to renowned choreographer Robert Joffrey and includes performances by three other ballet companies whose artistic directors, like Canfield, danced with the Joffrey Ballet.

Canfield refers to it as "the dance event of the year in this city," lauding the program's artistic depth.

The program also illustrates ballet past and present through the four companies participating — Ballet West ( Jiri Kylian's "Sinfonietta"), Aspen Santa Fe Ballet (Jorma Elo's "Red Sweet"), Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (Nacho Duato's "Gnawa" pas de deux), and NBT. The evening of classical, contemporary and neoclassical ballet includes work by choreographers who helped redefine or are redefining ballet. Kylian's 1978 "Sinfonietta" was an international breakthrough in dance that merged modern and classical. Duato's "Gnawa" pas de deux exemplifies the choreographer's reputation for sensual organic works. Elo's "Red Sweet" was created for Aspen Sante Fe by the Finnish choreographer, whose classical ballet is fused with robotic, sometimes fast-paced movements.

That the NBT main stage season opener begins with the Degas-inspired work is even more telling. The painter's impressionist style was once as reviled in the art world as contemporary dance has been by ballet traditionalists. But new works are common among ballet companies, even those that feature the tried and true story-based ballets. "Every company is doing more diverse programming. They're doing the big ballets, but in order to acquire new audiences, they're doing the new works," says Canfield. "I don't want to alienate the audience that exists now. I'm working to embrace more audiences."

Growing a larger audience is critical for Nevada Ballet, which is slated to be a resident company in the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and needs to fill its large hall and pay the bills. Additionally, with the likelihood that other ballet companies will be making stops at the Smith Center, Nevada Ballet needs a firm identity, something to separate it from the touring performances.

This explains Nevada Ballet's outreach to younger, maybe hipper audiences, or to people who, for whatever reason, never bothered with ballet.

It also puts Canfield's post-performance speech at Brett Wesley Gallery — where he equated traits in dancers with motorcycles and explained that art is in everything around us — in context.

"It's about having people take a different look at ballet, showing them that it's about performance, excellence, speed, accuracy and line. These are athletes, and they are incredible machines as well."

Nevada Ballet's new reputation has made its way through the community and the company. The 11 trainees and 21 company dancers, including some from the pre-Canfield era, know what they're in for with the demanding artistic director. Some former dancers left for other companies after Canfield took the helm; others were let go during the budget cuts. Dancer Jeremy Bannon-Neches told me last season that other companies wouldn't be able to provide the hands-on experience he gets from Canfield and that he feeds off the intensity of the artistic director: "With any other art form you have your whole lifetime to develop your artistry. By the time you reach that level in dance, it's over. You're pushing yourself so hard. You want to get to the next level. I almost like it when people get on my case. I like to be kept on the edge a little bit."

Under Canfield, NBT is keeping audiences on the edge, too. More than 200 people attended the performance and exhibit at Brett Wesley Gallery, which featured works, several choreographed by Nevada Ballet dancers, on small portable stage floors. Some had yet to see anything by Nevada Ballet before the program, which ended with a laid-back, full-ensemble, jazzy piece set to music by Pat Metheny and incorporated several styles of dance. The audience that night was the perfect target for Nevada Ballet's new subscription program, Studio1, geared toward "arts-minded young professionals," who will have access to in-studio soirees, main stage performances and post-show gatherings."

Though Canfield professes a love for the classical, this season is a reminder that this is indeed a changed company. Its spring main stage performance includes Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations," a new pas de deux by Canfield, and "At the Border," a piece by Matthew Neenan, funded in part by The Jerome Robbins New Essential Works Program, a response to the economy, which helps fund new commissions and works.

In April, the company will also present Beyond Words & Text: The Studio Series, two weeks of cutting-edge black box performances in its studio. When asked what this season says about Nevada Ballet, Canfield summed it up succinctly, "We're on the move. Stay with us."

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