Dancers—long-legged, festooned in sequins and feathers or little at all—are a Vegas staple. But, quiet as it’s kept, there is an alternative dance tradition in Las Vegas, one that embraces modern and contemporary dance, one that believes dance can be art, not just acrobatics (or merely titliation.)
This weekend brings the 10th-annual Dance in the Desert, a two-day showcase dance at the Horn Theater, on the Cheyenne campus of the College of Southern Nevada.
Kelli Roth, the festival’s co-founder and the head of CSN’s dance program, says that for years the college put on fall and spring dance shows but could never find the audience to support a summer show. Enter dancer/choreographer Kyla Quintero, the festival’s other co-founder, who brought in performers from the Strip and helped build enough of a crowd. “We were in a state of inertia,” Roth recalls. “She knocked us out of that inert state.”
There’s “always people from the Strip trying to put companies together,” he continues. “They usually last a few years, and they’re not able to keep it together. We’ve got some companies like that ... people working in various shows on the Strip who want to have an artistic outlet.”
The festival provides just that outlet: It’s both a showcase for the rich dance talent in the city and proof to residents that the variety of dance artistry in town is much more expansive than they might have believed.
When Quintero tragically was struck by a drunk driver in 2002, ending her dance career, Roth’s wife took over in helping to grow the event. In past years, Dance in the Desert has welcomed companies from as far away as the East Coast and Russia. Now Roth has to turn performers away.
Of the 14 troupes performing this year, eight are local; the rest come from California and Arizona. All the performers are encouraged to bring three compositions to present during the festival’s three performances: Friday at 7:30 p.m, and Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.
Among the first-time performers this year is Debra Lacey, director of Rupa Modern Dance Company. Lacey trained in New York and worked as a dancer and teacher there for 18 years before moving to Las Vegas in 2005. She came to Vegas because she thought the town would allow her to develop her own technique, which brings together modern and ballet forms. She wanted a place “more conducive to new artists.” She felt that New York, post-9/11, had lost a step, dance-wise. Sin City was “some place new where I could see the open sky and feel my feet on the earth.”
Rupa, from the Sanskrit word meaning beauty and form, is a flexibile company that grows or shrinks based on the work it’s performing. For Dance in the Desert, Lacey is premiering a duet called “Twisted; Within,” about “having a thought or experience happen that’s so unexpected it twists the way one moves through—or not through—it.”
Another new perfomer is Lindsey Setzekorn, who came to Las Vegas with a background in ballet and modern dance to join the cast of Jubilee! and pursue a masters degree at UNLV. She’s been a dancer with the show for a year and a half. “I come from a background that focused more on improvisation and creativity,” she notes. “I don’t think people in Las Vegas realize that there are so many different forms of dance.”
Setzekorn is also debuting a duet, with fellow Jubilee! dancer Jessica Martineau, called “Cerebral Convergence.”“I wanted to develop a piece that focused on a different style of training than what I perform every night.”
The trick is getting the word out. The crowds in previous years have been pretty small—only 400 people or so.
“You have to ask does the city have an audience that’s also interested in dance companies?” says Lacey. “And I believe that audience does exist.” She hopes to persuade casinos to set up small stages for dancers to exhibit their performances, but, ultimately, it’s an audience of locals that Lacey seeks.
Times are tough, and dancers—a chronically underfunded and underappreciated group—are no exception. “There’s always been modern dance here,” says Roth. “This is just meant to give it a greater exposure to the public.”