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October 20, 2014

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For ‘Masters,’ Nevada Ballet Theatre displaying some fancy footwork

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Steve Marcus

James Canfield recently became Nevada Ballet Theatre’s artistic director after filling in temporarily following the retirement of Bruce Steivel.

Not to speak in platitudes, but this weekend’s “American Masters” performances by Nevada Ballet Theatre might be the most important in the 35-year history of the company. Toeing the boards will be the New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan, widely considered by dance authorities to be the greatest ballerina of her generation. Tickets for the programs at Artemus Ham Hall are immodestly priced at $10 and $25 for balcony seats (Tip time! You need to call 895-ARTS for that rate), as NBT tries to reach a younger, less affluent audience. The performances are particularly crucial in terms of public perception, as they are staged just a month after NBT cut its staff by 12 (including nine dancers) because of financial shortfalls stemming from lackluster audiences for “The Nutcracker” and soft donor support. A poor turnout would be bad, very bad indeed.

Given that melodramatic storyline, these performances simply have to draw robust audiences. But aside from all that, there’s no pressure, none at all.

NBT’s new artistic director, James Canfield, has willfully stepped onto this slippery stage, and he has no misconceptions about the climate NBT faces as it closes its season one performance ahead of schedule. The season finale, “New Works-’09,” was taken off the board (“postponed” is the operative word at NBT), but will be shown in pieces over the 2009-2010 season. NBT will announce the specifics of that season late this month, and it is important (at least, to the NBT) that the announcement will be “what” will make up next season, not “if” there will be a season at all. But don’t expect those nine dancers to return to the stage as part of the schedule.

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  • James Canfield
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“There probably have not been worse days in my life than to tell a young artist, a young dancer, that they have to go on an indefinite layoff,” Canfield said in this week’s episode of “Our Metropolis,” which you can link to by clicking on that linear little icon embedded in this posting. “Indefinite” is the key word, as Canfield explained, “We have to think and plan as to where we are right now. … I think we’re looking at maintaining the size company we currently have. … We have to live within our means and look at how we can sustain ourselves. Our ultimate goal is longevity.”

Canfield, his head shaved in a Mr. Clean sort of way, understands longevity. Unafraid to kick down the barriers of contemporary dance and traditional ballet, Canfield trained at the Academy of the Washington School of Ballet under the direction of renowned instructor Mary Day, who founded the school in 1944. During his performance career, he danced with the Washington Ballet in D.C., the Joffrey II dancers in New York and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. He took a position with Pacific Ballet Theatre in 1986 and helmed the Oregon Ballet Theatre when it merged with Oregon Ballet Theatre in 1989. Just prior to taking over NBT on an interim basis after longtime artistic director Bruce Steivel stepped down, Canfield served as an instructor for the Northwest Professional Dance Project in Portland.

If nothing else, Canfield knows how to deliver dance in urban and rural settings. He’s visited Las Vegas regularly for 30 years, so he wasn’t exactly naïve about his surroundings when stepping in for Steivel. It was during that process that Canfield learned he wouldn’t mind having “interim” stripped from his title.

“I didn’t have it in mind that I would apply permanently, but the smell of the studio, the sweat, started to feel right,” Canfield said. “I was inspired. At the and of the search, I asked (NBT executive director) Beth Barbre, ‘Is it too late to throw my name into the hat?’ And here I sit.”

The rare opportunity for Las Vegas residents to be exposed to the very best dancers in the world was made possible by Barbre’s long association with the New York City Ballet, where she was once company manager. Joining Whelan for this weekend’s performances will be New York City Ballet dancers Albert Evans and Sebastian Marcovici (in pas de deux “Liturgy” and “After the Rain” by acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon). Also featured in the program is Canfield’s own “Up,” which is a compilation of seven versions of the song “Blue Moon” (Canfield says there are hundreds of versions of that song, and I believe him), and “Neon Glass Pas de Deux,” highlighted by the work of composer Philip Glass -- originally the piece was set amid the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly. The show closes with an innovative, upbeat finale: San Francisco choreographer Val Caniparoli’s “Lambarena,” a blend of African music with classical Bach, and a fusion of African dance movement with traditional ballet. As Canfield notes, “African movement is very grounded, and dance is very ‘up’ and out of the floor.”

OK. I am sold. It’s Friday and Saturday, for anyone interested in supporting NBT. The talent couldn't be higher, and the prices are at an all-time low. Now it’s on us.

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