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August 2, 2014

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DANCE:

Nevada Ballet’s renewed passion

Artistic director unveils bold, contemporary lineup, seeks audience feedback

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Steve Marcus

Behind Nevada Ballet’s curtain, costumes are displayed before a subscriber preview of the company’s next season of performances. A dress for “Coco,” choreographed by Artistic Director James Canfield, is at center. Canfield’s new vision for the company is evident in the four programs he has planned.

The overhaul of the Nevada Ballet Theatre should come as no surprise. The dance company signaled its new direction when it hired Artistic Director James Canfield, who confirmed the change Wednesday by announcing a season bereft of sleepy productions past.

Nevada Ballet Theatre's "American Masters"

Dancers from Nevada Ballet Theatre perform Launch slideshow »
James Canfield

James Canfield

SEASON AT A GLANCE

Timeless Innovation

“Rubies,” choreography by George Balanchine, music by Igor Stravinsky; “Coco,” choreography by James Canfield, music by Edith Piaf; “Jungle,” choreography by Canfield, music by Future Sound of London; Oct. 17-18; Artemus Ham Hall, UNLV

“The Nutcracker”

New production of “The Nutcracker” with music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; winter 2009, exact dates and location to be announced

A Choreographers’ Showcase

Presentation by Nevada Ballet Theatre and Cirque du Soleil; spring 2010; exact dates and location to be announced

A Brave New World

“Song of the Nightingale,” choreography by Gail Gilbert, music by Stravinsky; “Cyclical Night,” choreography by Canfield, music by Astor Piazzolla; and a new work by Thaddeus Davis; March 27-28; Artemus Ham Hall

Subscriptions: $20 and up, to go on sale at the end of April at the UNLV box office, 895-2787 or nevadaballet.com.

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Canfield likes his dancers athletic, his programs edgy and his company energetic — a merging of classical and contemporary.

“I wear my heart on my sleeve,” he says. “There’s no figuring me out. I’m in your face.”

He’ll throw Pink Floyd in with Tschaikovsky, collaborate with visual artists and street musicians, work within tight budgets and do what it takes to get audiences in the doors — like the time he sold tickets for a performance of the Oregon Ballet Theatre, his former company, in a Portland shopping mall with nothing more than a sign that said “Tickets $5,” encouraging curious passers-by to inquire.

Canfield says he’ll do anything, “within reason” to reach potential audiences.

Nevada Ballet Theatre’s next season is no exception: a new ensemble of dancers, all contemporary works, no traditional story ballets except for a new “Nutcracker” to replace the one that had been lagging in ticket sales. He’s adding open conversations after performances among the audience, dancers and choreographers. An introductory subscription series will be offered for $20 for the spring and fall shows — “A Brave New World” and “Timeless Innovation.”

Moreover, Canfield will bring the company into the community through “NBT 4x8,” a series of impromptu performances at public venues — restaurants, First Friday events, hotel lobbies — on a portable stage that is 4 by 8 feet and will disappear as mysteriously as it appears.

It’s pure Canfield, who’s developed such a reputation for envelope-pushing performances that an audience mistook an onstage injury (a severed Achilles tendon that ended his dance career) for an avant-garde ending.

Canfield, who was named artistic director in January, had several changes in mind for the company. Because of the sour economy, it happened sooner rather than later: new dancers, an ensemble format that unifies the company and gives everyone an equal chance to shine.

Budget cuts also mean a smaller season — four programs rather than six. There will be a fall program, a spring program, “The Nutcracker” and the company’s third annual choreographer collaboration with Cirque du Soleil dancers.

The fall program includes George Balanchine’s “Rubies” and Canfield’s “Coco” and “Jungle.”

“Coco” is Canfield’s evocative and emotional interpretation of the life and legacy of French fashion designer Gabrielle Coco Chanel. It’s set to the music of Edith Piaf. He choreographed the work while in a wheelchair post-Achilles injury, which explains the heavy dose of creative port de bras.

Canfield collaborated with visual artist Tom Cramer on “Jungle,” which has a survival-of-the-fittest feel in the urban and natural jungles and is set to the unconventional music of the Future Sound of London.

Nevada Ballet is not yet releasing the name of the choreographer of “The Nutcracker,” but says it will be a traditional presentation and not one of the subversive and humorous versions that pop up from time to time.

The spring program will be the company’s new Signature Series, featuring original works commissioned and owned by the company. Originally scheduled to end this season, it was postponed for lack of funding. The program includes “Song of the Nightingale” by Gail Gilbert, a performer from “Ka” with whom Canfield collaborated in Portland. The performance is inspired by and set to Stravinsky’s story song of the same name.

Canfield’s new “Cyclical Night’ is a tango-inspired ballet set to the music of Astor Piazzolla and is his first piece created for Nevada Ballet. The program also includes a new, yet-to-be-named work by choreographer Thaddeus Davis, co-director of Wideman/Davis Dance in New York City.

The company is keeping its successful and eye-opening collaboration with choreographers and dancers from Cirque du Soleil. The performance will be presented in the spring, rather than fall.

A new program, “NBT Unveiled,” is a “raw and unplugged” private studio performance for its highest donors.

Canfield hopes the innovative works will present the company — and ballet — in a new light, particularly to those who have stayed away because they feel no connection to the art form.

“Get ’em in the back door and I’ll teach you why they walk through the front door,” Canfield says. “I want people to take notice. People talking is people talking.”

He’d love to see that conversation be an energized discussion of what Nevada Ballet Theatre is capable of doing.

Canfield says he was unaware of its potential himself until he saw the company perform in a choreographer’s showcase with Cirque members. His reaction: “Oh, my God. The depth in that company is unbelievable. You would never know that from the performances at Ham Hall or Judy Bayley.” It made Canfield — who hadn’t even applied for the full-time artistic director’s job — want to stick around. His eventual selection to lead the company has resulted in its restructuring.

A tough and demanding artistic director, he says he has no time for complacency in a company.

He says he wants dancers “who have integrity and incredible work ethic, who will walk in that door every day, give their all and know that they might not walk in that door tomorrow. It’s not that long of a career. I want them to have the most while they’re doing it. I want them to love their time on stage.”

The economy almost ensured that Canfield would get what he wanted.

Layoffs and budget cuts at other companies brought in 61 dancers for auditions and an additional 50 resumes from solid dancers. He acknowledges the past year’s difficulties for Nevada Ballet’s dancers — working with an interim director, new demands and challenges, and auditioning five candidates for artistic director.

Dancers now with the company agree with the new vision and work ethic, Canfield says.

“I’m excited. I get excited every season,” Canfield says. “I know what choreographers are going to pull out of them. I can’t wait to see what (the dancers) bring to the role, steps emotion, artistry and all. I tell them, ‘Breathe new life into that. Let’s capitalize on what you can bring to that role.’ They can learn from each other.

“I don’t go to work. I go to life every day, asking, ‘How are we moving forward today? What are we doing to challenge each other?’ ”

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