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July 31, 2014

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Review:

Nevada Ballet Theatre dazzles by degrees

New artistic director Canfield heats program to a thrilling techno-music boil

Image

Steve Marcus

Nevada Ballet Theatre dancers perform in “Jungle” during a dress rehearsal for Timeless Innovations, the Nevada Ballet’s season opener, at UNLV’s Ham Hall Friday.

Timeless Innovations

Nevada Ballet Theatre dancers perform in Launch slideshow »

If You Go

  • What: Nevada Ballet Theatre
  • Next shows: “The Nutcracker” — Dec. 17-24, Paris Las Vegas, “NBT Unveiled” — Feb. 5-6, Nevada Ballet’s facility in Summerlin, “Brave New World” — March 27-28, Artemus Ham Hall, UNLV, “A Choreographers’ Showcase” — Nevada Ballet Theatre and Cirque du Soleil, April 18 and 25, Mystère Theatre at Treasure Island
  • More info: nevadaballet.com

Beyond the Sun

For his first program as new artistic director of Nevada Ballet Theatre, James Canfield used the frog-in-a-pot-of-water strategy.

The curtain opened on Saturday night with a comforting and familiar, business-as-usual, lukewarm performance of George Balanchine’s “Rubies.”

The second ballet of the evening, Canfield’s own witty “Coco,” quickly turned the temperature up to the level of a stimulating hot bath. And then the adventurous, inventive choreographer brought it up to full boil with the third dance, his abstract “Jungle,” set to the squelchy, splashy ambient techno music of Future Sound of London.

It was steamy and sexy and surprising — and everyone stayed in the pot. And if the apprehensive traditionalists in the audience weren’t jumping for joy by the end, they received “Jungle,” and particularly “Coco,” with pleasure.

At some point during those two hours at UNLV’s Ham Hall, everything changed for Las Vegas’s 38-year-old ballet company. Canfield took the audience — and the dancers — from reassurance to seduction and on to startle and even shock. It signified, as I overheard a man say to his companion on the way to the car, “a new era for the Ballet.”

Over the summer, Canfield streamlined the company, brought in 11 young new dancers, and installed a new non-hierarchical — no “stars” — ensemble structure. Surely the audience missed familiar faces who left the company after last season, but the current cast supplies plenty of focus, personality and strength. Canfield appears to be intent on evening out the balance of traditionally pretty-lady-centric pattern of ballet, providing the men more distinctive roles and movements. If this first night belonged to any individual dancer, it was Jeremy Bannon-Neches, who was featured prominently in all three ballets and performed brilliantly.

Kicky and chic, Canfield’s playful “Coco,” a short ballet that premiered 10 years ago, is centered on the French fashion designer Coco Chanel and set to songs by legendary chanteuse Edith Piaf, with amusing interludes of le jazz hot. His choreography provoked a blizzard of impressions — I imagined glimpses of early Madonna, “Project Runway,” the fashion sequence in “Funny Face” and Gene Kelly musicals. Sleek in signature pearls, Rebecca Brimhall danced the part of Chanel with humor and hauteur, elegantly emphasizing her alabaster arms; the men, natty in shades of khaki, had an endearing moment as they were partnered with dress forms. The piece ended by superimposing past on future, with mannequin models silhouetted in tangerine and lemon light, striking Vogue-layout poses to a dark techno throb.

That novel concluding scene of “Coco” dovetailed neatly with Canfield’s 1995 “Jungle,” which employed light, costuming, scenic design and especially sound to create a space both dense and vastly spacious. The track (the first four “Paths” from the “Lifeforms” remix CD) instantly created tension and alertness in the audience, beginning with rhythmic splashing and other moist noises, alive with coos and cries and industrial-sounding clangs and percussion.

Wearing patterned bodysuits seemingly painted on them by artist Tom Cramer, the dancers soloed sequentially in a wide pool of spotlight. Canfield’s choreography interpreted the exotic, eccentric sounds, creating creatures that might be urban humans, primordial life forms or a flock of tropical birds. Dancers curled into each other, circled and wheeled in formation, repeated gestures that could signify attraction or dominance. One of the most striking images was two dancers crawling backward, away from each other, into the wings, suggesting (to me, anyway) a kind of reverse evolution. The third section (of four) effectively used sidelighting, which accentuated the muscularity and equipoise of the dancers.

Rear curtains parted to reveal a wall-sized Day-Glo mural (also by Cramer), which recalled the graffiti-inspired ’80s pop art of Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring. With the dancers set against this backdrop (itself so absorbing as to be potentially distracting from the performers), the effect was a kind of crazy-colored camouflage, the creatures all but invisible within their wild habitat.

“Jungle” ended with an exuberant ensemble dance — the modern-dance equivalent of a crowd-pleasing kickline — and I wasn’t the only member of the audience who tried out some of the birdlike arm movements as we filed out of the theater.

Amid all the ladies in red, Alexandra Christian, evoking Audrey Hepburn in grace and face, was the real sparkler in an otherwise somewhat wobbly and rote performance of Balanchine’s 1967 “Rubies.” Set to Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, it seemed comparatively fusty in retrospect. The ballet was sponsored by Nancy and Kell Houssels in memory of the late Jeanne Hood, a longtime board member of Nevada Ballet Theatre.

It was all over too quickly, and although the program was repeated on Sunday afternoon, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing that our ballet company could present at least another weekend of performances, so we could take it all in.

With some significant outreach, Canfield and his dancers may well succeed in their necessary mission, attracting a new generation of audience while retaining the stalwart fans and supporters who have been there for the Ballet for so long.

Nevada Ballet Theatre returns in December with a new production of “The Nutcracker,” performed at the showroom at Paris Las Vegas. In March, Canfield and his dancers unveil three world premieres in a program called “Brave New World.” I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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