Friday, Jan. 9, 2009 | 2 a.m.
James Canfield needed an island, a place to take a break and live quietly and anonymously.
For 30 years he hadn’t stopped. He’d left home at age 13 to study ballet at a boarding school, danced with the Washington Ballet and Joffrey Ballet and became the founding artistic director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre.
So there he was on Maui, a cele-
brated choreographer, at age 43, selling duct tape wallets and running a gas station.
Back then, the new artistic director for Nevada Ballet Theatre had no plan.
The stress of leading Oregon Ballet, of thinking about every aspect of that company 24/7, was melting away. So was the noisy praise and criticism lobbed at him for edgy, gritty and sexually overt works. Fused with rock ’n’ roll and hip hop and referencing pop culture figures, such as Coco Chanel, Anais Nin and Edie Sedgwick, those works drew more attention than the Oregon’s company’s traditional repertoire.
While he decompressed, his ballets were being presented throughout the country.
His return to dance in 2005 came with a piece that commissioned a score from a Portland street musician. The cellist performed the music while floating above the stage.
Canfield, physically striking at 6 feet 3, with pale skin, tattoos and a shaved head, plans to bring that edge to Nevada Ballet, taking the company into the contemporary realm as a way to attract a broader audience. We may even see “Jungle,” a contemporary piece set to world music that Nashville Ballet is presenting next month.
Las Vegas is comfortable for him. He had been coming here since age 19 to study the shows — impressed by the “brilliant choreography” and outstanding technology of Cirque du Soleil.
Similar to Cirque, Canfield has collaborated with diverse musicians, visual artists and even fashion designer Mary McFadden. He worked with a Portland band to create a ballet based on its music and used Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” for an “Alice in Wonderland”-themed work. He’s unafraid of sex and violence in dance and defends his reputation as controversial simply by pointing out the plot to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I don’t go into a piece saying, ‘I want to be controversial.’ I’m inspired by many things that are new, as well as the past and history. To quote Shakespeare, ‘What’s past is prologue.’ I am a classicist, a purist. I try to reach out and make dance important in every person’s mind.”
Brought here by Executive Director Beth Barbre, former managing director of Oregon Ballet, Canfield, 48, has been Nevada Ballet’s interim artistic director since March, improving the precision and increasing the professionalism of the dancers.
Canfield says he sees a lot of potential in the small company, which he wants to build into a “vibrant contemporary company” steeped in classical ballet, but with “calculated risks and artistic collaborations.”
“I love a challenge. I love potential and I love talent. That’s why I’m here.”