Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2017

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Sorry to see this season end

‘American Masters’ showcases spirited, assured performances and director’s risk-taking


Leila Navidi

Nevada Ballet Theatre dancers perform “Up,” a series of vignettes set to seven versions of the Richard Rodgers pop tune “Blue Moon,” during a dress rehearsal Thursday. The short pieces choreographed by James Canfield served as an appetizer for the Friday and Saturday performances of “American Masters,” the company’s final show of the season.

Nevada Ballet Theatre's "American Masters"

Dancers from Nevada Ballet Theatre perform Launch slideshow »
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"Lambarena," shown here being performed in dress rehearsal, is a suite set to a blend of Johann Sebastian Bach airs, cantatas and partitas with the hand percussion, plucked strings and vocal chants of traditional African music.

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Zeb Nole dances during the dress rehearsal. "Lambarena" in particular served to showcase the company's male dancers, who at times performed shirtless.

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Beyond the Sun

Perhaps they were inspired by the challenging presence of three guest artists, principal dancers from New York City Ballet. Or perhaps, more than ever, they realized they were dancing for their lives. Whatever the impetus, the dancers of Nevada Ballet Theatre displayed dazzle and dynamism in the weekend’s season-ending performances. After an excellent season, they were at their most assured at UNLV’s Artemus Ham Hall Friday and Saturday, and promised surprises and splendors to come.

Newly appointed artistic director James Canfield designed a sophisticated, entertaining — and tutu-free! — evening in three parts, focusing mostly on small groupings, allowing viewers to meditate on and revel in the distinctive character of his dancers, their perfected bodies moving beyond limitations.

The program, saddled with the curiously blah title “American Masters,” began with an easily approachable eye-candy appetizer, a Canfield-choreographed suite titled “Up,” set to seven versions of the Richard Rodgers pop tune “Blue Moon.”

Vocal variations ranged from a saucy, kittenish Carmen McRae take to a somnolent nod-out blues by Cowboy Junkies, and the danced vignettes veered from pensive to erotic to anime-antic.

Canfield seemed to use this pick-me-up opener to announce there will be some changes made under his watch. He emphasized personality in the dancing, and staged “Up” with startlingly contemporary style, silhouetting each soloist or group against a field of vivid, glowing color — shocking pink, tangerine, emerald — before bringing them into a puddle of dappled moonlight. The resemblance to the recent series of iconic iPod TV ads — which celebrated dancing as individuality — could not have been accidental.

The more somber central section of the program offered a trio of duos — three pas de deux danced to austere modern classical pieces.

The distinguished visitors from NYC Ballet, Wendy Whelan, Albert Evans and Sebastien Marcovici, were featured in two pieces by Christopher Wheeldon, both set to music by Estonian composer Arvo Part.

In “Liturgy,” set to Part’s elegiac “Fratres,” Whelan and Evans demonstrated an equivalence of tensile strength, mirroring each other’s gestures — suggesting wings and windmills and clocks — with uncanny precision, and slowly conjoining to form Pietas and other sculptural combinations.

And in “After the Rain,” a fragment of a larger Wheeldon ballet, Marcovici provided an armature for Whelan’s almost painfully, ecstatically slow series of back bridges and other impossible-looking shapes.

Dividing the Wheeldon pieces was a reprise of Canfield’s own 1994 “Neon Glass Pas de Deux” set to one of Philip Glass’ patented arpeggiated appassionatas.

When it was premiered, the “glass”-play was accentuated by an onstage installation by artist Dale Chihuly. Dancers Rebecca Brimhall and Grigori Arakelyan orbited each other gracefully and gorgeously. But without the art glass prop, their painted-on costumes looked oddly Cirque-ish.

Act 3 brought the welcome return of Val Caniparoli’s crowd-pleasing, cross-cultural “Lambarena,” which Nevada Ballet presented in 2007.

An invigorating suite set to a graceful and surprisingly congruent mashup of Johann Sebastian Bach airs, cantatas and partitas with the hand percussion, plucked strings and vocal chants of traditional Gabonese music, “Lambarena” couldn’t be called Euro-Afro any more than you could call it Afro-Euro. Neither style dominates; rather, they merge, melding the stylized, symbolic, staccato gestures of African dance with the classical forms of ballet and modern dance.

Moving in unison, the dancers joyously evoked, but didn’t imitate, a variety of animals — I imagined fleet mini-herds of gazelles, giraffes, elephants.

The piece afforded a look at the more sensual and singular aspects of several of Nevada Ballet’s sterling soloists. Arakelyan, released from his handsome-princely aspect, portrayed a hungry hunter-warrior’s dream. David Von Ligon, often a standout for his incandescent smile, was ferocious and fiery during his propulsive, predatory duet with Racheal Hummel-Nole. And swirling her brightly printed skirt Martha Graham-style, Alissa Verbena Dale was radiant in her exultant, climactic, hip-propelled solo, after which she was joined by the full cast in a tableau vivant that recalled a savanna diorama from the Museum of Natural History.

“Lambarena” in particular made a savvy, tastefully sexy showcase for the men of the Nevada Ballet, who were seen lean and handsome and mostly shirtless. This makes good business sense for a troupe that’s hoping to retain and gain audiences — think “sweeps week” on TV.

Though they frequently defy gravity, Nevada Ballet’s dancers are subject to the same forces currently affecting all arts organizations and other businesses. Because of budget cuts, Canfield and his administration not only had to snip the “New Works” showcase scheduled for May, but also recently laid off nine of the troupe’s 31 resident dancers.

During an intermission, Canfield introduced himself briefly to the audience, then announced that, like the Las Vegas Philharmonic, Nevada Ballet has received a $100,000 challenge grant from an anonymous donor, and that the troupe was $40,000 toward achieving the match.

Let’s not let this part of our cultural landscape slip away from us.

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