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NBT’s James Canfield muses about dance, Jerry Rice, those ‘E’ words

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James Canfield, artistic director of Nevada Ballet Theatre.
Photo: Steve Marcus

James Canfield reels off a list of some of the great ballet dancers of all time — Rudolf Nureyev, Margo Foneyn, Gelsey Kirkland, Mikhail Baryshnikov — and says, "When they were in the top of their careers, still working on perfecting the simplest things as a tondu, how can anyone else in the world make a statement that they have arrived at greatness when the greatest are still working at achieving perfection."

Then he makes the central point, en point.

"The great ones are the ones who work the hardest."

It that point, of course, I think of Jerry Rice, alone on a football field on sweltering August day on a community college football field. I tell Canfield, artistic director of Nevada Ballet Theatre who is bringing the program "Brave New World" to Artemus Ham Hall at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, of watching Rice work out.

"This was in training camp," I tell him, during the latest episode of "Our Metropolis" on KUNV 91.5-FM (show aired Tuesday at 6 p.m. but can still be linked here and at KUNV.org) "Every other player had left the field, and Rice was running pass routes, eight-yard outs, slants, fly patterns. He was the best route-runner in the league."

"He wasn't the first one in the locker room," Canfield says.

"Nope," I say. "He was in incredible condition. He had the body of a dancer, actually."

"We forget, they are athletes," Canfield says. "Dancers are athletes. You can't stop training. You're doing it for a reason."

The reason being, dancers need to be in topnotch physical shape to work with the demands of Canfield, who in his 15 months as the NBT's full-time director has earned a reputation as an unbending instructor who won't yield to any standards lower than his own. He's shed the "tiered" philosophy he inherited when he took over at NBT, stripping the company of the titles of principal, solo, core, apprentice and trainee. It's an ensemble cast now. NBT is leaner (thanks largely to budget cuts) and, Canfield says, hungrier than the troupe he inherited from Bruce Steivel in early 2009.

"For me, I want to give the gift of a very strong company to this community, and the community will have their favorites," says Canfield, who strives to build each dancer into a principal-quality performer. Sort of like a ballet all-pro team, to revert to NFL parlance.

For this weekend's programs, Canfield has commissioned two longtime colleagues from the years he has spent teaching across the country.

Gail Gilbert, whose work with Canfield dates to their days at Oregon Ballet Theater, choreographs "Song of the Nightingale," based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable. This is the same Gail Gilbert who portrays the nursemaid character in "KA" at MGM Grand. "An Incandescent Start" by Wideman/Davis Dance Company Artistic Director Thaddeus Davis. The piece is described by Canfield a strong, purely contemporary piece, and Davis has been working closely with the dancers in developing the movements rather than merely instructing what already exists. Davis has been in residency at prestigious The Julliard School and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. Canfield's own tango-driven "Cyclical Night" closes the performance, for which special $10 balcony ticket prices are included in the price range of $10-$74.

"This is the most exciting performers' series, we are about to present," Canfield says. "The new works are what really begin to identity a company."

More from the interview:

• On how inviting guest choreographers to work with his own company enhances the artistic process: "It's a gift that I can give the dancers. I can take them only so far in their careers, and these outside influences can continue to take them as well. And they also get the same voice, just from a different person. I can say something over and over and over and over again, and all of a sudden there was that new teacher that comes into your life and says the same thing and (snaps his fingers) says the exact same thing and the light bulb goes off in our head and it's, "Oh, that's what you meant." Yes! That's what I've been pulling my hair out trying to get across to you!"

• On the "E" words: "Execute is one of the words that begins with an E that is in the line of 'E' words. We also have elevate, entertain, expose and educate. It's been my season of 'E's.' And is not been 'E'-asy. If you look at the history here (at NBT), under Vassili Sulich, the founding artistic director of what was Nevada Dance Theatre, he did have yet another 'E' word, with an ensemble company. So he had what I have brought back into play. ... Basically, history is repeating itself."

• On the possibility that the absence of a ranking system might strip some dancers of artistic motivations to ascend to the top tier of their art form: "My idea is, I don't have a group of core dancers. I have a group of principal dancers. As you will see in 'Brave New World,' there is showcased talent, more than one or two people, all throughout the entire evening, in principal capacity. That tells me the idea I am bringing is working. (But) when you are given a title, there is a level of complacency in the room, that, 'I don't have to work as hard.' I think this is an art form that has a definite beginning and a definite end. It is a very young art form, and you have to get a lot out of it in a very short period of time."

• On how he vets potential dancers during NBT auditions: "My first question is, 'Why do you want dance as a career? I want smart communicators. If they can give me a smart answer and communicate that answer, then they can communicate that passion to the audience. ... I want to know, how do you present yourself? It's a job interview. Why would you come in and wear baggy clothes, or have your ribbons hanging out of your point shoes? The audition starts before I give you a combination. When they introduce themselves, it starts then. What colors they wear, how they are trying to hide parts of body — you want me to see your body, that you have attention to detail, not the other way around. I don't trust anyone who can't look me in the eye.

"Again, I have a standard."

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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