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Midler’s name, and brief appearance, a boon to Nevada Ballet Theatre

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Bette Midler with her Nevada Ballet Theater Woman of the Year Award on Jan. 17, 2009.
Photo: Audrey Dempsey

Metaphorically, it is the mantra of the recession: There is no dancing if there is no money.

That is literally true at Nevada Ballet Theatre. All that staging, all those sequined-splashed dancing tights and the dancers wearing those costumes, do not pay for themselves. Not surprisingly, NBT has been pinched financially for at least a year leading up to last night’s Black & White Ball at Caesars Palace, celebrating the company’s silver anniversary and drawing on the super-famous name of Bette Midler as this year’s Woman of the Year.

“We almost always live in a recession. The arts are always going uphill. We started feeling it early in 2008, with our donations going down. Ticket sales have been off, and at the end of 2008, we felt it. Even Nutcracker, our meat and potatoes, was down,” NBT co-fonder and 1986 Woman of the Year Nancy Houssels said during a pre-dinner reception at the Cartier boutique at Caesars. “So we are definitely feeling it and we need to be resourceful and creative.”

That means, adhering to a strategy that has been in place over the past several years, NBT has invited celebrities – big names recognizable across the country – to join the list of Women of the Year. In 2001 Larry Ruvo of Southern Wine & Spirits convinced Houssels to take that route, pointing to his own wildly successful Keep Memory Alive galas for the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute. Sometimes the NBT choices make perfect sense. Ann-Margret, who famously shimmied with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas and has for decades performed in Las Vegas showrooms, was the 2005 honoree. Rita Rudner, for years a Strip headliner with a background in ballet, was the Woman of the Year in 2006. But sometimes the results are laughable; Paula Abdul’s loopy promenade through the 2007 gala at Wynn Las Vegas has become part of NBT lore. Houssels, who was something less than thrilled at having to deal with Cirque du Abdul that night, explained that the resulting exposure (clips on such syndicated celeb news shows as Entertainment Tonight, and footage on Abdul’s reality show, Hey, Paula!) long outlasted the headaches. Today, she’s even willing to forgive the “crabby” Simon Cowell for showing up in a gray T-shirt at the black-tie gala honoring Abdul.

Leach Blog Photo

Bette Midler attends an October 2008 fundraiser for Barack Obama at Krave.

So it hardly mattered to NBT officials that Midler couldn’t show up to last night’s program until about 10:30 p.m. because she was tied up performing for 4,000 fans at The Colosseum; declined interview requests to talk about the honor before, during or after the event; and, aside from a few shots by a house photographer, refused any photos to be taken of her during her brief appearance onstage. Though there was a palpable absence of the night’s honoree for almost the entire program, it was worth it for NBT to have Midler’s well-known name and visage attached to the company’s 25th anniversary.

“My God, who wouldn’t like to have her as an honoree?” Houssels said when I asked her about Midler’s limited role in last night’s event. “… if you’ve seen her show, and I’m going again tomorrow, let me tell you, when you’re 62 years old and dancing across the stage the size of a football field several times a night, it has to be exhausting. She has to save herself, and that’s why she’s lasted as long as she has. So, even if we can get her for only a few minutes to make an appearance, it’s worth a whole evening for us. The people here tonight most certainly understand that.”

Midler spoke to the audience in a recorded clip early in the show, thanking the NBT, reminding the audience that she was just downstairs at The Colosseum and would be joining the crowd soon enough. When she finally took the stage, she thanked the NBT board for the award and also for its mailing list of donors. That’s something Midler will put to good use as founder of the New York Restoration Project, whose simple charge is to merely clean up New York City. She was also ready with a sharply delivered quip, saying she understood that this year’s Woman of the Year vote was quite close.

“It came down to me, and Sarah Palin,” she told the audience.

It was a line worth waiting for.

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