For the eighth consecutive year, two of Las Vegas’ most spectacular arts organizations are teaming up for a can’t-miss collaborative show; lucky for you, we got an exclusive backstage preview of the action.
A look at last year's showcase
Outside Las Vegas’ tight-knit performing arts circle, few people might know that since 2009, an unassuming building next to the Summerlin Library has housed the city’s preeminent dance training center, the 36,000-square-foot headquarters of Nevada Ballet Theatre (NBT). One Friday morning in early September, it’s this building I head inside to observe the initial casting session for the ballet company’s two-show season opener, A Choreographers’ Showcase, a collaborative production developed in partnership with Cirque du Soleil and staged inside Treasure Island’s Mystère Theatre.
More than 50 dancers, acrobats, and other niche performers (jugglers, anyone?) from both camps have gathered to audition for roles created several months ago by their own peers, many of whom will be dabbling in the art of choreography for the very first time. In small groups, they take turns improvising to music in front of the 14 choreographers (three culled from NBT, 11 from various Cirque shows) who sit against the studio’s mirrored walls. For some groups, the stereo is left off, rendering the room silent save for the sound of shoes scraping against the floor.
In moments like these, I glance at Caroline MacDonald, one of the choreographers from NBT sitting beside me, and find her hunched over a notebook, furiously scrawling the audition numbers of the performers she’s interested in working with. One would imagine that for a professional dancer—someone who’s endured nearly a lifetime of auditions, as well as the intense criticism and rejection they often entail—finally being given the opportunity to evaluate other performers must be something of a cathartic experience.
Beyond that, though, it’s a challenge.
“When you go into a casting class like this, you really have no idea who’s going to be there, so you can’t really have a solid plan ahead of time,” MacDonald tells me. “You kind of have to just go with the flow and assume it’ll all fall into place.”
Another look at the 2014 show
Set entirely to jazz music from the early 20th century, the material she’s put together for her second year as a choreographer will be split into several short, digestible pieces that fall between the showcase’s larger segments, including ones by Cirque performers like Michael Jackson One’s JRock Nelson, a self-described “art-school dropout” who did time as a street dancer in Los Angeles and has come to today’s casting session armed with a hand-drawn storyboard focused on cyber discrimination, and Jenn Stafford and Kent Caldwell, performers in The Beatles Love and Mystère, respectively, who are working together to choreograph their own piece.
“We’re looking at doing a piece about a child,” Caldwell says, “or someone who used to be a child, and how they can really struggle in the world without parents and proper adults in their life if they don’t have those resources or mentors—how difficult it can be to go through life alone.” It’s neither Caldwell nor Stafford’s first year as a choreographer, and like MacDonald, they’re quick to emphasize the difficulty in producing a fully formed piece in such a short time frame and with performers who may not be familiar with each other’s skill levels and styles. “We’re working with a really diverse group of people, in one room, on one stage, and it’s always a challenge to make them all unified,” Stafford remarks. “But that’s also the reward, because you want that diversity and the opportunity to work with artists who have different styles and capabilities.”
For a company like NBT—a homegrown effort founded with a $15,000 budget in 1972, at the height of the ballet boom of the late 20th century—the collaborative shows also generate much-needed buzz. It’s hardly a secret that most of the country’s major performing arts organizations are struggling to boost patronage and attendance rates, and oftentimes partnering with bigger, more accessible names is the key to staying relevant. “This is a show that could never happen anywhere other than Las Vegas,” MacDonald agrees. “It really makes NBT stand out, and it’s great publicity for the company and expands our audience.”
Likewise, the performance’s awareness-raising potential isn’t lost on the company’s leadership. “A Choreographers’ Showcase has become one of the most popular and important performances we do,” says James Canfield, NBT’s artistic director since 2009. “The performance [...] gives audiences a taste of what has transpired in the world of choreography, where athletes and artists from a variety of disciplines come together to share ideas.
“Projects like A Choreographers’ Showcase are rare in the world today, yet they are the most important to procure,” he adds. “It’s in these arenas where inspiration and conversations are able to take place to explore what might or might not be possible through creativity and collaboration.”
Nevada Ballet Theatre’s performance A Choreographers’ Showcase, produced in partnership with Cirque du Soleil, takes over Treasure Island’s Mystère Theatre on October 11 and 18 at 1 p.m.; find tickets here.