The 17th Annual Dance in the Desert is a scrumptious buffet of elite dance companies showcasing classic modern and artistic dance. Multiple dance companies from around the region and country are gathering at Summerlin Library Performing Arts Center this weekend to share their repertoire with Las Vegas.
Opening night was a hearty offering of traditional modern dance mixed with contemporary and fusion styles. This is a classic dance festival, with the focus on choreography and the dancers—a clean, bare, set-less stage with intense lighting, minimal backdrops, and simply great dancing.
Fixed Perfection, Shadows was an iconic number. It began with a solo dancer, bound in a straight jacket, who repeated verbal phrases frequently heard in dance classes that urge dancers to kick higher, work harder, dance more perfectly. The soloist’s ramblings built into a frenzy, until she screamed “I have to be perfect! Somebody tell me I’m perfect!” Her monologue completely captured the repetition and torture and pressure that dancers endure for their art, and the implanted neuroticism that urges them on while sometimes becoming their undoing. Self-loathing perfectionism amidst all the created beauty. The cruel truth is—a dancer can never be perfect. Beauty, Insanity. Dance.
Wright Noise featured strong lines and formations, with an almost military feel in its attack and discipline. An EKG-style design, projected behind the dancers, imparted a pulse-like undercurrent to the number, mirroring the urgency of the movement.
Silent told a tragic story of a woman wrongfully imprisoned told through lyrical, heart-felt choreography,
Kelly Roth’s Sanitas was a brightly-lit narrative with clever partnering, live violinist and pianist, and a joyful feel.
Wind: 3 by 2 featured 3 duets with entrancing interaction and chemistry between the partners. This sweet, flowing number had intricate partnering that was mesmerizing.
The closing number, Def.i(d)ance was perfectly placed in the program. 7 dancers in plain black 2-piece outfits brought heavy-hitting rhythms and choreography to the stage. Both the movement and music had a tribal feel, with a hip hop edge and attack. Defiance was the defining emotion. This number was a feast for the senses and left the audience cheering. A perfect, strong, rollicking ending to the night.
With free admission and an intimate, comfortable venue, this dance festival is a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered by arts-lovers in Las Vegas. If you want a taste of New York-style modern dance, here it is. Las Vegas is very lucky to have Dance in the Desert.
LVCDT ’s “Portraits”, in which each dancer portrayed a struggle with discrimination, featured the technical brilliance and fierce stage presence of Bernard Geddes and company. Each dancer was riveting in his/her solo, and the group sections were complex and interesting. Geddes, especially, embodied fundamental contrasts — his movement was graceful yet ferocious, grounded yet dynamic, flowing yet sharp, soft yet hard. Performers with this level of control, power and subtlety are simply stunning to watch.
NRDT’s “Moving Target” employed less developed dancers who, nevertheless, ably executed very intricate partnering and lifts. Of significant note was the feeling of suspension during the lifts, which gave a floating quality to the difficult physical work of partnering.
Noel Julian-Anker, performing a solo choreographed by Festival Director Kelly Roth, was technically-accomplished and had an earthy presence with great extension and physical expression. Her movements were controlled and precise, a satisfying piece that stayed in the mind’s eye after the lights went down.
Dancers in other pieces demonstrated a wide range of stage presence and training: some had a lot, others did not. But they all took this performance opportunity seriously, and this reflected well on the festival.
Costume design, an important element in a dance festival, also ranged widely from very pedestrian clothes to formal-wear to inventively-decorated unitards. Dance is a very visual art and audiences emotionally relate to the costumes as much as to the movement and music. To the audience, the more unique, flattering, eye-catching and style-specific costumes are, the more enjoyable and memorable a piece is.
There were a few costume faux-pas this evening. Lynn Needle’s dress in “Haunted” was too revealing during her inverted positions, which was distracting to the nature of the piece. The loose t-shirts and pants of Desert Dance Theater’s “Are We There Yet?” projected a dance-class impression, and seemed a neglected aspect of the piece. The green unitards in NRDT’s piece, while practical for lifts, would have flattered the dancers and the choreography better if they had been cut differently.
Costume successes were evident, as well. Business suits used in Roth’s “Resident Disturbances” gave the piece visual structure, and the uniqueness of the red unitard in Ms. Julian-Anker’s number helped define the mysterious character. The formal-wear of “Portraits” reflected the historical significance of the characters, while the diaphanous dress worn by Ms. Needle emphasized her flowing movement. Canyon Movement Company’s “Unwanted” dancers sported red ribbons tightly wrapped around their necks, and corset-like ribbons on their well-fitted costumes, giving a feeling of restriction, imprisonment or tight control. This contributed to the story and character-development as much as the choreography.
This first night of Dance in the Desert provided interesting and varied styles and was a welcome artistic addition to performing arts in Las Vegas.
On a facilities note, special mention must go to the Nicholas J. Horn Theater. With a perfect stage size, great lighting and sound, low ticket prices, not a bad seat in the house, and excellent parking, it remains one of the premier performance venues in the valley.
The lobby of Backstage Dance Studio reverberates with the laughter, chatter and sighs of exhausted but contented dancers, euphoric after stretching, jumping and twirling for 90 minutes.
The group includes dance professionals of all ages, as well as newcomers to dance and to Las Vegas.
Today’s class attendees include former dancers from Siegfried & Roy, Lido de Paris, Casino de Paris, Vive Les Girls, EFX, Spamalot, Mama Mia, Legends In Concert, Starlight Express, Rockettes, and Broadway Cabaret; current performers from Mystere, Love, and Zumanity ; former and current Jubilee! and Les Folies Bergere showgirls; professional ballroom dancers, college students, dance teachers, students from LV Academy for Arts, two first-time dance students and even a former professional dancer with his teenage dancer daughter. Age range: 12-82. All have been welcomed with open arms and a wide smile by the legendary and renowned instructor, Angelo Moio.
Moio has taught hundreds of Sin City’s best dancers for the past 19 years, many of whom were already in shows or went on to perform in shows around the world, including on Broadway. Yet, he is also known as the ‘go-to’ instructor for dance beginners.
Why? Because of his attention to technique and his compassionate teaching approach.
“Anyone can learn to dance,” says Moio. “A positive environment is the best way to learn. I try to make all my students feel welcome. Dance can be intimidating to newcomers, so I try to help them take that risk, and feel good about themselves.”
Moio sees dance as more than a way to exercise or make a living. Over the years, he has witnessed students of all levels get through life events and transitions with the help of dance training. “I’ve seen people get through all kinds of tough times, such as emotional crises, pregnancies and workplace stress when they come to the studio and simply dance,” he says. “In dance class, you can let go of everything, move to the music and escape your problems. It gives you energy to go back out and face the world.”
His students agree. “Dance keeps the inner fire burning,” insists Mark Moschello, a student for 14 years, and a singer and dancer who performed in Starlight Express and The Rockettes. “It keeps me young, and class has saved my life many times.”
Erika Romeo has taken Moio’s class for two years. “I got hooked,” she says of Moio’s class. “It’s challenging, but fun. He makes you do everything at your pace, and if you want help, he’ll help you. He’s very kind and generous and he’s very sweet. And he puts a smile on everybody’s face.”
Terry Ritter, a former Les Folies Bergere dancer, has been studying dance at Backstage Dance Studio for 35 years. “My biggest inspiration has been Angelo, because I came back to dancing again later in life and it felt like I had a home to come to,” says Ritter.
Ritter says that Moio’s class helped her get back to normal after serious medical problems. “I had cancer and they [Moio and Backstage Dance Studio staff] supported me through the whole thing. Coming to Angelo’s dance class is my therapy. Angelo is inspirational; everything he does is with love and positivity. His class is fabulous.”
Joey Cardel, who performed in Jubilee! and Winds of the Gods, started studying with Moio in 1993. “I was dancing professionally at the time, and had just gone to an audition at Backstage Dance Studio that was hip hop and freestyle, and it sucked, I hated dancing like that,” says Cardel. “I left the audition and went to Angelo’s class and had a great time and started liking dancing more and enjoying it more, you know – not being so stressed out over it.”
When asked what keeps him coming to class, Cardel explains, “I keep coming to class because what Angelo does in class is very much like what cruise lines and convention work requires. It‘s the type of dancing I love. It’s very versatile in style – one week Latin, one week lyrical, all different types of styles – so it keeps you balanced.”
And varied styles it is – a different one each week. Lyrical, 40’s swing, Latin jazz, classic jazz, funk, world beat, musical theatre jazz, disco, 50’s jitterbug, 60’s style jazz, and blues. Last week was lyrical blues (to a Christina Aguilera song). The week before was Fosse. The week before was…well, nothing. No class, because Moio was out of town for a month guest-choreographing at the Musical Theater Conservatory, a summer program at UCLA .
That’s right: after 32 years in the business, Moio is more in demand than ever for dance conventions, musicals and workshops. His thorough knowledge of musical theater, and his vast experience performing and choreographing everything from Fosse to cabaret shows, is sought by studios, theaters and conventions around the country.
Those out-of-town bookings keep him quite busy, but he is always happy to come back to Las Vegas. “I moved to Las Vegas in 1987 to take classes and find work, and I’ve never left,” he says. “The first job I got was Legends in Concert.”
Moio worked at Siegfried and Roy for many years as the dance captain. He says his favorite job ever was as a back-up dancer for Juliet Prowse. “Her show had terrific choreography by David Chavez, whose style was like Jack Cole’s, and the show was a nightclub act structured like a movie musical.”
Commenting on the current Las Vegas performing arts scene, he muses “I would love to see the old-style cabaret show make a come-back. Those cabaret-revue shows had small casts, low production costs and low ticket costs, and employed lots of local talent, of which there is a tremendous amount, even now.”
“I don’t see how small cabaret can make a come-back because it takes a visionary with a large budget to mount a show like that, since all the rooms are four-walled, now,” he laments. “Everything is so corporate now, I don’t think we can ever get back to that. One exception however is Vegas, The Show. It has that vintage Vegas revue feel, and it has fantastic choreography and dancers and singers.”
While Las Vegas used to be a haven for such dance jobs, Moio reflects sadly that now there are almost none. “I think most of the jobs for dancers are on cruise ships, nowadays.”
Not to worry, though — Moio prepares all of his students to audition and work on cruise lines, as well as other production shows. “I emphasize basic jazz technique and picking up combos [learning dance choreography] quickly, and that serves everyone well no matter where they want to perform,” he explains. In fact, students of Moio’s have gone on to dance in Las Vegas shows including Jubilee!, Les Folies Bergere, many Broadway shows in New York and on tour, as well as cruise ship shows.
And when they are done performing, they come back to Moio’s class to stay in shape, reconnect with old friends, and keep the dance fire alive.
Disclosure: This blogger has attended Moio’s dance class for 13 years, and seriously loves her some lyrical.
They’ve done it! Jabbawockeez have smashed the glass hip-hop ceiling and brought breakdancing, popping and locking to the legitimate stage.
The dreams of the movie characters in Breakin’ and Beat Street — to show the world that hip hop is a true dance and art form – have finally been brought to reality through the perseverance and artistry of this dance crew from California (Turbo and Ozone, rejoice!).
Jabbawockeez absolutely commands the stage with the precision, grace and explosiveness of their unique hip hop style. And – unexpectedly – comedy! The show was laced with unpredictable moments, and even skits, full of good-hearted humor.
The most striking element of the show was the storytelling. Through mime, specific choreography and hand signals, the dancers communicated stories and messages that seemed all the more powerful because they did not involve spoken word. In fact, they had no qualms about letting the music go quiet and telling their stories in utter silence on stage. The Jabbawockeez were masters of physical acting and imitation.
The concept of the show, to “find the muse that inspires you” was a wholesome, universal theme. The different facets of the show, from the sets to the framework of each number to the transitions and the stories told, were sophisticated and absorbing. Directors Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo have done a solid job of creating a compelling and entertaining experience.
The choreography was constantly in flux, changing in style and tempo, reflecting and interweaving with the music. This was another strong point about the performance – the choreography was a remarkable visualization of the music. Each gesture fit the musical style and accented musical moments. Each number was unique – no monotony to be found, anywhere.
The group’s dance style is “Beat Kune Do”, or hip hop freestyle, alluding to Bruce Lee’s eclectic martial arts “style of no style” Jeet Kune Do. It is a feast for the eyes, and offers an ever-changing mixture of break dancing, uprocking, popping, locking, martial arts, parkour, acrobatics, jazz dance and mime. Some call it “lyrical hip hop”.
The intricacy of the movement was astounding – every joint, down to each finger, was precisely choreographed. The dancers performed in superb synchronization, canon and opposition. If you have ever danced, you can appreciate the high degree of training and dedication one needs to reach their level of ability and showmanship. If you haven’t ever danced, you will still be impressed by the athleticism and distinctive style. (Disclosure: this writer invested countless hours practicing popping, locking, and breakin’ with a crew local to her high school on Long Island in the early 80’s. This stuff is not easy!)
The show was punctuated by unique touches, such as dancers being dragged off the stage by their feet, a hip hop rendition of the most popular movie musical in history, and a tribute to Leonardo da Vinci (no specific details will be revealed here, as the unpredictability of the show is part of its genius).
The soundtrack by The Bangerz, a medley of hip hop, rap, rock and pop from George Kranz to Beyonce, pumped up the excitement while helping to communicate the stories.
The masks? Most people would assume that masks would hide emotion and make the dancers seem like cold, distant characters. But the Jabbawockeez are so accomplished in body language that the masks became clean canvases upon which they projected many emotions. More than once, the audience was convinced that certain masks had smiled, or frowned, or pursed their lips. The emotional conveyance was amplified by the masks, not hidden – an amazing feat, and proof of their astonishing command of bodily expression.
Dancers and dance groups have historically been anonymous, lacking fans, tours, big contracts or recognition. Celebrity that is so quickly accorded to vocalists has been denied to dancers, especially hip hop and street dancers. Appreciation and fame is rightly deserved by the Jabbawockeez. They are as talented, artistically expressive and technically brilliant as the best dancers (and singers) of any other style in the world.
Jabbawockeez achieves the wish of generations of street-dancers: to perform in a professional setting that spotlights hip hop’s power, diversity and evocativeness. They not only bring the street style and culture of hip hop to the big stage, they elevate it to an entertainment tour de force unparalleled in any other show in this country.
JabbawockeezMus.I.C is innovative and riveting on every level. There is no show like this. Anywhere.
I met with Kyudong Kwak, artistic director and founder of the relatively new Las Vegas Ballet Company and Kwak Ballet Academy, and chatted about the state of the arts and culture in Las Vegas, the challenges of starting a new business, his feelings about dance, and the ever-increasing hurdles to mounting a ballet performance in Las Vegas.
Andrea: Many people say there is no culture in Las Vegas. How do you feel about that?
Kyudong Kwak: They are right! For a city this size, there is very little culture, compared to other cities of the same population. Las Vegas is quite large, yet has a surprising lack of visual and performing arts. I’ve performed in many cities and countries, and every city seems to have more cultural offerings than Las Vegas. And other cities promote ballet and fine arts really well, so why not Las Vegas? Las Vegas is the “Entertainment Capital of the World”, so ballet and fine arts would create more balance and give visitors and residents more options in entertainment than circus shows and other production shows.
I feel that this is a huge drawback for businesses, in that if a business is thinking about coming to Las Vegas, they hesitate because of the lack of education, first, and lack of culture, second. More culture and fine arts will make the city much more attractive to people and businesses. Kwak Ballet Academy and The Las Vegas Ballet Company will contribute greatly to the fine arts in Las Vegas.
A: Your academy and company only recently opened. How has it been going for you?
KK: Opening my own school was my dream. But everyone thought we were crazy to try this, even our landlord. We spent quite a few months building our classes up. Our roster is now over 70 students, and I can finally exhale. Word is spreading that we offer serious, classical ballet training and so now even professional dancers from the Strip are seeking us out for our training.
While we thought that opening a school was hard, putting on our first show seemed impossible, with everything that had to get done! My wife and I did everything – choreograph, teach, tech, lighting, programs, posters, costumes, advertising. And the expense for custom-fit costumes was enormous! For instance, 16 pairs of handmade tutus for the dancers would have cost almost $30,000! Luckily, our amazing tutu maker, Suzanne Dieckmann, generously taught the students’ parents how to make the tutus, so it only cost us $1000, for materials, in the end. It’s caring people and volunteers like this that have made it possible for us to have our shows. All of this reinforced for me that good relationships and good communication with everyone who works with you or helps you is priceless.
For many small companies and schools, the costs of costumes are so high that they can’t perform a classical repertoire. But because of all the people who helped us out, we were able to offer a classical repertoire with classical costumes.
A: At what point in your life did you feel drawn to dance?
KK: I found dancing addictive from a very early age. I was always the first student to get to the studio, and I’d lock up the studio at night and put the key under the flower vase, since everyone else was gone. I danced as long as possible every day. I went to company class and trained from 10a.m. to 6 p.m., and then I would also go to the class that was open to the public, too. I always wanted to dance more, go to more classes; it was the most fun thing to do. Other people would go out to clubs or movie theater or do other things for fun, but I just wanted to dance all the time because it felt like the best thing in the world to me.
I met my wife in dance class when I was 17, and we’d go out for coffee after rehearsing all day. We’d look at each other and ask “What do you want to do this evening?” and we’d both answer “go take another ballet class!” We both love it so much!
Here at the Kwak Ballet Academy, I focus on classical repertoire, because I believe it is the foundation of dance. If you train in classical ballet dance, you can go into any other form of dance later on, no problem. Ballet builds your strength and technique, and you can use that to do anything else better. It improves one’s dancing quality in every other style of dance. That’s why classical ballet training is valuable for everyone.
A: When was your most recent concert?
KK: Just last month, May 28 at the Summerlin Library. We had two shows that day, a matinee and an evening performance. The student company performed “Glory”, an original work that I choreographed, and Yoomi Lee and I performed “Paquita”.
Unfortunately, I don’t know how we will do more performances, as the library has raised its theater rental rates by tenfold, recently. It would cost thousands of dollars to rent the space, now, and there is no way that even a sold out show would pay for that. Even smaller, older theaters in this area are charging so much to rent them that neither I nor any of the other small dance or theater companies can afford to rent them to present concerts. We’ve all stopped scheduling performances. Musical theater productions, ballet and small dance company performances are gone, at this point – all gone. Basically now there is no place for community-based performing arts to perform. I don’t know how we will find a solution, but I will work hard to find one. I want to give my students and company many chances to perform.