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.
At the helm of the dance program at College of Southern Nevada (CSN) since 1995, Kelly Roth has introduced the community college crowd to New-York style performance, and welcomed new dancers of all backgrounds to his classes and performances. Here are excerpts of a conversation we had recently.
Andrea: What are the greatest changes you’ve seen or made happen since you took charge of the dance program at CSN [formerly Community College of Southern Nevada]?
Kelly Roth: Our enrollment in the program has gone from 125 students to 600. We’ve added an annual festival concert, “Dance in the Desert”. We’ve introduced more formal training classes in ballet and modern dance technique. The emphasis of the program has been changed to teaching dance as an art form, instead of as a form of exercise. When you study dance as an art form, there are a lot of ancillary subjects that contribute to your understanding of what art is. I feel that this results in a more well-rounded education for students, as it exposes them to a broader array of topics.
The dance program offerings have also been modified in the last 15 years to offer multiple levels of technique in ballet and modern, and we added a dance performance class which anyone could take, anyone who wanted to perform. We added Concert Dance Company, which people had to audition for, and that enabled us to have a consistent group of people to work with. Some of those people stayed in the company for 8 years. We’ve had a consistent core of male dancers in the Company for a long time, which makes us the envy of every small company in the valley.
We focus on the Alwin Nikolais/Murray Louis technique more than other Las Vegas dance programs do. It teaches elements of time, motion, shape, space, and dynamics – the degree of release of energy. Those are things you can apply to any form of dance because all forms of dance are composed of those elements. So that’s a unique emphasis that we have here [at CSN].
The “Dance in the Desert” (DitD) festival is unique to our academic program because UNLV doesn’t have a dance festival. At CSN, we can do large, expansive works, since we have fewer choreographers to accommodate on a single program, due to our smaller faculty. We could even do evening-length works, if we wanted to, or three different works with two intermissions. This would be more like the New York dance scene, instead of the 2-3 minute pieces that many other concerts are doing these days. Longer programs help students learn that dance is an art, like opera, and not just a passing image or short segment, like dance in videos and on competitive TV shows is, so often.
DitD is also unique to us in that it brings out-of-state companies here, which is great for the audience and for our CSN dancers, who can then see the trends that are out there and experience different choreographers.
A: Do you see growth or contraction in the recent Las Vegas performing arts scene?
KR: I don’t see growth. With the death of the Choreographer’s Showcase at Charleston Heights Arts Center, we lost a focal point, a good mix of genres, and the intermingling of professionals with college students. It went for 25 years, and then it ended. The management there said they were going to focus on single-company events, instead, but that never really happened, and now there’s no high-level dance performance there. And no real community-wide dance event for serious, original works at all in the city. At least, not one where college dancers and professionals from the Las Vegas Strip shows are on the same stage.
The Reed Whipple center used to host dance concerts, but not anymore.
The Smith Center is not going to have a small proscenium theater, either, that local companies could have used for performances. This is disappointing to small dance companies in town.
The other sign of decline is recent massive increases in the [Clark County] library theaters’ rental fees. When I first got to town, I was amazed that libraries had these great little theaters that were available to the public at very affordable prices for non-profits. It was really terrific. But now that they’ve hiked their fees considerably [due to the state’s and county’s economic woes] it leaves most independent small companies without a real theater to perform in. Companies like Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater, Las Vegas Ballet Company, and Marko Westwood have no place to go now.
The most affordable venue may be CSN’s Horn Theater. It’s a terrific space. It’s a 524-seat proscenium theater with full lighting and sound systems. It has kept its rates down and is available to the public. It may soon be hard to get a booking there, since the schedule is filling up.
A: What is the mission of the CSN dance program?
KR: The short version of the mission statement of the CSN dance program is that we see dance as one of the many art forms that humanizes our society and that plays a very strong role in education.
KR: Well, it’s hard to really understand what’s going on sometimes. The figures are constantly changing. So far, there’s a 2.5% cut in salaries, and there may be an additional 2.5% cut next year, which affects all faculty. The performance budget is always up in the air.
I’ve produced dance concerts in all kinds of economic circumstances. It’s been said that after a nuclear holocaust, the roaches and the dancers will be the only ones crawling out from under the rubble; that’s how tenacious dancers are when they want to perform. So, I’m used to doing what I can with what I have. The Fine Arts Department has been really generous with us so far, and that’s really helped us out. Friends of the Horn is a group that gives us a lot of support. DitD Festival sincerely appreciates the consistent support provided by the Nevada Arts Council, which has made an important difference throughout the years.
For some of our grants, we have to find matching funds, so private donors have been a saving grace for us. Sometimes this doesn’t come through, though, and we’ve had to cancel some guest artists due to budget shortfalls.