A BALLET FAIRY TALE
By: Hal de Becker
Once upon a time in a village known as Las Vegas there lived a man who could create dances; he was a choreographer. His name was Vassili. He gathered together a group of dancers to perform for the town folk and everyone was delighted. But soon they began to worry that the performances would have to stop for want of guidance and treasure.
What they needed was a fairy godmother to wave a magic and generous wand. Miraculously one appeared.
The village has become a metropolis, the dance troupe is now Nevada Ballet Theatre and the fairy godmother is, of course, Nancy Houssels.
Nancy’s 80th birthday anniversary was celebrated recently at The Smith Center with a gala event that included invitational dinner deliciously catered by Wolfgang Puck and an eclectic program of song and dance.
The hall looked full with patrons who had come to honor Nancy. And she was also honored from the stage by guest artists from American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, singer Frankie Moreno, ‘street dancer’ Lil Buck and, of course, NBT’s splendid dancers along with 50 youngsters from its academy.
The NBT dancers opened the program with Act II of Swan Lake staged by former prima ballerina Cynthia Gregory. Her artistic influence on the dancers was reflected in the high quality of their performance especially by Alissa Dale as Swan Queen and Steven Goforth as her Prince.
As usual, Peter Jakubowski’s lighting design was a masterful example of the art and science of stage lighting. Two descending and gradually widening shafts of light met at center stage and spread like illuminated water evoking the swans’ mysterious lakeside world.
A romantic duet, “Carousel”, by Christopher Wheeldon set to music by Richard Rodgers received a poetic performance from Carla Korbes and Seth Orza, both principals at PNB. They were accompanied on stage by pianist Allan Dameron.
The same couple later performed the adagio from the regal Diamonds section of Balanchine’s Jewels ballet.
Two soloists from ABT, Sarah Lane and Alexandre Hammoudi, danced the fiery and familiar grand pas de deux from Don Quixote. They also danced a somber contemporary duet, La Mort d’Ophelie, choreographed by Marcelo Gomes to a song by Berlioz. The vocalist, recorded, was not identified.
Lil Buck’s unusual interpretation of Saint-Saens The Swan (Anna Pavlova’s signature piece) combined rubbery arm undulations and a contortionist’s twist at the end. Pianist Voltaire Veroza and cellist Moonlight Tran provided sensitive on stage accompaniment.
Singer-pianist Frankie Moreno and his nine piece musical ensemble were joined by NBT’s dancers featuring Braeden Barnes, in three up beat vocals and the show’s finale. Choreography was by James Canfield.
Again, Mr Jakubowski’s lighting heightened the numbers’ effect with innumerable narrow beams of light crisscrossing wildly into the setting.
Even with all the other talent, the program’s biggest surprise and for me its high point was two filmed dance segments first seen half a century ago on TV’s Hollywood Palace showcasing the era’s reigning dance team, Francois Szony and Nancy Claire aka Nancy Houssels.
The 1960’s were a heyday for dance teams like Chiquita & Johnson, Augie & Margo, Darvas & Julia and yours truly, Belinda & de Becker. None, however, disputed Nancy’s and Francois’ right to the throne.
They were appearing in Europe at the same time as Belinda and I, and occasionally our engagements overlapped. Believe me, they were not just a hard act to follow, they were an impossible act to follow!
Since then, Nancy has devoted much of her talent to developing Nevada Ballet Theatre and in so doing has enhanced other elements of the local cultural scene. NBT’s collaboration with musical artists and ensembles, symphonic and otherwise, is just one example.
Another is Nancy’s tireless efforts on behalf of the founding of a cultural center in Las Vegas which have culminated in The Smith Center. As the Center’s resident ballet company NBT is the jewel in its crown.
I remember when Las Vegas ballet schools could be counted on one hand and a quality performance of ballet a rarity. Today dance schools abound locally and our theaters draw thousands to dance events. The major stimulus for this blossoming of local interest in dance has been the presence of Nevada Ballet Theatre.
That magic wand of Nancy’s has reached far and wide.