Most people associate Las Vegas with "the Strip," where tourists enter a fantasy universe of blackjack, Cher shows and cocktails. But beyond the razzle-dazzle is a metropolitan area of more than 2 million with its own ballet company, Nevada Ballet Theatre. An ensemble of 25 dancers, NBT is now led by Roy Kaiser, former artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet.
The company displayed a maverick streak from the beginning. NBT's forerunner, Nevada Dance Theatre, was founded in 1972 by Vassili Sulich, a Folies Bergère performer who assembled ballet dancers from the Strip into a small professional troupe. In 1997, co-founder and co-chair Nancy Houssels helped transition it into Nevada Ballet Theatre with a more classical focus.
Nevada Ballet Theatre in Matthew Neenan's Until December
Virginia Trudeau, Courtesy NBT
Kaiser took the reins in 2017 as its fourth director, although he never intended to head another company after spending his career dancing with PAB and then guiding it for 19 seasons. NBT won him over with its committed board, diligent dancers and a community hungry for dance. With its similar-sized ensemble and eclectic repertoire, he says that, in many ways, NBT reminds him of PAB when he joined it in 1979. Kaiser wants to expand the nonranked company to 30 and to increase performances.
The NBT Academy has 450 students, and NBT's education and outreach programs serve 20,000 children annually, mostly from the Las Vegas Valley's underserved areas.
Kaiser is shaping a repertoire that builds on the artists' individual strengths to "make every dancer see they are really a valued member," he says. NBT performs full-lengths such as Swan Lake, Ben Stevenson's Dracula and Septime Webre's Alice (in Wonderland). "I love the work of George Balanchine," says Kaiser, who welcomed Judith Fugate to stage The Four Temperaments prior to the pandemic. "That will always be a part of what we do here."
Kaiser wants to grow the audience through works that resonate with newcomers, such as Nicolo Fonte's Bolero. He also believes in the importance of new work fortifying NBT's identity, through choreographers such as Fonte and Matthew Neenan, and by giving company dancers, like Krista Baker, a chance to hone their choreographic craft on the main stage.
Nevada Ballet Theatre dancers in a promotional image for its popular Choreographers' Showcase
Jerry Metellus, Courtesy NBT
Cirque du Ballet
For 12 years, NBT has collaborated with Cirque du Soleil for A Choreographers' Showcase, which joins performers from NBT and local Cirque shows to choreograph with and on each other. "It's like nothing else I've ever experienced," says Kaiser. The process results in a 90-minute show of 10 to 12 new works at Treasure Island's Mystère Theatre. It features a 10,000-square-foot stage with a rubber surface for buoyant tumbling, a revolving floor and four lifts.
"You actually get to work with acrobats, synchronized swimmers, contortionists, hip-hop dancers and breakers," says Baker. "It's really cool to be able to trade skills." Kaiser hopes to expand some of the works and adapt them to the ballet stage.
Kaiser teaches company class twice a week, including Zoom classes during the pandemic. "In a smaller company, it's all-hands-on-deck," he says, noting that dancers regularly have three roles in a performance. "I value professionalism and push the young dancers that will push themselves."
Casting decisions are based on what he needs rather than simply on seniority. Case in point: Following a year's apprenticeship, Michael Caye joined the company in 2019 and has danced soloist and principal roles on every program since. "If you're just out of school and you don't necessarily want to do corps work all the time and want to get more opportunities, come here," says Caye.
Baker, a 15-year veteran of NBT, agrees, saying that Kaiser's "door has always been open. He is absolutely the most open director I have worked for."
Nevada Ballet Theatre in Nicolo Fonte's Bolero
Virginia Trudeau, Courtesy NBT
NBT has held auditions in New York City and Las Vegas and has recruited from the schools of Pacific Northwest Ballet and Ballet West. Artistic director Roy Kaiser also auditions dancers in company class after an approved video submission.
He looks for technical dancers who move big, with musicality and imagination. "There is nothing worse than a boring dancer," he says. "The audience will be engaged by your persona, what you put out there onstage. What's coming out of your heart? What is your face saying?" And an excellent work ethic? Nonnegotiable.
At a Glance
Nevada Ballet Theatre
Number of dancers: 25, plus 8 apprentices and 6 trainees
Length of contract: NBT recently joined AGMA and will soon be working toward a collective bargaining agreement.
Performances: Around 30, including Nutcracker and fall, winter and spring programs