Archive for December, 2010


After enduring a pretty thorough snubbing by many movie reviewers over the past several weeks, “Black Swan” is distancing itself from some incredible misunderstandings. It isn’t “Center Stage,” and it also isn’t the real dance world, if that’s what you’re wondering. If it had to be classified under one genre, “horror” or “psychological thriller” just might do the trick. After all, who wants to look in the mirror of a rehearsal studio and see their reflection doing something else?

When it comes down to it, “Black Swan” personifies paradox to the utmost and is a deliberately and deliciously creepy portrayal of art, illusion and Lincoln Center. At its most fundamental level, the film could be taken as the universal struggle between two opposing forces, as the “Swan Lake” plot obviously dictates. More subtly, though, the film explores the fine line between art and technique, fantasy and reality and, most prominently, freak-show megadrama and what the dance world is really like.

Aronofsky seems to have a predilection for bloody feet, cracking joints and the dramatized mutilation of pointe shoes and young women. However, Natalie Portman as the tormented ballerina Nina Sayers salvages this exaggeration beautifully, portraying the incredible struggle between perfection and carnal instinct unflinchingly and saving the movie from two-dimensional, soap-opera campiness by extension. (For more of this camp-oriented discussion, see Dennis Lim’s review on Slate.com.)

For dancers, “Black Swan” offers up some additional pleasures. Broken toenails and blistered feet from pointe shoes? Been there, done that, as have many bunheads in the audience. However, being afforded a zoomed-in, slowed-down view of the mechanics of a pointe-shoed foot during fouette turns is pretty awesome. Another interesting trick comes during a turn sequence, when the camera is whipped around, then focused on a still point, mimicking a dancer spotting turns. It’s fun to see these simple bits of a dancer’s existence blown up and glorified on the silver screen, even if I can’t pull a feather from my shoulder blade or sprout wings during “Swan Lake” variations.

Much like the ballet, “Black Swan” demands a certain suspension of reality in exchange for the telling of a story. The first mistake of an audience would be to take the film too literally, although the premise of the movie is simple enough. An unidentified company, facing financial problems and dwindling attendance, has “Swan Lake” slated for the season’s performances. Nina, a soloist in the company, is chosen for the role of Swan Queen, allowing Portman to explore the extreme duality of the dichotomous character. Some of the most interesting casting is less obvious, though. Director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) holds incredible sway over Nina as both the prince and the sorcerer. Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) dances her last season with the company and personifies the Dying Swan from the original ballet. Lily (Mila Kunis) doubles as Nina’s evil alternate (come on, we all have one) and the Black Swan, sauntering around with her hair down while Nina collapses in tears.

Nina’s dysfunctional relationship with both Thomas and her overprotective mother exemplifies the vulnerability inherent in the White Swan and gives Portman the opportunity to do that lovely thing she does, inviting the audience into her mind with the mental breakdowns and tendon-straining tension of her character.

Portman should be absolutely commended for this, because without her pertinacious embrace of the some of the more ridiculous facets of this movie, the swan flick wouldn’t fly. It’s extreme, it’s creepy, and, like walking down a long hallway with a stranger at the other end, it makes you want to reach for your phone or find something to laugh at. (I did actually laugh at the fantastically pedestrian “Hey” uttered by the beaked-and-winged sorcerer in the final scene.) Watching Portman delve expertly into the challenge of balancing the pristine, virginal White Swan with the seductive, demanding and dangerous Black, is a huge part of the appeal of “Black Swan.”

Mind-games and sometimes gratuitous sex scenes (between Nina and Thomas, Nina alone, Nina and Lily, Lily and Thomas … ) aside, “Black Swan” might end up being as well-watched as other classic dance flicks, although perhaps without the candy coating of some. A big potential drawback of the film is non-dancers walking away with the idea that this is how the dance world really works, invasive directors and daily meltdowns included. Hopefully the overly dramatic nature is obvious and taken with a grain of salt and the movie is enjoyed for the beautifully overblown endeavor that it is.

Interested in reading more about tortured ballerinas? Check out the New York Times’ review of the movie here. For a hilarious and utterly fabulous flow-chart about the movie, see an article on Slate.com here.

The Vegas Nutcracker season was wrapped up and topped with a bow by NBT’s rendition, performed at the Paris Las Vegas Theatre from Dec. 17 to 26.  The ballet was choreographed by Peter Anastos and displayed a commendable balance of visual razzle-dazzle and simplicity in its production and choreography. The company, under the artistic direction of James Canfield, was well-polished and the students, from the Nevada Ballet Theatre Academy, did a very respectable job.

Anastos’ choreography contributed a revitalizing energy to a show that has been performed by NBT for 29 years. The production quality, from lighting  (by Nicholas Cavallaro, executed by Peter Jakubowski) to costuming and sets by A. Christina Giannini, was excellent. The theatrical nature demanded by Peter Tchaikovsky’s iconic score was beautifully presented in the dramatic red, black and gold theater.

For those already familiar with the story of Clara and her beloved nutcracker doll, there were few surprises. The story began with Clara (Leigh Hartley) and her brother Fritz (Benjamin Blomquist and Gene Mesheryakov) joining their parents for a festive party in honor of the season. Children and adults alike danced in turn, with both groups embodying the rosy-cheeked holiday spirit.

NBT’s version featured several notable sections in the party scene. The children performed a garland dance, May-pole style, in the middle, and their sliding chasses were a credit to their training. Spirited characters like Clara’s grandparents (Jamey Gallagher and Tara Foy) added a good measure of humor.

Drosselmeyer (Marcus Bugler), the magician that presented Clara and the other children with the nutcracker doll (Griffin Whiting) mechanical mouse (Aimee Schleimer and Ariel Triunfo) and ballerina doll (Betsy Lucas and Kelly Callahan), was properly dramatic and set the magical aspect of the story into motion.

After the battle scene between the Mouse King (Anthony Paparelli), white mice (played by children and an NBT addition to the original) and the Nutcracker Prince, the prince took Clara on a journey to the Kingdom of Snow and the Land of the Sweets.

This is where the meaty dancing comes in. Fierce snowflakes in the Kingdom of Snow, coupled with the commanding presence of the Snow King and Queen (Jeremy Bannon-Neches and Sarah Fuhrman), did justice to Anastos’ regal and flurry-ful choreography. Strong technique was evident in seamless  turns and extension, fluid partnering and Bannon-Neches’ grand pirouettes. The “snow” falling onto the dancers was a nice theatrical touch.

Fog and the demur bourreeing of angels en pointe heralded Clara and Co.’s arrival in the Land of the Sweets. Alissa Dale’s Sugar Plum Fairy, with neat footwork and elastic port de bras,  shimmered in an iridescent purple tutu. With her Cavalier (Grigori Arakelyan) beside her, she introduced the rest of the delectable treats heralding from the Land of the Sweets.

Each of the national dances was distinct, lending (if you will kindly pardon the pun) unique flavors with each variation. Another sweet addition came with the miniature corps, small both in terms of size and in terms of stature: Young ballet students constituted a supporting cast for each of their full-sized counterparts, scuttling around as travel-sized Spanish chocolate, French marzipan and the like.

The second act also featured some NBT innovations that made nice addenda to the original. Pint-sized bakers assembled a three-tiered cake and salt water taffy sailors bounced buoyantly with aquatic-themed props.

The Dewdrop Fairy (Krista Baker) and her company of flowers glimmered as a high point in the act. The dancers were clad in flouncing romantic tutus in a pink gradient and looked appropriately like gumdrops, albeit graceful ones, with spidery limbs. Developes en menage, coupled with the skirts, created a particularly striking visual and Baker’s controlled suspension and pristine fouette turns were not to be discounted.

The grand pas de deux that led into the finale of the show was a revitalizing, candy-coated affair. Anastos’ choreography entailed a good measure of both solo sections and unison, allowing the audience to see the individual personalities of the variations before wrapping the entire thing up neatly. Dale’s Sugar Plum, backed by her Arakelyan Cavalier, again directed the proceedings. With a partnered quadruple pirouette to a picturesque arabesque, she was the beautiful bow on top.

The cast of “Show in the Sky” at Rio Las Vegas is getting trimmed for the holidays, and not just in terms of decoration. At the end of October, about half of the 28 cast members in the show were given 30 days’ notice that their contracts would be ending. Nov. 28 was their last day of work.

“In our meeting, we were told that the cast was basically being cut in half in 30 days,” said one of the performers, who no longer works for “Show in the Sky” and prefers to remain anonymous because of career concerns. “[Production officials said they] would keep the stage dancers and the singers.”

“Show in the Sky” is produced by Entertainment Plus Productions and is composed of two separate sections: one takes place with singers and dancers onstage and the other centers on performers riding a float connected to the ceiling that travels around the casino. Guests can purchase tickets to ride on the float at the Rio box office or online.

Entertainment Plus Productions could not be reached for comment.

The contract changes also affect the performers that are still part of the cast of the show, which the source said now totals between 14 and 18 people. “The cast is now responsible for doing the stage show and then doing the floats after they perform,” the anonymous source said. “So it’ll be quite a bit more demanding.”

In addition to casting changes, the schedule for the show has also been modified. “Show in the Sky” can be seen hourly from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Its previous schedule ran four days a week instead of three.

“Rio has adjusted the ‘Show in the Sky’ schedule to yield fewer ‘dark’ weekends in its yearly calendar,” said Deborah Munch, the vice president of public relations for the Las Vegas region of Caesars Entertainment Corporation, which owns Rio Las Vegas. “Though there are fewer show dates in some weeks, guests will be treated to the show during more weeks per year.”

Munch refrained from commenting on the casting changes, saying that information about performers’ contracts is confidential.

The performer that no longer works for the show said that the alterations themselves didn’t come as a surprise, but the magnitude of the changes did. “We didn’t think they would cut the cast in half. We had some kind of feeling anyway,” the source said, explaining that many cast members anticipated cuts in pay or hours instead. “The hotel [was] cutting back and we didn’t want that to happen to the show and it eventually did anyway.”

The source continued that bridging the gap left by “Show in the Sky” is a challenge. “It’s hard to fill because [we had] full benefits,” the performer said, adding that they now work part-time as a server in a casino and three days a week at a nightclub. “I would need four or five [days a week] to even out with ‘Show in the Sky.’”

Despite these changes, the performer said that the experience with fellow cast members, Rio staff and the production team for the show was very positive. “As a whole, everybody was really welcoming,” the source said. “The tech people were great. Everybody was amazing and the cast was like a family. That’s how the show stayed together.”

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What do two clowns, a nutcracker doll and a rock version of Tchaikovsky’s “Sugarplum Fairy” theme have in common? They were all part of the “Nutcracker” vignette that took place from Dec. 17-19 and 21-22 at the Insurgo Bastard Theater.

A cast of three (Sandy Stein, Breon Jenay and Michelle Meyer) presented the 45-minute show in wordless, exaggerated and, indeed, comical style. The crew (Geo Nikols, Daneal Doerr, Brandon Jones and director John Benae) ran the tech side of the show smoothly.

No bones were made about this being classically-inspired; a few of the key story elements stayed the same, but the vast majority of it was a product of the minds at Insurgo. It was a very comgenial compromise: if we’re only allowed to have one holiday ballet, making it clown-ridden, unorthodox and avante garde was a welcome change.

Based on a simple story, the plot followed two hard-bitten but endearing characters, a man and a girl he discovered in a dumpster, living on the streets. A boom-box, circa 1980, cranked out music while each danced in turn, trying to one-up the other and proffering a hat hopefully at the end of each routine.

Before long, both characters had bedded down in blue twilight and the girl set about exploring the man’s camp. A heavy-metal version of the familiar “Sugarplum” theme heralded the arrival of a nutcracker doll that the girl pulled out of the dumpster in the corner. The classic child-falling-in-love-with-a-toy story commenced.

Eventually, the man disappeared offstage and took the doll with him, leaving a hysterical girl begging alone. When a pack of rats (but no, not the Rat Pack) invaded the camp, a fully alive nutcracker bounded out of the dumpster and came to her rescue, also bearing a small tree, gifts, long tangles of wrapping paper and a shoebox of snow.

After the nutcracker heel-clicked leprechaun-style to a few of the original Tchaikovsky variations, the girl fell asleep to the lullaby of the “Arabian” theme and the nutcracker disappeared back into the dumpster. The girl woke up, alone once again, and the rats, like any persistent villains, returned shortly thereafter.

The epic battle between the nutcracker the the mouse king took place in one of the most action-packed areas of the set: the dumpster. As in the ballet, the nutcracker vanquished over the rodent and tragicomedy-clown-fantasy sanity was restored. After a moment of silent suspense, the man emerged from the dumpster with the nutcracker doll in hand, much to the delight of the girl.

What the story lacked in depth was absolutely made up for by vivid characters. Stein and Jenay both did an exceptional job with no lines to speak of (or to speak at all, actually) and the show was nonetheless enlivened by their gregarious acting.

There was no party scene, no Kingdom of Snow and no Land of Sweets populated by gumdrops and marzipan. However, Insurgo’s take on the Christmas classic is a valid addition to the holiday scene in Las Vegas. After all, if we an call hookers on the Strip dressed up as Santa festive, then “A Nutcracker: a tragicomedy clown fantasy” can certainly be included.

For ticket information, visit insurgotheater.org or call (702) 771-7331. Bring canned goods for $1 off the ticket price per can, up to five per ticket.

Update, Jan. 9: The body of Debora Florez-Narvaez has been found and her ex-boyfriend, Jason Griffith, has been charged with murder. Read the full story on lvrj.com.

Update, Dec. 27: The charred body found Thursay, Dec. 23, in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area about 35 miles east of Las Vegas., does not belong to Debora Flores-Narvaez. The body has not been identified, but the coroner in Las Vegas told the Associated Press that it was definitely not Flores-Narvaez. Read the full story on FoxNews.com here.

Update, Dec. 21: Jason Griffith, an ex-boyfriend of missing dance Debora Flores-Narvaez, is cooperating with the Metropolitan Police Department. Authorities said that, as of right now, Griffith was the last one to see Flores-Narvaez on Dec. 12. Read the full update from KTNV Channel 13 news in Las Vegas here.

Dec. 17: Debora Flores-Narvaez, a 31-year-old dancer for “Fantasy” at the Luxor Hotel and Casino, has been reported missing after she failed to show up for work and rehearsal. Flores-Narvaez has brown hair and eyes, is about 5-foot 5-inches tall and weighs 120 pounds.  She drives a 1997 four-door maroon Chevy Prism and has Maryland license plates that read 73547CD.

Follow the link here for updates on the story. Anyone with information on the missing dancer is asked to contact the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

The good people at Vegas Seven, one of the city’s alternative weeklies, ran an interesting feature on the experiences of three Nevada Ballet Theatre students as they auditioned for different roles in”The Nutcracker.” Follow the link below to read their take on “Trying for Tchaikovsky.”

NBT’s “Nutcracker” opens today, Dec. 17, at Paris Las Vegas! Visit the link here for ticket information and watch for updates from the Insider coming soon.

The cast of Disney’s “The Lion King Las Vegas” seized the moment and put on a cabaret-style show at E String Grill & Poker Bar in Henderson on Dec. 6.”The Moment,” as the show was titled, was dedicated to Brenda O’Brien, who is a makeup artist for “The Lion King Las Vegas,” or LKLV. Members of the cast and the creative team joined forces and produced the show as a way to celebrate the talent and creativity of all of those involved in LKLV, whether they are onstage each night or not.

Matthew Morgan, who plays the hyena Banzai and is a member of the ensemble, acted as the informal emcee for the night, hopping on and off the stage and teasing the audience and the performers in equal measure.

Singer-songwriter Niles Rivers (Simba and ensmble) started the performances in brilliant style with a well-strummed guitar and an open, inviting voice, heralding the sincerity of numbers to come.

Adam Kozlowski (Pumbaa), pictured left, continued the sincerity with a warm rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” coupled with a personality-steeped “I Got Rhythm” and a ukelele. The gregarious man that plays the gregarious warthog sang and scatted and demonstrated the extroverted sociability that makes the character such a hit.

Michael Hollick (Pumbaa, Scar) joined Kozlowski later in the show for cheek-to-cheek, and tongue-in-cheek, duet of “Gossamer” and “Just Arrived from Thunder Road.” The unfeigned enjoyment emanating from each was contagious and undeniable.

Robbie Swift, who plays Pumbaa’s meerkat wingman Timon in addition to Zazu, the royal attendant, followed in appropriate sidekick fashion. Contrary to the strutting, self-satisfied characters he plays, Swift presented an understated, quietly sincere set of numbers that underscored the diversity of the cast.

The first behind-the-scenes revelation came with Meredith Walker, a makeup artist from the show dressed in vibrant purple. She and Damian Baldet (Timon) sang the playful “Wet Mouth Punch,” smiling sidelong at each other through the good-natured parody. Andrew Arrington (Banzai, swing) was decked out in drag and continued the comedic kick with “Try a Little Tenderness,” an exaggerated and exuberant number that added diversity to the show.

Concertmaster and first chair violin Rebecca Ramsey, along with second cellist Moonlight Tran and upright and electric bassist Keith Nelson, serenaded the audience wonderfully while the set of the stage was changed. Seeing the performers that are normally only heard was a welcome bonus, and the music was far from commonplace.

Michael Manly, a plaid-wearing French horn player, also emerged from the orchestra pit and delivered a dry, witty monologue about Thanksgiving and “dysfunctional family relations.” His clipped voice, together with small, wire-rimmed glasses, gave the impression of a wry, witty and pleasantly sarcastic relative that would not have been out of place at a Thanksgiving table.

Corwin Hodge and Deidrea Halley, both swings in the show, showcased a ubiquitous attribute of each of the cast members: the unwavering ability to communicate with an audience. Hodge and Halley both projected a vulnerability that made way for unadulterated emotion to step forth. This, coupled with the obvious experience of the cast, was part of what made “The Moment” so appealing.

Devin Roberts continued in this vein with “Little Drummer Boy,” a song he said he has come to love because of the idea of giving the best that can be offered despite having little.

In addition to the vocals, dance made an appearance as well. Tyrell Rolle (pictured left, kneeling), Derrick Davis, Donna Vaughn, Devin Roberts and Zachary Ingram performed “Silence Moments,” choreographed by Rolle, and brought a sense of gratitude and faith to the stage.

In the second act, Saleemah Knight (pictured right, forward) choreographed “I Still Love You,” an emotional jazz funk number that leaned in an almost lyrical direction with its perceptive musicality. Both Rolle and Knight did an excellent job of using the space available to them and took advantage of the close proximity of the audience. Professionalism was evident in the committed performance of both pieces.

“Four Women” was a sensual number to Nina Simone’s song of the same name and represented a nod to another side of African culture — oppression. Knight, Halley, Vaughn and another ensemble member embodied the self-contained solemnity imbued by the lyrics of the song. The femininity and staid grace was a sobering reminder of, as the song states, “the pain inflicted again and again.”

Rivers tipped his fedora to the younger cast members, taking an opportunity to bring Aubrey Joseph and Tim Johnson Jr. to the stage. Both boys play Young Simba in the show and sang along with Rivers in an optimistic song he had written specifically for the upcoming generation.

Derrick Davis (Mufasa and ensemble) joined Rivers in his vision of the future and brought audience members to their feet with “Moving Forward.” Davis’ looming frame, full-bodied voice poured forth, bringing the energy in the house to a peak just before intermission.

The essence of LKLV was showcased by Kissy Simmons (Nala) and Noku Khuzwayo, Mdu Madela, Buti Mothamana, Buyi Zama, Sindisiwe Nxumalo, Ntsepa Pitjeng, Gugu Ngcobo and Vusi Sondiyazi. Simmons’ soaring voice, coupled with the African dress and vocals of the rest of the group, summed up “The Moment” well. The percussive bead skirts worn by the girls and the stunning harmonies reminded the audience that, as much as the cast joked with each other, show business is something that each takes very seriously.

The drawbacks of the show were very few. The more than two-hour running time was daunting, although the relaxed atmosphere mitigated this considerably. The feeling of family was undeniable and both the individuality and cohesiveness of the cast was incredible. Hopefully this will become a serial event and these talented performers will be seen somewhere besides Pride Rock.

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