Nevada Ballet Theatre debuts ‘Beauty and the Beast’

It’s a tale as old as time — but maybe not the version of the tale you know.

So, when Nevada Ballet Theatre debuts “Beauty and the Beast” this weekend at The Smith Center, don’t expect the Disney version.

The ballet and the Oscar-winning animated feature have the same source: the fanciful 18th-century French fairy tale about a cursed prince who’s transformed into a hideous beast, until the love of a beauteous young woman reverses the curse and restores him to handsome human form.

While audiences — including “little girls who show up in Belle outfits” — expect “certain elements” from the Disney movie, they’ll experience a different brand of magic, according to Leslie Young, the repetiteur who’s been teaching NBT dancers the choreography first created by the late Lew Christensen for the San Francisco Ballet.

A list posted in the costume shop at NBT’s Summerlin studios offers a clue as to the exotic creatures conjured in this “Beauty and the Beast’s” storybook realm, from “eight nymphs” to “six magic flowers,” “five bluebirds,” “one male simian” and “eight torchbearers.” (To say nothing of caryatids and other assorted creatures.)

Young, who spent 19 years as a San Francisco Ballet soloist, was a “Beauty and the Beast” simian during her early years with the company — which meant she danced in the first act and served as a torchbearer in the second, enabling her to “sit and watch the rest of the ballet on the stairs,” which provided an “up close and personal” vantage point.

“You go to see every show,” Young recalls during a pre-rehearsal interview. “You’re there. You watch everything.” (At one performance, a dancer Young idolized whirled by and “winked at me,” she marvels.)

That unique perspective provides ideal preparation for Young to stage “Beauty and the Beast,” which is danced to a compilation of lilting melodies from ballet’s favorite composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. (NBT’s production is the third “Beauty and the Beast” she’s overseen.)

“Lew (Christensen) said he created this in the traditional Russian style,” Young notes. “ ‘Mostly dancing, with a smidgen of mime.’ His words, not mine.”

Young’s years at San Francisco Ballet — where Christensen’s “Beauty and the Beast” was an annual staple for years — means she has access to original cast members who can answer her questions.

The ballet “is very technically challenging,” according to Emma McGirr, who’s dancing Beauty — to Sergio Alvarez’s Beast — Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. (Betsy Lucas and Steven Goforth perform the roles at Saturday’s matinee.)

“It’s not necessarily complicated choreography,” McGirr continues. “It’s the precision needed to execute the steps.”

That’s “the beauty of a story ballet,” in McGirr’s view. “You do have to marry the two things and it has to become seamless.”

A two-on-one rehearsal illustrates McGirr’s point, with Young offering detailed comments while McGirr and Alvarez (the latter attired in Beast mask and furry paws) perform intricate sequences.

“You have to be more devastated,” Young advises Alvarez, after McGirr’s Beauty rejects the Beast — again. “Then cover the pain. You’re out of control, then back in control.”

NBT artistic director Roy Kaiser, observing Alvarez rehearsing, offers his own suggestions.

“You have to pick a leg to land on,” he says. “I think it’s clear which one. You can’t be in between.”

As the two dancers execute a sweeping, swooping duet, Young offers an encouraging “This is lovely” before scribbling some notes on a pad. “Yay!”

Young “brings such a wealth of knowledge” to staging “Beauty and the Beast,” McGirr says. “Her coaching has been really wonderful.”

Dancing a ballet such as “Beauty and the Beast” represents “a learning process” for NBT’s dancers, Kaiser says.

Performing a perfect pirouette may demonstrate technique, he explains, “but when you’re doing it in context, at the end of a solo, it’s a whole different ballgame. Context is everything.”

Strength in numbers

With five scenes and almost a hundred roles, “Beauty and the Beast” ranks as a big ballet — so big that Nevada Ballet Theatre needs more than its company of dancers to perform it.

“With the company the size that it is now, it’s a stretch,” NBT artistic director Roy Kaiser says of this weekend’s Smith Center performances. “Everyone has to be there a hundred percent.”

This weekend’s three Smith Center performances require almost all company members to do “at least two roles,” he notes. “The public won’t know that,” as dancers change costumes and characters. But “it takes an incredible amount of focus.”

In addition, “ballets are not just about the principals,” he says of the two couples dancing “Beauty and the Beast’s” title roles. “There are so many other characters and they all need to be equally as good. If there’s a weak link, it takes away from the impact of the overall production.”

In addition to NBT’s company of dancers, apprentices and trainees, six guest artists from Ballet West in Salt Lake City (which, coincidentally, was founded by “Beauty and the Beast” choreographer Lew Christensen’s brother William) and 14 students from NBT’s academy, ages 12 to 18, will perform.

It’s “such a lovely opportunity” for the students, according to Leslie Young, repetiteur for the Lew Christensen Foundation, who’s been in Las Vegas since the second week of January, teaching Christensen’s choreography to the dancers.

“There’s so much to cover — so many little details,” she notes. “Especially the Beast, who “has to do everything from acting to double tours jetes.” (Sometimes while wearing a furry mask and paws.)

As a result, dancers “have to rise to the occasion,” Kaiser observes. “Dancing this will make them stronger.”

Preview

■ Who:Nevada Ballet Theatre

■ What:“Beauty and the Beast”

■ When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

■ Where: Reynolds Hall, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, 361 Symphony Park Ave.

■ Tickets: $29-$139 (thesmithcenter.com)

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