Annual 'Dance in the Desert Festival' celebrates National Dance Day

Ballet owes a debt to ... Fox TV?

That artistically committed and culturally sensitive network that brings us "Family Guy"?

Here's a tip of the tutu to Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance," whose judge-producer, Nigel Lythgoe, proposed we create an annual National Dance Day -- a "grass-roots initiative to encourage the nation, young and old, to move!" -- that was seized upon by health advocate Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who introduced it as a resolution, with last year's inaugural celebration.

On Saturday, National Dance Day returns, just in time to coincide with the 13th annual "Dance in the Desert," a two-day, three-performance, kick-yer-feet-up fest beginning tonight at the College of Southern Nevada's Nicholas J. Horn Theatre.

"It's kind of a smorgasbord, which is what we like," says Kelly Roth, director of the festival that will feature nearly 30 dances staged by 14 companies.

Should a Fox-made "Dance Day" not be reason enough to honor the art form, 2011 also marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark Pilobolus Dance Theatre, a balletic pioneer, one of whose dancers will make a "Dance in the Desert" appearance.

"They have a similar aesthetic to us, and they really gave a shot in the arm to modern dance in the 1970s and 1980s," Roth says. "We were all swept up in the coattails of their visibility. They created another market for people who perhaps weren't interested in modern dance before."

Blending returnees with newbies, this year's lineup features out-of-state companies along with local troupes such as Bernard Gaddis' Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater, Marko Westwood's Nevada Repertory Dance Theater, Solinea Isbell's Saving Grace and Ballet Mink, directed by Margot Mink-Colbert of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas dance program faculty, as well as Kelly Roth & Dancers.

Crossing state lines to participate are Arizona's Desert Dance Theatre and Step's Junk Funk (both from Tempe) and Canyon Movement Company (from Flagstaff), New York's Art of Motion, California's Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre (Huntington Beach) and solo artist Noel Julian-Anker (Northern California) and, happily for Roth, Dance Source out of Provo, Utah.

"For the first time in a long time, we have a group out of Utah," he says. "Utah tends to be really supportive of dance and any of the arts. I think it's part of the Mormon culture there. That should be a lesson to us, though they don't have to compete with casinos."

Assembling this year's bill, festival associate director Leslie Roth says she's hoping to see a bump in the event's seesawing attendance in a city where Nevada Ballet Theatre dominates the attention of local dance fans. "It goes up and down," she says. "Two years ago we had a big uptick, and then last summer, not so much. We're never quite sure. It's one of those things where people say, 'This is amazing; we didn't know this was here.' We never know exactly what brings them in."

Back for another funk-a-delic performance is Tempe's Step's Junk Funk, with artistic director/percussionist Step Raptis, who, creatively speaking, doesn't believe in waste. "I met Step in New York about 35 years ago," Kelly Roth says.

"He would pick up garbage in the streets and bring it up to the dance studio where we had a class, and he would find ways to play it musically to accompany the class. He still does that. He finds garbage and makes music with it."

Among other highlights are Brodie's troupe, which will mount an upbeat, jazzy tribute to the legendary and innovative Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse ("Chicago"), as well as a section from "Emigre," a larger work focusing on the arrival of immigrants to American shores.

"It's all done very abstractly," Kelly Roth says, "with symbols and interesting costumes and set pieces and lighting, but with a completely different feel."

Different? Try the Canyon Movement Company, whose dance performance will feature not one single live dancer. "They're submitting a dance film, so there won't be dancers onstage," Leslie Roth says. "It's a really interesting film shot there (in Flagstaff) in two different locations. I think people are interested in the ways that you can cut and edit time and space differently on film than onstage. You can make different things happen, things can come and go and disappear, bodies can do different things."

Things that bodies don't necessarily do in classical dance. Hey, this is, after all, dance performed over a weekend of national observation christened by ... Fox TV.

As Kelly Roth acknowledges: "We do get edgier stuff that gets some people to smash their heads in frustration."

Pop an Excedrin Migraine tablet. Then watch.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.