Four ballet companies salute Robert Joffrey in 'An Unprecedented Event'

Master and mentor, memorialized.

In quadruplicate.

"The thread here is that we are all the next generation of Mr. Joffrey," says James Canfield, artistic director of Nevada Ballet Theatre and one-time member of the iconic company helmed by dance great Robert Joffrey. "His influence and his spirit and his knowledge echo through more dance studios and companies throughout the world than anyone."

Reuniting for a Joffrey-esque salute, Canfield and three other ex-Joffrey-ites now operating their own companies will bring their dancers to town for some four-play. Grandly, if immodestly, titled "An Unprecedented Event," the three-performance presentation features Canfield's troupe along with Glenn Edgerton's Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Tom Mossbrucker's Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Adam Sklute's Ballet West.

"Robert Joffrey really furthered the cause of American dancers, that sense of youth and athleticism," says Sklute, who danced with the Joffrey company and later advanced to associate artistic director. "Everything I do as an artistic director (of Ballet West), I always question, 'What would Mr. Joffrey think about this?' "

Among the quartet of offerings from this cozy Joffrey alumni club, the local peg is Nevada Ballet Theatre's performing Canfield's "Degas Impressions," with 11 short pieces inspired by the impressionist artist's work.

"It's a showcase not only of the paintings, but of the dancers themselves," Canfield says. "Each section of the ballet, not more than two or three minutes each, is named after an actual Degas painting. One is known as 'Three Dancers.' There's one that starts out in a rehearsal room, which is the name of one of his paintings. One called 'The Dance Class.' One called 'The Ballet Master.' "

Music of Frederic Chopin will be performed by the Las Vegas Philharmonic's concertmaster, DeAnn Letourneau, and principal keyboardist Voltaire Verzosa.

Elsewhere on the program, the Aspen company will produce Jorma Elo's "Red Sweet," the Hubbard troupe will dance Nacho Duato's "Gnawa" and Ballet West will contribute Jiri Kylian's "Sinfonietta."

"It's a spectacular contemporary ballet created in the late 1970s for the Nederlands Dans Theater, with a thrilling score, a lot of brass, very dynamic and exciting for the men in the company," Sklute says of "Sinfonietta's" style.

"The Joffrey Ballet was the first American company to perform the works by this choreographer (Kylian), who is now considered one of the geniuses of contemporary dance," Sklute adds. "When this premiered, I was at the New York Metropolitan Opera House and it brought the house down. Audiences gasped. They had never seen such an outpouring of energy. The dancers fly through the air at top speed."

Reverence and respect pour out of Canfield and Sklute when discussing Joffrey, who died in 1988 but left a legacy as one of the demigods of the dance world, known for his imaginative, modern ballets, eclectic repertoire and pioneering spirit. "What each of us is doing in our respective companies is, in and of itself, due and influenced by our past leader and mentor, Mr. Joffrey," says Canfield, who was a member of the Joffrey company from 1979-85.

Famed for the story of its humble beginnings -- six touring dancers going gig to gig in a station wagon -- the Joffrey company, behind Joffrey and co-founder Gerald Arpino, also advocated gender balance in ballet, which had been female-dominated, or as George Balanchine put it: "ballet is woman."

"He really took that on, dedicated to gender parity in ballet," Canfield says. "A lot of work he brought in was to develop the virtuosity of the male dancer. Up until then, the male was the partner, he wasn't the dancer."

Reserved, polite and soft-spoken in person, Joffrey was adventurous and courageous artistically, refusing to be hemmed in by traditions, such as a uniformed look for dancers. "I remember being in an interview with him," Canfield says. "He was asked, 'What does a Joffrey dancer look like?' He said, 'They look like what they're dancing at the moment. They're not a cookie-cutter-looking body type. They look like what they need to embody for what the work is asking from them.' "

Another Joffrey departure was his embrace of what some critics considered "commercialism" but others saw as "accessibility," expanding the dance audience with such works as the 1967 ballet "Astarte," set to rock music with imaginative lighting and motion-picture effects, and the 1973 crossover piece "Deuce Coupe," by Twyla Tharp.

"The spirit of venturing down the road to new works is thanks to what he did, making dance important to every corner of this country," Canfield says.

"He fills a place in the history of dance, as well as the future."

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