No one’s surprised to hear Tchaikovsky’s music at the ballet. After all, his works include the scores to the classics “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.”
Such frontier-flavored folk songs as “Red River Valley” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me” — or the jumping, jiving swing-era sounds of the Andrews Sisters — may seem less likely candidates.
But they’re also part of Nevada Ballet Theatre’s “Classic Americana” this weekend at The Smith Center, which spotlights two company premieres: George Balanchine’s 1954 “Western Symphony” and Paul Taylor’s 1991 “Company B.”
Rounding out the program: the return of Balanchine’s 1935 “Serenade” (the one danced to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings”), which NBT previously staged in 2009, 2012 and 2014.
NBT artistic director Roy Kaiser, newly arrived from Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Ballet, had nothing to do with choosing the dances for this weekend’s “Classic Americana” program. But he definitely knows the territory.
During his dancing years, Kaiser performed — and enjoyed performing — both Balanchine works.
“I adore ‘Serenade,’ ” he says. “If somebody really pressed me to name my favorite ballet, it would be ‘Serenade,’ ” the first ballet the Russian-born Balanchine choreographed in America.
As Pennsylvania Ballet’s artistic director, “I programmed it as often as I could,” Kaiser notes, in part because “it’s a showcase for the corps de ballet. It’s in many ways a barometer” that indicates “how a corps de ballet works together and breathes together.”
For dancers, “Serenade” ranks as “almost a spiritual experience,” according to Sandra Jennings, who danced it for 11 years with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet — and now stages it for the George Balanchine Trust, which oversees the legendary choreographer’s works.
“To be on that stage and hear that Tchaikovsky” score, “you feel your heart is pounding in your chest,” Jennings recalls. “It’s choreographed, but you almost have the feeling that you’re completely free.”
Kaiser danced “Serenade” in his “first year as a young dancer,” he remembers. “As a young kid out there, it was a little daunting,” but “I loved it.”
He also performed in “Western Symphony” for “many years,” noting its combination of “classical ballet technique” with “a jazzy overtone.”
It’s “kind of a fun ballet,” Kaiser observes, citing “a certain freedom that doesn’t always exist” in traditional ballets.
You can sense the fun at a recent “Western Symphony” rehearsal. NBT dancers, buoyed by the rollicking music, sway and sashay across the studio floor. Their graceful precision belies their exertion — at least until the music stops, when the dancers struggle to catch their collective breath following the run-through.
“Western Symphony” uses popular 19th-century tunes for its musical inspiration.
Paul Taylor’s “Company B,” by contrast, takes a flying leap into the 20th century, using Andrews Sisters hits — from “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to “Pennsylvania Polka” — as an energetic musical backdrop.
Las Vegan Rachel Berman, a former member of Taylor’s modern dance troupe — currently a teaching artist with The Smith Center’s Disney Musicals in Schools program — helped NBT members learn the moves, based on her memories of performing it.
At the time of “Company B’s” debut, Taylor’s dancers had “all this youthful exuberance,” Berman remembers, prompting Taylor to wonder, “ ‘What am I going to do with them?’ ” Listening to the Andrews Sisters’ World War II-era recordings provided a spark.
Although Taylor “definitely started with exuberance” in creating “Company B,” the choreographer “is really a master of the light and the dark,” Berman says, noting how silhouettes of World War II battlefield action add a darker element to the up-tempo dance.
Kaiser salutes it as “a wonderful little slice of Americana,” a modern work that “translates very well to ballet dancers” — and serves as “a great showcase for dancers,” to “show the diversity of the art form.”
New artistic director on the job with NBT
Technically, Roy Kaiser doesn’t begin his full-time duties as Nevada Ballet Theatre’s new artistic director until January.
But he’s already on the job, helping NBT dancers prepare for this weekend’s “Classic Americana” program at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall.
Kaiser comes to NBT after two decades with Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Ballet, where he was appointed assistant ballet master while a principal dancer. After stepping down as a performer, Kaiser continued his rise through the ranks, serving as associate artistic director, artistic director and artistic director emeritus.
His decision to leave his longtime professional home was “a combination of many factors,” Kaiser says.
One of them: NBT’s current status and future potential.
“Each time that I left Las Vegas, I was more and more impressed by the pieces that were already in place with the company,” Kaiser comments, citing NBT’s “first-rate staff” and “very strong, committed corps of dancers” as well as the leadership of executive director Beth Barbre and trustees.
“On top of it all, I found out I really like Las Vegas,” Kaiser adds. “I love the community.”
In part, that’s because “so many former dancers have made their home in Las Vegas,” he points out. ”It’s kind of cool, coming to a community with a wealth of dance knowledge.”
In addition, “Las Vegas just has an overall can-do attitude, and I love that,” Kaiser says. “I felt it and believed it.”
That positive attitude will play a role in his tenure at NBT, he adds.
“If you distill that all down, what was really attractive to me” was the chance “to move this company forward,” Kaiser explains, noting that dance companies “are moving organisms. They’re never stagnant. And there are a lot of people in place” to move NBT forward.