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Nevada Ballet Theatre now boasts a celebrity swan

THIS SEASON'S NEVADA BALLET THEATRE production of "The Nutcracker" has a twist. This year -- if you're watching really closely -- you might notice something new: a legacy.
It will come, in part, from the arrival of Cynthia Gregory, who joined Nevada Ballet Theatre in September as artistic advisor and coach. Whereas most new hires are happy to unpack family photos for their desk, Gregory's baggage includes an entire classical tradition, handed down to her through many generations and honed during three decades of dancing with the country's best companies and choreographers.

Having appeared on her first dance magazine cover at the age of 7, Gregory joined the San Francisco Ballet at 15. Four years later, she moved to New York's prestigious American Ballet Theatre, a magnet for international dance superstars. At 21, she made her American Ballet Theatre debut as the dual character of Odile-Odette in "Swan Lake."

During her 26 years with the American Ballet Theatre, Gregory danced in more than 80 ballets. Over the course of her career, she worked with a who's-who of choreographers and directors -- George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, Glen Tetley, Birgit Cullberg, Jose Limón -- and danced with as many famous male leads.

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"From the point of view of classical ballet in America, (Gregory) was one of the most significant American prima ballerinas," says Hanna Rubin, editor of Pointe, a trade magazine for dancers." She was a legend in her own time when she was dancing."

This legend has been living right under our noses for more than a year. Gregory moved here in 2009 at the urging of friends and family, and to be closer to Los Angeles, where she was born and raised, than New York City, where she'd lived since 1965.

It didn't take long for Nevada Ballet Theatre CEO Beth Barbre to learn of Gregory's arrival, however. Gregory, who has been coaching since she retired from dancing, has long dreamed of having her own coaching center. Barbre found a way to make that happen. The Nevada Ballet Theatre's Cynthia Gregory Center for Coaching has been open for business since October.

In joining the theatre's artistic staff, Gregory adds fuel to the skyrocket trajectory of the company's profile, which launched when James Canfield became artistic director in January 2009.

"I idolized her. She was one of the greatest -- if not the greatest American ballerina," Canfield says of Gregory. "I watched her do 'Swan Lake.' I watched her do all the classics, and she was phenomenal. To be able to work in the same capacity with her, as colleagues, how do you measure that?"

[Listen to James Canfield discuss his roots as a dancer -- and the Nevada Ballet Theatre's future -- on "KNPR's State of Nevada"]

Although Canfield and Gregory say they will collaborate at Nevada Ballet Theatre, their roles are different. As artistic director, Canfield oversees the creative vision of the organization, its productions and dancers. He also choreographs his own ballets. As coach, Gregory is tasked with coaxing out of dancers the expressions that transform mere movement into art.

"Coaching is working one-on-one with people . . . in the way you did the role," Rubin explains. "Everybody goes through training. Usually, you don't work with a coach until you're pretty far along, and until you're seeking refinement of a role for which you've already been cast."

In other words, a dancer isn't going to make it into a company like the Nevada Ballet Theatre without a baseline level of technical skill. The coach's job is to take the dancer deeper, beyond the skill and into the mushy realm of spirit and emotion.

Gregory says, "To me, dancing was all about connecting with the audience. I wasn't playing to them. I wanted them to feel what I was feeling. When you do the classics right, you can do that. What I'm worried about is that dance has become very technical and athletic, which is wonderful, but the personality is being lost."

That's where her vast repertoire of performances comes into play. Having brought to life so many characters with the help of so many top teachers, she is a walking, talking -- and dancing -- encyclopedia of ballet heritage.

According to both her and Canfield, this is what makes the two compatible. "She had that excellent training, and I had that excellent training. She committed to it at a very young age, as did I," Canfield says. "You bring that with you. I quit dancing a lot sooner than she did, but I think that the standard, what we've both been exposed to -- some of the greatest dancers in the world -- we bring that."

He adds that, having danced both classic and contemporary ballet, Gregory understands the direction he's taking the company in. "We're saying the same thing, each in our own different way, but we want the same thing."

[Read about another local dance company on the rise whose choreographer has an interesting approach to dance]

In Rubin's view, Gregory's contribution to Nevada Ballet Theatre is not only a boon to ballet in Las Vegas. It will help nurture the next generation of dance.

"Ballet is generation to generation," she explains. "It's one of the only art forms that's taught person to person. That's the heart of ballet. You go into a studio and they teach you what they know."

Longtime ballet critic and Nevada Ballet Theater supporter Hal de Becker says, "I think it will certainly enhance the company's already-good reputation. It will attract major ballet figures to the company as guest artists or choreographers or teachers."

It could be great for downtown, too. Starting in the spring of 2012, the Nevada Ballet Theatre -- including Gregory's coaching center -- will call the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Symphony Park home.

For now, Gregory says, she and Barbre are focusing on getting the fledgling coaching center up and running.

"I moved into this community, and dance has always been my life, so I'm naturally drawn to the dance world here," Gregory says. "I had such an amazing career with the people I worked with and all the different things that I've done . . . I'm happy, and it's necessary to pass that on."

The Nevada Ballet Theatre performs "The Nutcracker" Dec. 17-26 at the Paris Theatre in the Paris Las Vegas. Tickets $35.50-$90.50. Click here for more information.

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