Fifth Street

June 9, 2022

A local ballet star takes his last bow ... for now | Pornos with a story? Yeah. Really! | Avantpop Bookstore blows our writer's mind

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ON A RECENT SUNDAY afternoon on the Smith’s Center’s main stage, Steven Goforth stepped out in front of his fellow Nevada Ballet Theatre company artists and took a bow solo. Still sweating from a grueling two-hour performance — first as one of three characters in George Ballanchine’s Who Cares? and then in the ensemble cast of Nicolo Fonte’s Carmina Burana — Goforth held a bouquet of flowers in one arm and, in the other, his 11-week old daughter, handed to him by his wife, Meridith, who’d joined him on stage. Also joining him were Krista Baker, a longtime dance partner and now NBT rehearsal director, and the company’s artistic director, Roy Kaiser, who, after taking their own bows, turned to Goforth to echo the audience’s roaring applause. Spectators explained to unknowing dates, “This is his last show. He’s retiring.” Some wiped away tears.

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The emotional moment capped a 10-year stint with NBT, which capped more than two decades of dance for the 29-year-old from Vancouver, Washington. It was the end Goforth needed, he says. COVID had stopped his career in its tracks as he was hitting his mental and physical peak. During the extended pause, he considered calling it quits. So, he was grateful to dance one last time and say goodbye on his own terms. A week later, he sat down with Desert Companion to reflect on what it’s all meant.

What was that standing ovation like for you? What was that feeling?
It's really hard to explain. I've been dancing for a long time. It started in elementary school, and especially these last 10 years, dancing five or six days a week for the majority of the year, it really becomes your way of life. … But it was really special.

You've been dancing since you were a child, but you're from an artistic family and were exposed to lots of other arts growing up — you played trumpet as a kid. How did dance become the thing that you decided you wanted to devote your life to professionally?
When I was in elementary school, I was fortunate that the school district I grew up in had a program called Arts Block. So once a week, every kid in the district would have 30 or 45 minutes in a music class, or some sort of visual art class, or a creative movement class. And my creative movement teacher was really, really special, very encouraging to everybody. The story my mom tells is, I came home from the first or the second class, and I was like, “Mom, I want to dance.” And that was in first grade …  At the end of my sophomore year of high school, my mom encouraged me to go to a summer program that was held up in in Seattle … and by the end of those two weeks, I was like, “Yeah, this is definitely what I want to do.” So, from that point, it was kind of looking down the road for how I could make it as a professional dancer.

You’ve performed so many roles with NBT — everything from the Prince in The Nutcracker to Dracula to this most recent role in Who Cares? It must be hard to pick your favorites, but Dracula was such a striking character. Was that the most exciting one to play?
Oh, yeah, for sure. If I was ranking my top five, that's definitely close to the top. But also, the significance of that role, for me, goes back to before I joined NBT, when I was a trainee with Ballet West in Salt Lake City right after high school. … The very first ballet that I was around (there) was Ben Stevenson's Dracula, and I got to understudy the horses that pull the carriage, (which) make four entrances in the ballet. And it seems like a really small part, but, because of where that roll fell in the ballet, we were called to a lot of rehearsals. With it being the first time I was ever around a professional company, I just loved getting to watch these incredible dancers and the three casts of Dracula. I thought I was a good partner, but then you watch them doing these roles like, “Wow, I hope someday I'll be that good.” And then to flash forward to when Roy (Kaiser) brought the same production here — getting cast was really special. … And it's fun to play the bad guy, every once in a while.

Contrast that with a part in one of Nicolo Fonte’s more abstract pieces, like Bolero or Carmina Burana. It's such a different approach, I would imagine.
Yes, and no. Nicolo is classically trained, so, step-wise, it's all coming from the same place. He kind of he throws in his own style, but it's very athletic. He's very specific in what he wants, and it's for you to fully immerse yourself in the movement. So, like with Carmina, he was very clear in saying, “There's no story, there's no story, there's no story.” But you're still fully invested in executing the steps the right way. So, in that sense, it's really not that different.

You’ve been dancing for 23, 24 years now, so you've seen the world of dance go through some evolution. What are the positive changes you've seen, and what are some of the things that you hope are still going to change more?
The ballet world in general is definitely trending the right direction. It's a good start. And people have definitely talked a big game. And I think it's important that we, as dancers, and ballet, dance lovers continue to hold people accountable for the things that they've said, to make sure that they do actually come to fruition.

Are you speaking about diversity in particular?
Everything — diversity, inclusion. You know, there's been a really big push to go through some of these story ballets and find a way to keep doing them while taking out the racial stereotypes. Breaking down some archaic gender roles in and out of the studio is also really important, because when you when you look at ballet as an art form, it's incredible. There's really nothing like it to both watch and partake in. But at the same time, the institutions around it, globally speaking, have not always made it something that's accessible for everybody, which I think is a really big travesty. I know personally, whether it's bullying or other things, people (who) all of a sudden, go, “I'm done. I don't want to be a part of ballet.” And they'll never go and take another class again, or go and see another piece of live dance, which is a huge travesty. So, I think for those of us who are in the ballet world, it is really our responsibility to say, “These things didn't work, and it's time to move forward.” We can still honor what classical ballet is, as an art form, and then reimagine what the structures look like around it, because there's plenty of things that I think need to continue their way out the door.

You've done a lot of choreographing in the past. Will you keep doing that? Will you keep dancing?
That's my hope. I've been on faculty with the Academy of Nevada Ballet Theatre for six or seven years at this point, teaching a lot of the boys program and pas de deux stuff. So, I'm hoping that that role will expand. Long-term I'd like to continue to be involved with the company, coaching and teaching and things like that. My wife and I have made Las Vegas home. So, we're not going anywhere. If there's a story ballet here and there in the future that really needs a character (to be) acted, I wouldn't be opposed to maybe doing that from time to time.

And your daughter is going on three months old, so you'll have some time to spend with her, I guess?
Yeah, she's going to be the main priority moving forward, so I will mostly be doing the role of dad from now on, which I'm very excited about.

How would you sum up these past 10 years, looking back?
It was wildly different than what I was expecting. I never saw myself moving to Las Vegas. I don't think I ever envisioned dancing half of the things that I ended up getting the opportunity to dance, or working with a lot of the people that I got to work with, especially early on. We worked a lot with Cynthia Gregory, who’s been called America's prima ballerina assoluta. Getting opportunities like that is hard to top.

For a long time, it seemed like, in dance, if you didn't make it with New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, it was almost looked at like you were a failure. And I think that is just incredibly false. Over the 10 years I've been here, you know, the city has changed a lot and the way that the company has grown, I think it’s a really important part of the community. And we've created some really incredible moments on stage.

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IN THE COEN BROTHERS’ 1998 noir comedy The Big Lebowski, affable main character The Dude (Jeff Bridges) visits avant-garde artist Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), who shows him a clip of a porn film featuring two people involved in his labyrinthine kidnapping investigation. A leering man enters the apartment of two beautiful women, declaring that he’s a repairman from the cable company. “You can imagine where it goes from here,” Maude scoffs. “He fixes the cable?” The Dude responds.

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The joke, of course, is at the expense of the flimsy plots of typical adult movies. But for Las Vegas-based gay adult film company Helix Studios, there has been a surprisingly lucrative alternative market for movies in which characters, well, fix the cable. “We’ve always tried to distinguish ourselves from all the other people in the business by creating something that we consider to be a little bit more valuable,” says Helix owner Keith Miller. From its earliest days, Helix has paid closer attention to the narrative content of its films than most adult film companies do.

That effort has hit new heights since the company, founded in Florida in 2002, relocated to Vegas in 2017. A year later, local independent filmmaker Heidi Moore joined Helix as an editor, and her creative contributions have opened up Helix’s movies to a whole new audience. “The scripts were really bad,” Moore says of the Helix movies she was editing when she first started. “That was our weakest link forever,” says producer Casey Roman. “We would take a script and completely have to rewrite it.”

“I wished that I could at least go through and fix them up,” Moore recalls. “So one time I finally did, and showed them, ‘Here’s an example of what I mean.’ From then on they had me writing all the scripts.” With her experience in self-distributing independent films, Moore also expanded on Helix’s practice of posting short, non-explicit clips to YouTube. “Let’s make a normal movie where the sex scenes happen to be real, and then we can edit a version where we take out the sex scenes, and then we can put them on Amazon Prime and YouTube and all of that.”

So now, Helix movies such as Quiet on Set, which Moore wrote based on her experiences working on independent films, have completely separate existences as mainstream, non-explicit films. Moore writes scripts that feature far more dialogue and emotion than typical adult content, with full storylines that can be packaged without the X-rated material that’s hosted exclusively on Helix’s site. Quiet on Set played in local film festivals including the Las Vegas Queer Arts Film Festival and the Nevada Women’s Film Festival. Helix productions like The Lake House, Happy Campers and the series Helix Studios Presents are available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.

“Heidi’s abilities at managing these things and knowing how to put them together and make them appeal to an audience has really proven helpful,” Miller says. “She’s from the independent film world, so she knows exactly what we’re looking for,” says Roman, who works with his director husband Alex Roman on every Helix production. “It’s been an awesome collaboration.”

For the Romans, who went to film school together and came to the adult industry from a background in documentary filmmaking, working with Moore has been a return to their roots. “Once we got to Las Vegas, and we were hiring new editors, we came across Heidi, and Heidi was from our world,” Casey Roman says.

Helix’s YouTube channel has nearly 150,000 subscribers, and their videos regularly get tens of thousands of views. “I wish I had 100,000 subscribers to the porn site,” Miller says. Plenty of devoted viewers now know Helix productions primarily as lighthearted, romantic gay movies without any hardcore sex. Although Helix has done well at industry honors including the Grabby Awards and the GayVN Awards, they remain unique among adult companies in creating mainstream-friendly versions of their movies.

“The majority of them when they talk to me about it go, ‘Why are you doing that? Why are you doing so much extra work?’” Miller says of his peers in the adult industry. “We make an actual movie, and then just make the sex scenes real. No one else does that,” Moore says.

That also means that the performers in Helix films get to do far more than might be expected of other porn stars. “Our models tell us that when we post the non-sex versions of our films on YouTube or wherever, they can show their parents,” Casey Roman says. “It legitimizes it, like they’re doing something bigger and more important, reaching out to a larger audience.” That helps Helix retain talent, too. “We’ve had models come back to us wanting to start filming again because, ‘I want to do a movie,’” Miller says.

For Moore, working at Helix has opened up a whole new avenue of her career as an independent filmmaker. She’s still awaiting the release of her latest horror film, Kill Dolly Kill: Dolly Deadly 2, from legendary underground distributor Troma Entertainment, but in the meantime she’s working more than ever. “I get two scripts a month produced that I write, so I’m constantly writing and editing full-on films,” she says. “This is something that I know a lot of my friends who are in independent filmmaking would love to be doing.” She’s even recruited some of those friends as actors. “Because I work in the film community in town, I have a lot of friends who are actors, and they came and acted in the movies. It’s a paid gig, and they’re not in the sex parts.”

Miller sees Helix eventually expanding into a multifaceted LGBTQ media company, mixing adult films with mainstream productions. The Romans, too, see no limits to the kind of stories they can tell at Helix. “Literally any idea we can think of, we can turn it into something for work,” Casey Roman says. Plenty of people may still scoff, like Maude Lebowski, at the idea of porn movies being artistically valuable and entertaining to watch, but Moore knows not to listen to them: “I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘Oh, I could never do that.’ And it’s like, you don't know what I do.”

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IT'S FRIDAY NIGHT and the Historic Commercial Center is wide awake. As I park, the call of a saxophone drifts toward me, teenagers stand on the curb talking about what to do next, cars pull in for takeout. Avantpop Bookstore faces the parking lot, occupying the prime space in the two-story labyrinth of storefronts, near the Office of Collecting and Design and Fort Bedlam coffeehouse. The bookstore is not technically open yet but is full of people, its neon cat logo lit up bright white.

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I’m here for the VIP opening party, but it feels more like an opportunity to grab the best books before the public gets in. After a few minutes of browsing, though, I am incapable of deciding which books are the best. The mismatched shelves hold a treasure trove of fascinating reads, organized in categories such as Counterculture, Womxn, and Altered Consciousness, with fiction snuggling up to fact.

Owners Sugar and Shwa Laytart met through Roller Derby, got married, and moved from Santa Rosa, California, to Las Vegas in 2018 in search of a new home base for their cannabis company. When that business didn't bear fruit, the couple started Avantpop as an online space to resell their expansive book collection. They added a publishing offshoot in 2021, and then, this February, while having coffee at Fort Bedlam, learned the landlords of New Orleans Square were looking for someone to open a bookstore. 

"We weren't necessarily looking to open up a storefront," Shwa says. Sugar adds, "But after meeting with the neighbors and tenants, we really loved the community that the landlords were building and wanted to be a part of it.” And so, in a few short months, the brick-and-mortar version of Avantpop was born. 

"We're an independent bookstore and publisher that sells specialty, subversive, subculture … basically banned books," Shwa says. Their collection acknowledges our human call toward darkness and fantasy: an Edward Gorey section, mass market vintage sci-fi, horror, erotica, and an in-house imprint that publishes books like Shwa Laytart’s own F*d-Up Poetry For F*d-Up People In F*d-Up Times.

There is a story being told here, not only by the books themselves, but also by their placement on the shelves. “Ancient Civilizations” is next to “Otherworldly.” In an unnamed section between “Pirates” and “Philosophy,” there are books on the Hearsts, torture, Britain’s underworld, and The Royal Art of Poison. The story of this section, I think, is one of power, and their placement together makes me want to buy all four books. 

Because Avantpop sells mostly used books, there is also a story being told in the context of time. I find a book on technology from 2014 that is uncannily outdated, a quick skim showing me what tech has done to us in the intervening eight years. All bookstores are birthplaces of knowledge, but this one has the unique feeling of being a space where I can let my fascinations run rampant. Standing between the fluorescent-lit drop ceiling and the red linoleum floor, I feel like I’m in a classroom where every book has the possibility to explode open my mind.

"Books are a way to escape, explore, and expand,” Shwa says. “Our goal is to give our communities the tools to do this." The place itself expands on the conventional meaning of a bookstore. “In the back, we have Avantpop Studios, where we do all our publishing, book restoration, photos, graphics, and content creations, but we also have a podcast room, where we will be doing poetry and spoken word readings," Shwa says.  

After earmarking about fifteen books to buy, and forgetting each one as I become engrossed in a new find, I leave with the following: Infinite City, an odd and beautiful atlas of San Francisco, Are You Really My Friend?, a photography collection of the artists’ 626 Facebook friends, and Native Plant Based Foods, a local recipe collaboration by Fifth Sun Project, Bluumangoo, and the Solidarity Fridge, printed by Avantpop’s publishing offshoot. As I walk out into the slightly deeper night, my mind is already itching to see what new specimens will be waiting on the shelves next time. 

Avantpop Bookstore is open Wed.-Sat., 11a-7p, at Commercial Center, 900 Karen Ave, D-102, avantpopbooks.com, on Instagram @avantpopbooks.

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Photos and art: Goforth: headshot by Krista Baker, Dracula by Alicia Lee, courtesy Nevada Ballet Theatre; film: courtesy Helix Studios; Avantpop by Oona Robertson

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