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Shell shocked

“The Nutcracker” ballet is a beloved and timeless holiday classic. Wait ’til you see what NBT’s James Canfield did to it

James Canfield needs just five words to sum up his quirky new take on an old ballet: Tim Burton meets Dr. Seuss.

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“I’m a big fan of them both,” the artistic director for Nevada Ballet Theatre says. He’s sitting behind his desk at the company’s northwest Las Vegas headquarters, where rehearsals for his revamped version of “The Nutcracker” are under way. “Not only as a kid, but my entire life.”

You can sort of guess this just by looking at Canfield. Today he’s sporting a pencil-thin mustache, tatted-up arms and — beneath a plaid baseball cap — a shaved head. Also, he doesn’t just talk. He frames words with his hands and arms and torso, like he’s having a hard time staying in his chair. At one point, he halts mid-sentence to ask: “Would you like a Starburst?”

He strikes you as exactly the right person to update a classic yuletide ballet as bizarre as it is bewitching. But “update” might be too tame a word for it. The Nevada Ballet Theatre has presented the much-beloved story each year for the past three decades. But this year, starting Dec. 15, an all-new, overhauled version debuts downtown at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, where the local ballet company recently began a residency that symbolizes artistic big-boy pants. Canfield choreographed the grander, more elaborate production — his first full-length work for the company — to complement its new, world-class home.

Diehard fans needn’t wring their hands. The storyline, adapted from the 1816 E.T.A. Hoffman story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” will remain intact. A young girl named Clara dreams about a nutcracker and other toys coming to life. The title character does battle with a seven-headed rodent and his minions before joining Clara on a journey to the trippy Land of Sweets. A creepy magician/godfather lurks around, watching — or orchestrating? — the action. But this time, the difference is in the details. Everything, from set to costumes to a webby new logo, reflects Canfield’s vision for a revitalized “The Nutcracker.”

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The fact that he’s been doing this ballet “in one capacity or another” since 1970 hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm. In fact, seeing it as a youngster started Canfield down the crooked path to where he is today. “The only reason I entered ballet is because of ‘The Nutcracker,’” he says.

And ballet is what brought Canfield to Las Vegas — in roundabout fashion. He was born in Corning, N.Y., and started dancing at 5 years old. He got his early dance training at the Washington School of Ballet, later joining the Joffrey Ballet, where he danced an extensive repertoire of works by noted choreographers. In 1989, Canfield became founding artistic director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre, where he choreographed more than thirty ballets and established the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

The Smith Center residency, which was in the works for years and puts Nevada Ballet Theatre on the national cultural map, had a lot to do with why Canfield came to Las Vegas. He stepped in as interim artistic director in 2008 and got the position permanently the following year. Meanwhile, he’s put a lot of himself into the group; several of Canfield’s works have joined Nevada Ballet Theatre’s repertoire. His first original work for the company, “Cyclical Night,” premiered in 2010.

His makeover of the company’s annual holiday production was probably inevitable. Every world-class city has a great ballet company, and every ballet company has “The Nutcracker,” he says. In that way, Las Vegas is no different. “It’s a way of life.”

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That’s not only because of tradition. It’s also because the ubiquitous seasonal ballet generates so much income. Nevada Ballet Theatre makes about 75 percent of its annual revenue from the production, which Canfield calls the company’s “cash cow.” The day the show wraps, preparations for the next year “start right back up again,” he says. “We’re always doing ‘The Nutcracker.’”

The custom-made set for the new production includes a life-sized Victorian dollhouse on casters, a 30-foot-high Christmas tree, and slanty doors and clocks (Dr. Seuss!) that stand more than 15 feet high. Patricia Ruel, who created props for Cirque du Soleil’s “KÀ,” “The Beatles LOVE” and “Viva Elvis,” is overseeing scenery and prop designs for the production. Sandra Woodall, contributor of costumes to ballet and dance companies all over the world, created fresh and lovely designs. She, Ruel and Canfield were often in different cities; they held creative meetings via Skype.

“He’s so imaginative and creative,” says Woodall. “You feel comfortable showing him your ideas and knowing he’s going to be honest.”

[HEAR MORE: Nevada Ballet Theatre’s James Canfield talks about the company’s 40th anniversary on “ KNPR’s State of Nevada”]

A full orchestra, made up of players from the Las Vegas Philharmonic and theater productions all over town, will perform the ballet’s famous score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The cast comprises 109 children and about 40 professional dancers, including three different young women who play Clara. But the biggest upgrade isn’t tangible: This is the first complete redo of the local production in more than a decade, adding fuel to the skyrocket trajectory of the company’s profile, which launched when Canfield came aboard. The entire company is looking forward to watching his vision spring to life like, well, an anthropomorphic nutcracker.

A touch of darkness

“I’ve seen a million ‘Nutcrackers’ in my day, and I’m really excited about this one,” says Cynthia Gregory, the company’s renowned artistic coach. “It’s going to be so imaginative, so ethereal and yet so realistic at the same time.”

The artistic risk goes in tandem with the ballet company graduating to bigger and better venues. The company’s productions of “The Nutcracker” gestated for many years in a 550-seat theater at UNLV before moving three years ago to the Paris Theatre, which has more than 1,500 seats. Its new home in the Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall includes 2,050 seats.

Nevada Ballet Theatre is growing up in more ways than one. “The Nutcracker” is often thought of as a ballet for kids, but it includes some not-so-child-friendly elements. The battle scene can be a little scary. Canfield chose to embrace this.

“A lot of times the battle scene is just really cute,” he says. “We take all the darkness out of the fairy tale. But it’s meant to be a frightening part of the story. We forget that we will never know good if we don’t know bad. Even the scary parts of our dreams come out OK. And then you go into the most beautiful, quiet, peaceful moment.”

That’s one of Canfield’s favorite scenes: Right after the battle, when Clara and the prince travel to a snow-filled forest.

“When I was living in New York City, the only time it got quiet was when it snowed,” he says. “You could hear a pin drop. Snow is peaceful.”

In Canfield’s version, a winter fairy meets Clara and the prince. In fact, he’s got five fairies in his production: one for each season, plus the obligatory Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s a way to underscore the passage of time, another grown-up theme Canfield wants to emphasize.

“The time comes for you to go through thresholds in your life,” he says. “You go through doors, say goodbye to childhood.”

Every generation should relate to that, he says. But “The Nutcracker” still holds special appeal for the youngsters among us. Canfield’s admonition to the dancers: “(You) have to create magic because every little child wants to be you. They have to live this ballet through you and it’s going to determine whether they’re going to be patrons for the rest of their lives. So you better be magical.”

His production includes a sumptuous surprise ending. He won’t reveal it, but he does offer a hint.

“There are two places I always wanted to be,” he says. “Inside a snow globe and Jeannie’s bottle.” 

Nevada Ballet Theatre performs “The Nutcracker” at The Smith Center 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15, 21, 22; 1 p.m. Dec. 16, 23; 2 p.m. Dec. 22; and 5 p.m. Dec. 23 Tickets $45-$158. Info: