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Ballet Idaho Explores Risk, Slapstick and the Personification of Violins

"I'm being given an opportunity by Ballet Idaho and I'm not at all playing it safe."

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Daniel Ojeda's new ballet, The Monster and the Gift, begins in 1988. That's when performance artists Marina Abramovic and her lover, Ulay, walked toward each other from the ends of the Great Wall of China, embraced and parted--ending their romance and working partnership.

In 2010, they reunited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Abramovic had sat motionless, staring into the eyes of thousands of people who lined up to sit across a table from her as part of her performance, The Artist is Present. Abramovic's performance lasted more than 700 hours before Ulay took a seat. They reached across the table in tears and clasped each other's hands, ending the performance.

"You see everything they've been through," Ojeda said. "That's the last scene of the ballet."

The Monster and the Gift isn't, strictly speaking, about Abramovic and Ulay, but it does recreate familiar moments of artistic separation and heartfelt reconnection, all through the aperture of a moment of recognition. It's set to premiere at Ballet Idaho's Winter Repertory, slated for the Morrison Center stage Friday and Saturday, Feb. 10 and 11, along with George Balanchine's Concerto Barocco and Night Crawlers by Peter Anastos.

This marks Ojeda's third ballet to be performed at one of Ballet Idaho's premier events, and certainly his most ambitious, with original music by pianist Jeremy Stewart and Daniel Kerr of Boise band Thick Business, and original art by Huma Aatifi. Ojeda said the content and presentation of the ballet constitute "a huge risk."

"This is not the right ballet to do," he said. "I'm being given an opportunity by Ballet Idaho and I'm not at all playing it safe."

The reception of his previous ballets, however, suggests audiences should be skeptical of Ojeda's skepticism. The Monster and the Gift is not the first time the choreographer has tapped a local songwriter to set his pieces to music, nor is it his first rodeo at the Morrison Center.

Ojeda is using a formula for breathing life into ballet with serious themes and contemporary music that has worked in the past, but creating a ballet that satisfies this choreographer may be trickier than audiences giving it a standing ovation.

"There's failure when your piece bombs. Then, there's failure when it's venerated because it's misunderstood," he said.

Discussing what constitutes success for The Monster and the Gift, Ojeda tipped just what kind of ballet audiences will see later this month.

"Success is like when Stravinsky's Rites of Spring premiered," he said. In other words, if you love Ojeda's work, don't throw roses—riot.

For his latest piece, Ballet Idaho Artistic Director Peter Anastos is pushing his dancers to do something unusual. "Dancers are almost never asked to be funny," he said.

The ballet, Night Crawlers, demands just that of its cast, harkening to the body comedy of the the Marx brothers, Charlie Chaplin and others. That kind of comedy, Anastos said, "has gone out of style, and I'm not sure why."

His is a ballet full of pranks, tripping, stumbling, bumbling and random acts of incompetence. Night Crawlers will break from the self-serious stereotype of the medium and appear to depart from its virtues of grace and athleticism.

This is not his first foray into lighthearted ballet. His oeuvre at Ballet Idaho is full of classics (Cinderella), song-and-dance routines (Sinatra and More) and oddities like Aarrrgh! Pirates! His artistic directorship has been a balancing act between canonical dances and audience favorites on one hand, and gutsier, jazzier fare on the other.

The effect is performances that are emotionally rich. It's part of Anastos' philosophy that the medium has the power to bring people together.

"If I can make somebody laugh, I've made a friend out of that person," he said.

George Balanchine is one of ballet's unqualified geniuses, but getting permission to stage his dances is extremely difficult. To do it, a company must be vetted by the George Balanchine Trust in New York and have the production overseen by someone like Nilas Martins, who ensures the production is up to snuff. Ballet Idaho has staged a Balanchine for three years in a row.

Martins is a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, which was founded by Balanchine himself in 1948. Martins knows Balanchine and his ballets inside and out and, while he oversaw Ballet Idaho's production of Concerto Barocco, he offered words of wisdom for Boise audiences seeing the ballet for the first time. "As an audience member, you're in awe watching it," he said. "It's one of [Balanchine's] most perfect ballets in the way it's structured."

Much classical ballet stresses uniformity. Early choreographies emphasized dancers share proportions and even facial features. Balanchine's ballets break from that tradition, and Concerto Barocco strikes a balance between disciplined movement and the individuality of the dancers.

"Balanchine looked at a quarter ballet as a field of flowers, no two of them are exactly the same. He liked to showcase individuality without it being distracting," Martins said.

Balanchine had a legendary passion for women and, over his long career, many served as his muses. Concerto Barocco features nine female dancers—eight in the chorus and a lead dancer, who performs opposite the male lead. Rule of thumb: The male dancer never steals the show.

"He's surrounded by all these girls, and it's really about emphasizing, not hiding, because you are the man of the piece and the male figure, but you don't want to overstep," Martins said. "Balanchine said, 'Ballet is a woman.' The man should never upstage the woman."

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