For many in Idaho, thoughts of ballet mean little more than planning for the annual family outing to see The Nutcracker during the holidays. Peter Anastos, Ballet Idaho's new artistic director, knows it. He plans to do everything he can to change that way of thinking.
Born in upstate New York, Anastos told BW he didn't start his 30-plus-year career as a choreographer intentionally.
"Some of the best people in ballet started late. It's an interesting phenomenon about choreographers," he said. Dancers, by contrast, must focus on each pointe and plie, but choreographers look beyond a dancer's individual steps. They watch ballet "and see the architecture; they see the big shape, the big arc."
Choreographers don't have to spend years as dancers before they become directors of the dance. "A lot of choreographers who start late never had big careers on the stage. That was me," he said. "I didn't have a really important career on the stage. I danced for a few years in the Trockadero ... and then I went into choreographing."
He was never interested really in dancing a ballet, he wanted to make a ballet.
"I gave it up willingly and happily," he said. "And, oh, the shoes are murder."
The Trockadero to which Anastos referred is the New York City-based Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a comedy ballet troupe made up entirely of men, that lampoons some of ballet's most famous dances. In 1974, Anastos co-founded the group and served as its artistic director and principal choreographer for 10 years. It was through his work with the Trocks that Anastos' long-term affiliation with dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov began.
Anastos said that when Baryshnikov first defected to the United States, he wanted to explore everything about New York.
"He wanted to work with all kinds of different people," Anastos said. "And he saw the Trocks and fell on the floor laughing. He asked me to come work with him."
At the time, Baryshnikov was at the American Ballet Theater. He invited Anastos to Hollywood to help him work on a TV show, Baryshnikov in Hollywood (which was nominated for an Emmy). Due to the success of the show and the friendship that was building between the men—which continues to this day—Baryshnikov asked Anastos to work at the ABT. "So I started making ballets with him," Anastos said. "And then everybody wanted to work with me. It's interesting; you're the same person today as you were yesterday, but if today Daniel Day Lewis kisses you on the head or shakes your hand, all of a sudden everyone wants to kiss you on the head and shake your hand. I'm exactly the same person today as I was before Misha asked to work with me ... People say, 'He thinks you're good; you must be good.' My reaction was, 'No, I was good anyway.'"
Word of Anastos' talent spread, and he became a highly sought-after choreographer, working with ballet companies all across the United States—Boston, Fort Worth, Washington, D.C., Miami and New York to name a very few—and in countries across the world, including China, Argentina, Latvia, Belgium, France and Turkey. And though he traveled extensively, he said the one great thing about New York is that a person doesn't really need to leave; everything comes to New York.
"I lived in New York for over 35 years. It's the center of the world," Anastos said.
So what brings a man to Idaho who is associated with one of the world's most famous dancers and who himself has worked with ballet companies around the globe?
"That's a tough question," Anastos said, laughing. "You know, I've run three companies. I ran the Trockadero Ballet, the Garden State Ballet in New Jersey, and I ran the Cincinnati Ballet. But basically, I'm a choreographer, and the bulk of my career has been freelance. Running a ballet company is completely different in the sense that you have a job to go to every day you get up in the morning and teach ... and choreograph for the same group of dancers all the time," Anastos said. "It's a family. And you're the head of the family. [In freelance work], you have no responsibilities. You go in, you do your ballet, opening night happens and you take your flowers and your bow and your bag of money and you leave. [But] I've reached a point in my life where I'd really like to settle down. I'd like to take all the accumulated knowledge of 35 years and put it to work for somebody else. Ballet Idaho became this vision for me. I [can] really make a big difference and put this company on the map."
Anastos said Ballet Idaho offer him not only an opportunity to run a company again, but to run one with "no baggage."
Last year, Ballet Idaho and the Eugene Ballet ended a 13-season relationship. Ballet Idaho was left with little. However, not only is that not a concern for Anastos, he sees it as a blessing.
"Ballet Idaho has no sets, no costumes, no production value. I thought, 'This is fantastic.' I'm going to create a ballet company basically from scratch. I want to do something different and new," Anastos said. "[This] company has no baggage. That, I have to tell you, is a lot more fun for me as a creative artist than if I'd inherited a company that had wall-to-wall scenery and costumes. I'm going to create a whole new repertoire."
First, Anastos will finish up some professional commitments and complete the sale of his home in rural Pennsylvania. He plans to be settled in Boise soon, when he will bring his experience, his wit and his sense of humor to the Boise community through new ballets and successful ballets he's staged elsewhere.
"We'll build an audience," Anastos said. "We don't have to fulfill any preconceived expectations. That's unique right now in the United States. So, why Boise? It's a completely unique situation. There's no other city in the United States right now in which somebody can start a ballet company from scratch."
For Ballet Idaho performance schedules, visit BalletIdaho.org.