Phyllis Affrunti's firm frame trembles as she balances en pointe on one foot for an improbable amount of time. Affrunti (who has been with Ballet Idaho for eight years) is playing the part of Aurora, and this balancing act is part of the rose adagio from the fantastical ballet The Sleeping Beauty, set to the goosebump-inducing music of Tchaikovsky.
As the classic fairy tale unfolds on stage, Ballet Idaho dancers will push their bodies in one of the most difficult ballets any company can attempt. It's one that many don't try until they are at least as old as a well-aged bottle of Scotch, and Ballet Idaho, under Artistic Director Peter Anastos' tutelage, is only three years old. Since taking the helm of Ballet Idaho, Anastos has not shied away from testing the dancers' skill sets and he is convinced they can pull off the incredibly difficult The Sleeping Beauty with grace. On Saturday, April 9, after only four weeks of rehearsal, both skills and faith will be tested.
What Anastos and Ballet Idaho will do with this performance is bring the story of Sleeping Beauty to life. The music of Tchaikovsky and movement alone are capable of evoking the story of the princess who is cursed to sleep 100 years, and whose only salvation is a kiss from her true love. There will be nearly 100 dancers playing the parts of kings, queens, princes, courtiers and fairies--as many as 36 dancers will be on stage at one time. To help transport the audience to courtyards and kingdoms, Ballet Idaho enlisted two more players: the staging and costuming, whose roles are as vital as those of Aurora, Prince Desire--played by principal dancer Jared Hunt--or Fairy Carabosse played by principal dancer Heather Hawk. A year ago, Ballet Idaho budgeted for this performance and to get the glorious pomp and circumstance necessary to pull it off, Anastos called on Utah's Ballet West. The company rented Ballet Idaho its elaborate Peter Cazalet-designed costumes and scenery, which are so lavish, it took dozens of huge wooden crates to ship them. Ballet West even sent its own wardrobe person to Boise to help Ballet Idaho learn how to deal with the very complicated clothing.
"Getting in and out of these costumes is a real feat," Anastos said. "On top of that, we're bringing in four wig masters because even at Ballet West--this is kind of funny--the dancers are not allowed to touch the wigs. The dancers would just pull them off and toss them on a dressing table. Some of these wigs are like $1,200 apiece. We will have a wig station. I kind of love it; it's like being in the court of Louis XIV. It's complicated and there's all this order of hierarchy and all these manners, " Anastos added, laughing.
The high, powdered wigs, gem-encrusted bodices and waistcoats, velvet jackets, tights, thigh-high boots, heeled buckle shoes and yards and yards of tulle will certainly help place the audience inside a castle, but to truly set them at the king's table, Anastos thinks it is important to stay true to the original design of the ballet. He modeled his choreography after that of famed Russian choreographer Marius Petipa.
"The dancing in this performance is more difficult, more sophisticated, more absolute," Anastos said. "We're following a strict model. [For] Sleeping Beauty, you have to fulfill expectations. You could go off and do your own weird bizarre version if you want, but what people come to see is classical dancing."
That suits Anastos just fine. He explained that a few days before, the dancers were running through a particularly difficult section, and it occurred to him how fortunate his company is.
"We're really lucky," Anastos said. "We get to do Ballet Innovations, which is really contemporary and the dancers get to choreograph. During the regular ballets of the season, we do some funny stuff. Now we are doing the absolute top-drawer classical ballet."
But none of them will test the dancers like Sleeping Beauty. At its core, The Sleeping Beauty is a ballet of balance as Affrunti's alabaster calves would attest to.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever done. Ever. Ever," Affrunti said.
Beyond just the strenuous physical aspects, performing as Aurora forces a dancer to reach back her training and employ skills that aren't often called upon when performing a more modern dance.
"You feel pretty naked, you know?" Affrunti said. "It's all about your technique. I really have to focus on a lot of technical things that I don't normally have to focus on when you're doing something more contemporary or more humorous."
For 31-year-old Hunt, this return to his classically trained roots is "a breath of fresh air."
"You don't do ... as many giant jumps and really difficult partnering maneuvers ... in the ballet world as much now," Hunt said. "But we're all trained in the very classical. Is it hard to go back? Yes, but it's like getting back on a bike after you haven't ridden in a long time. It's more challenging technically, but it's really nice. I'm getting back to the way I was trained."
The two performances of The Sleeping Beauty will be demanding on both Ballet Idaho dancers and Anastos. But for audiences, it will be like a walk through a rich, lush English garden. All they have to do is sit back and let the dance, the music, the costumes and the scenery transport them into a fairytale.