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Ballet Idaho's Carmen and Don Quixote Debut at Morrison Center

Spanish ballets are brimming with intense choreography


Russian playbills and ballet art adorns the walls of Peter Anastos' office. Some depict lacy ladies and powdered gents, invoking Russian ballet's pre-Revolutionary gentility, while others celebrate, in gallant Cyrillic exclamations, the blonde dancers of the Soviet period.

Anastos, the artistic director at Ballet Idaho, was seated in his office, taking a break from rehearsals for an upcoming performance of Carmen and Don Quixote. Despite Quixote's titular role, the production doesn't feature a single scene with the lit legend.

"People are bored with Don Q, and they can't wait for him to get off the stage," Anastos said.

Some might think cutting the main character and all but a few chapters about a wedding farce from a bedrock of Spanish literature is sacrilege. But for artistic directors, the process of paring down long source material for the stage is dictated by time constraints and what they believe audiences want.

Don Quixote is the story of a Spanish gentleman so taken with chivalric romances that he embarks on a few of his own. Ballet Idaho's version recounts one of those romances, Kitri's Wedding, which depicts two lovers, Kitri and Basilio, who defy class distinctions and the advances of a rich suitor so they can marry.

The jewel of Kitri's Wedding is the Kitri Variation, a technical, prop fan-driven bit of virtuosity that would test any ballerina approaching the young bride's part. It's a scene chock full of the kinds of athletic exceptionalism and intensity Anastos believes Boise craves.

"It's unfair. You're seeing someone do something you can't," he said.

The dances become so intense that viewers feel a sense of danger, and that's part of the appeal. Like NASCAR, some of the thrill of watching ballet is the chance that someone might take a spill, disrupting irrevocably the smooth surface of the production. As with car accidents, bad falls on stage can be career-ending.

"At any moment, you can crash and burn. It's a subliminal excitement," Anastos said.

To play up this titillation of failure, ballet has become "more virtuosic" and "a lot leaner" because audiences--and, therefore, choreographers--are more sensitive to daring leaps and feats of grace than a dodgy old-timer weighed down by a suit of armor, while pretending to ride a flea-bitten horse.

"Modern taste isn't as interested in walking parts," Anastos said in reference to Quixote. "What [audiences] want to see is people soaring through the air."

Like the Soviet playbills on Anastos' walls, the fearless physicality of ballet is overtaking the genteel trappings of dance's golden age. Choreography isn't about honoring source material so much as it's about expressing dancers' abilities and leaving the audience sweating with anticipation.

By the time Anastos arrived in the practice studio later that afternoon, the faces of several dancers were slick with sweat from practicing a fittingly macho and daring scene from Kitri's Wedding: a dance with bullfighters. It's a scene that has a mirror in the accompanying performance of Carmen, choreographed by Alex Ossadnik, though Anastos says the two scenes have diverging roles in the stories they inhabit.

"Carmen's Spanish cultural references are all symbolic and deep. Don Quixote's cultural references are all entertaining," Anastos wrote in an email.

Pinioned between the row of dancers and the tall practice mirrors reflecting the traffic on Myrtle Street, Anastos heeded the details: a dancer's arm was not raised in sufficient triumph. Mercedes, played by Angela Napier, was not bent back far enough for a kiss.

"Let's fix this," was Anastos' catchphrase.

During the bullfight, twirling between the four male toreadors, Napier flirted and batted her eyes, while huffing with exertion.

"We never have it," she said afterward about her lost breath. "It's always striving to be better."

Napier's parts are spread over the entire production, and her concentration is split between knowing her moves and executing them to exacting standards. In order to play Mercedes perfectly, bending backward for that bullfighter's kiss must be done in time and with histrionic extension. It's when these two foci come together that Napier will know she's ready for the audience.

"I have it when there's an intuitive kind of body memory," she said.

The expectation in ballet is that grace and precision are higher priorities than speed or power--that's the supposed difference between dance and, say, football. But Ballet Idaho's Don Quixote undermines that difference.

In a move that's particularly harrowing to watch, Basilio (Andrew Taft) has won the hand of Kitri (Adrienne Kerr), and during their pas de deux, Basilio lifts Kitri above his head with one arm and holds her aloft for what seems like an eternity while Taft's shoulders pulse under the physical strain.

Sitting together after rehearsal, Kerr and Taft discussed where the athleticism of the practice room ends and the elegance of the stage begins. It's a balance, they say, that's difficult to negotiate.

"You're pushing your own boundaries," Kerr said.

Taft chimed in, "[Peter] often tells me to cool my jets."

But they agreed that performing on stage rather than on the forgiving floor of the practice room has a feel of its own.

"The audience is energy. The goal is to let the audience see," said Taft.

Ballet Idaho's Don Quixote is something visceral and athletic. While some will see that as a corruption of art and literature, others will notice the shifting dynamic between the dancers and the audience.

"People should know that this ballet is exciting," said Kerr.

Taft nodded.

"It's a shame we only get to do it twice," he said.