It's not often that a Ballet Idaho rehearsal begins with Artistic Director Peter Anastos crying: "Slash harder. You're not going to break the swords," and "He doesn't need both his eyes anyway."
But Anastos recently delivered these instructions with the same frequency as more common ballet directions like "attitude front." The dancers laughed, and it was immediately clear that this wasn't the rigid ballet atmosphere that blockbuster dance movies so often depict.
"We like being a company," Anastos said. "I think our dancers genuinely like each other and that helps. But I think that's partly Boise, too. I think Boise does that to people."
The environment in the studio was strikingly casual, and the content of the ballet being rehearsed was equally surprising. It was evident from the get-go that "Aarrrg! Pirates!" isn't your typical fluffy-tutu, marvel-at-the-unbelievable--beauty, lullaby-on-stage kind of performance. Dancers performed the leaps, pirouettes and changements expected from a professional ballet troupe, but their ethereal facial expressions were replaced with grins and snarls. The clinking of metal swords coincided with Anastos' counts, and dancers brandished their weapons in Zorro-worthy fashion.
Ballet Idaho will premiere "Aarrrg! Pirates!" on Friday, Oct. 28, at the Boise State Special Events Center. "Pirates" is the final piece in Ballet Idaho's Mix It Up, a performance consisting of three one-act ballets, which includes Anastos' triple pas de deux, "Clair de Lune" and Principal Dancer Ryan Nye's modern ballet "City Symphony."
According to Anastos, "Pirates" will involve a ship, a female-pirate island and several other surprises meant to make audiences laugh.
"What's nice about Peter is his creativity and sense of humor. That's not typically associated with ballet," said Ballet Idaho Board Chairman Chris Privon, as he watched the artistic director morph into a ship captain and instruct his pirates on the right way to slash.
Watching the rehearsal, it was impossible not to crack a smile, which is Anastos' goal.
"I find it's easier to get people to like ballet if you can get them to laugh," he said. "If people can laugh, and come in and be really entertained in the theater, they will come back. I love ballet, and I want people to love ballet. The chief thing we need to do is entertain. We want to be entertaining. We want to have fun."
Balletmaster Alex Ossadnik doesn't want attendees to arrive at "Pirates" with any preconceptions.
"I'd like them to get in there like they're going to a fun movie and just have a good time," Ossadnik said. "There's nothing to understand. There's this perception about ballet that you have to know what you're seeing. If you have to know what you're seeing, it's lousy ballet.
"Ballet is entertainment," he added. "If it is good, it will touch you some way."
The music for the "Arrrg! Pirates!" is a mash-up of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi's "Jerusalem," "Il Trovatore" and "Les Vepres Siciliennes." Although Verdi composed ballet music out of obligation (operas of the time had to have a ballet sequence), his music is nonetheless inspiring, especially for Anastos.
For "Aarrrg! Pirates!" Anastos employed his humor and creativity to invent an entire background for the production, which involves a performance by a pirate ballet troupe in the middle of a fantasized Verdi opera called La Regina Trovatiara (The Queen Found Her Hat).
"This music is all kind of crazy and nutty, and there's a fast finish to everything. It's one finale after another one. There's a sort of zaniness to being a pirate--they lead these adventurous, dangerous lives," Anastos said. "The whole idea of pirates is a great fantasy, and I thought it would make a super ballet. This music is sort of riotous and funny, so I thought I could make a farcical ballet about pirates."
Anastos credits the music for bringing the ballet together, although he had a few ideas about what he wanted for a pirate-themed ballet.
"I always let the music tell me what to do," said Anastos, who was a pianist before he became a choreographer. "It always does. If you have good music and a fairly good idea, you'll make a good ballet, because the music always tells you what comes next."
Johnny Depp may have had a little to do with it, too. Anastos said he enjoyed the famed Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but they didn't provide much in the way of inspiration for movement. They did, however, provide some ideas about characters.
"I like how [Depp's] character was sort of goofy, maybe sort of drunk," Anastos said.
Although intentionally farcical and humorous, "Aarrrg! Pirates!" isn't an amateur production. The steps are technical, and may even be considered virtuoso pieces.
"I wanted it to be a technical challenge for the dancers," Anastos said. "There's lots of solos. There's a big pas de deux, and there's solos in the pas de deux, too. That's not in every ballet. I wanted to show how good our company really is."
The evening promises to be a mixed bag of modern, classic and just-plain-entertaining.
"Everything is completely different--it's like a really great buffet," Anastos said of Mix It Up. "Also, it helps to develop taste. It forces an audience to say, 'I like that. I don't like that,' and that's a good thing because then you become discriminating in a really good way. You can't like everything in life, and you can't hate everything--although some people try."