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On Pointe

Ballet Idaho's new beginning

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Last year, Ballet Idaho's board of directors made a decision to raze the company to its foundation and build anew.

Just prior to commencing its 35th anniversary season in 2007, the organization's leadership declared its intention to separate Boise's ballet company from Eugene Ballet Company, abruptly ending a partnership that spanned more than two decades under the artistic directorship of Toni Pimble. Cleaving the two companies, however, meant that Ballet Idaho would face an uncertain future. They would be without an artistic leader, sets, costumes, next season's repertoire, a production staff and even dancers.

Last April, when Ballet Idaho staged its final production in conjunction with Eugene, the heavy lifting to build the "New Ballet Idaho" was already under way. In August, Julie Numbers Smith was hired as the company's new executive director; Peter Anastos came on this January as the new artistic director; this spring, 18 dancers signed contracts; and the search is ongoing for a new director of development.

Principal dancer Phyllis Affrunti plans tot stay on with the new Ballet Idaho. - FRANCIS DELAPENA
  • Francis Delapena
  • Principal dancer Phyllis Affrunti plans tot stay on with the new Ballet Idaho.

From its upper management down to its pointe shoes, Ballet Idaho will be completely reinvented.

"It's a new era for Ballet Idaho," says A.J. Balukoff, president of the company's board of directors. He says the motive behind dismantling the alliance was simple.

"Before, we were basically hiring Eugene Ballet to come here, and they did a wonderful job for us. But Eugene Ballet was not really a resident ballet company here, and the dream for a lot of people—the current board members and the past board members—has been to have our own resident ballet company with the artistic director and the dancers residing within our community."

As part of the former alliance, dancers were employed by Eugene Ballet Company, although most of them lived in Boise. Rehearsals were held in Boise, while the production staff was based in Eugene. Pimble, Eugene's artistic director since 1978, lived in Oregon during the off-season. Travel between the two cities was cumbersome.

In the arts world, sharing an artistic director between two companies isn't uncommon. For artists, it can mean year-round work, and for organizations' budgets, it means stretching their dollars just a little bit further through shared resources. Administratively, however, it's a difficult web to navigate.

Apprentice Julia Limoges helps out Ryan Nye of the corps, with Alfrunti in the background. - FRANCIS DELAPENA
  • Francis Delapena
  • Apprentice Julia Limoges helps out Ryan Nye of the corps, with Alfrunti in the background.

"It's fraught with difficulties and communication issues and organizational issues," says Numbers Smith. "You can imagine the matrix of challenges: who gets what, how to split this, who has the authority to do that."

Numbers Smith says the two organizations reached a point of maturity, each wanting to grow and develop its own artists. Balukoff says the community, as well as the board, decided it was time for the company's artistic director to have more than just one foot in Boise.

Less than six months into the job, Peter Anastos has shown that commitment. With more than 30 years in the ballet world behind him, Anastos has choreographed ballets throughout the world, run three companies and comes with an endorsement from Mikhail Baryshnikov. When he accepted the job, he moved from Pennsylvania, bought a house in Boise and is creating the beginnings of a life firmly entrenched around the company. He embodies all the enthusiasm that Balukoff and the board were hoping for in an artistic director.

"I want to be out there in the community getting to know the people I'm proposing to entertain and enlighten," says Anastos. "I really enjoy my work in the studio, creating ballets, working with dancers, seeing ideas come to life, but I also need to represent Ballet Idaho out in the community. We are a cultural institution and culture is something we share, not something that exists in a vacuum."

Despite his fervor to better connect Boise with its ballet company, Anastos isn't Pollyannaish about the task he and Ballet Idaho's new team face, especially where money is concerned.

Limoges and Affrunti prepare to dance. - FRANCIS DELAPENA

"When the board decided to go it alone—to move beyond the two-city approach, an idea that had long been given up in most other places—I think they understood that we are now totally responsible for our own fate," says Anastos.

In today's arts world, he says, fundraising is one of the chief duties of any artistic director. It's also high on the list of priorities for Numbers Smith.

"The good news is we have a funding source. We have a donor base that afforded the alliance, that has afforded what we do all these years," says Numbers Smith. But fiscal support needs to be ramped up if Ballet Idaho is to remain financially viable.

"We have to find new funding sources, and we need them to come to the table understanding that we're building something new," she says.

"New" has become the three-letter catchphrase to describe how Ballet Idaho is metamorphosing and creating a focal point from which to examine the organization's philosophical core. Numbers Smith says the company has recently done some soul searching, first justifying its existence and eventually redefining its mission.

"We're riding on a 400-year-old constant—the tradition of classical ballet—and then there's the 35 years we've been established here in Boise, Idaho. That's a continuum we're picking up on, but how it's delivered, who delivers it, what it communicates, the depth of it, that's all new," says Numbers Smith.

In order to convey the idealistic shift in an already well-established company, Numbers Smith will implement practical changes. The logo will change, and for a time, the company will be known as the New Ballet Idaho.

One of the most immediately noticeable differences for audiences will be a change in venue and an increase in the number of performances. In past years, Ballet Idaho staged only a single show at the Morrison Center for each production. Next season, a "Collage of Classics" caps each end of the season (the annual holiday "The Nutcracker" show and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" fall between), with three sundry selections per show for four shows. And rather than renting out Boise State's more formal and expensive 2,000-seat venue for a total of eight classical showings, Ballet Idaho has opted for the more intimate 435-seat Special Events Center.

"We want to be able to give the dancers more than one show because that doesn't exist right now," says Numbers Smith. "We want to be able to create deeper intimacy between the artists and the audience. And we want the community to be able to have more than one chance to see these great pieces of work."

It's also a way for dance fans to interact with their local company.

"I think it's important to establish a familiarity with our audiences, make them part of our family," says Anastos. "People can see the dancers more often, if they wish. Get to know who they are, how they move, choose their favorites, spot young new talent. It's the way ballet should be seen and is seen in cities that enjoy great ballet companies." In that way, Anastos says, the New Ballet Idaho will stand out from its previous incarnation.

More shows mean more stage time for performers, a prospect that bodes well with dancer Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti.

"More performances of the same thing is always good. There's nothing like the pressure of only having one show," says Affrunti.

After five years with Ballet Idaho, Affrunti is one of only three dancers who will stay on with Anastos while nearly all of her peers will move to Eugene. As a principal dancer, Affrunti often stars in lead roles. She's danced Hermia in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Clara in "The Nutcracker" and Wendy in "Peter Pan."

Continuing on with Ballet Idaho was not her initial decision. At the outset, Affrunti planned to follow Pimble to Eugene despite the fact that her husband—Frank Affrunti, who recently retired after 14 years with Ballet Idaho—would have remained in Boise for his small business. In the end, Affrunti re-examined her loyalty to Pimble and auditioned for a place under Anastos.

Affrunti's initial instinct to remain with Pimble illustrates the more emotional side to the alliance's split. While board members and administrators hover above the situation with long-range goals in mind, the company members, whose lives are daily intertwined, are in some turmoil.

"It's been difficult for the dancers this year," says Numbers Smith. "They're caught between their loyalty to the artistic director they've had all these years, but they actually live here in Boise."

In the end, she said, the dancers have to make the choice best for them.

"It's really sad to see them go," says Affrunti. "We're such a cohesive group of dancers."

After she made the decision to stick with Ballet Idaho, Affrunti says she met with a few cold shoulders at Eugene Ballet events, a reaction she wasn't expecting and one that may only fuel her excitement for the changes at Ballet Idaho.

"Peter is very straightforward. And I like that," she says, "He said, 'I know what we're starting with and I'm willing to work hard to give it a go.'"

But like every professional arts company, Ballet Idaho provides the community more than just a few shows every season.

"A ballet company provides so much more than just entertainment," says Balukoff, the board's president. "The dance academy [provides] an education that teaches kids—whether they go on to be professional dancers or not—teamwork, self control, discipline."

Getting kids while they're young is a mantra for arts education directors all over the country. Aside from the skills a child learns through the study of the arts, early life interaction cultivates lifelong ties to the arts. Maybe a young ballet or piano student won't go on to pursue a career in the arts, but those children are more likely to grow up to become patrons and supporters of the arts.

In addition to its dance academy for children and adults, Ballet Idaho also offers four apprenticeships. However, Numbers Smith says that the company plans to take advantage of some of the talent Anastos will bring in by creating educational programs and apprenticeships as needed.

With such dramatic renovation, a detectable undercurrent in the discussion of the company's future is a combination of optimism and uncertainty. The lack of certainty is compounded by the flux Boise's dance community is undergoing.

With the announcement earlier this year that the internationally known Trey McIntyre Project would relocate its base to Boise, the balance of the dance world tipped heavily against the aggregate of the city's other fine arts companies. Boise suddenly has an opportunity to make ripples in the dance world that extend beyond Idaho.

"The rising tide raises all ships," Numbers Smith said. "Dance never had it so good in one place. Boise is ready and attractive enough to bring these world class choreographers to the city to live here and to attract world class dancers here." Numbers Smith said there's no reason Boise can't create enough gravity through its newly forming dance community to become the capital of dance.

Affrunti says that as a dancer, the idea of more competition is marginally worrisome, but her hopes for dance in Boise don't fall far from Numbers Smith's. "I'm shocked that Boise has this much dance. It could be an arts mecca," said Affrunti. "That's what I hope it turns into. And why shouldn't it? The city seems to be hungry to be the best of the best of the best. Why not make it that?"

Anastos, too, moves beyond dance in his summation of his position, reinforcing the philosophy that artists of all genres and medias are but pieces of a larger collective. "The fact that Trey McIntyre's company is relocating their headquarters here tells me a lot about Boise," Anastos says. We think this is a place where dance not only thrives and grows, but becomes an important part of the fabric of the community."

From Anastos, there's no sense of competition among the companies, and no worry that Boise isn't big enough for two world-class choreographers. In fact, when Anastos refers to himself as the "spiritual father" of Ballet Idaho, his sense of duty speaks to what directors of all arts organizations should be doing.

"We artistic directors should point the direction to the future, offer guidance, be a repository of our cultural heritage, create cohesion among the various factions of the organization, act—in a way—as the head of a family of artist and supporters," he says.

It's a family that will include not only the new members of Ballet Idaho, but also the dance organizations new to Boise and ultimately, to the dance world's extended family in the other areas of the fine arts.