Irving — Known for their clean, uniformed technique and dynamic character portrayals, Ballet Ensemble of Texas (BET) will be testing their comedic chops in guest choreographer Peter Anastos’ Night Crawlers at the company’s spring performance, A Celebration of Dance this weekend at the Irving Arts Center. The program will also feature Lisa Slagle’s Festive Overture, August Bournonville’s Napoli Act III and a world premiere by Tammie Reinsch.
A native New Yorker, Anastos originally planned on a career as a pianist before he was introduced to the world of ballet. Throughout his illustrious career Anastos has choreographed stage works in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the U.S. He and his longtime friend Mikhail Baryshnikov (yes that Baryshnikov) have also collaborated on many projects over the years, including television spots, ballets and a book.
Anastos has also served as artistic director for many well-known ballet companies, including Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Cincinnati Ballet and Garden State Ballet in New Jersey as well as Ballet Idaho where he worked for 10 years before retiring about six months ago.
Regarding retirement Anastos says, “It’s an adjustment, but it’s nice to let go of the day-to-day operations of running a dance company. I have also been doing more freelance work and it’s nice to be able to pick and choose what projects I want to do.”
One of these freelance gigs included coming back to Dallas to catch up with former professional dancers Lisa Slagle and Thom Clower at BET in Coppell. “They are the reason I said yes,” Anastos says. “Thom has such a gift for teaching and choreographing and has made a tremendous reputation for himself in our profession. And Lisa has a really great school that produces real dancers and being able to work with the two of them again was just so wonderful that I had to say yes right away.”
Now BET’s Director, Clower says Anastos was one of the first choreographers he had the opportunity to work with many years ago. “As a young dancer we had been taught that dance conveyed all the emotions, but ballet had always been so serious, and I remember the experience of discovering that humor was also an emotion,” Clower says. “Peter’s works always take a different look at the human experience, one that perhaps we should all default to more often.”
Anastos describes Night Crawlers as a crazy, screwball comedy that makes references to some of the actors he used to watch on TV growing up, including Lucille Ball and Milton Berle. “That was all physical humor and nobody does physical comedy anymore,” Anastos says. “Now it’s all intellectual, sexual and political comedy. It’s all stand up, but when I was growing up there were people who actually did physical humor. And Lucille Ball’s show was a big influence because it was about all these awful terrible things happening to someone all the time and yet, everything still comes out all right.”
Going into this process Anastos admits he was nervous about how this type of humor would come across on a group of students. “People think comedy is easy, but comedy is the hardest thing of all to do because if it’s not really genuine then it falls flat. So, I was nervous when I heard some of the dancers were 14, 15 and 16 years old because they don’t have that kind of life experience that older dancers do, but once we started working I could see how smart and talented they were and so that was a great surprise for me. And by the time I left they were running on all cylinders. They looked really funny and really good and they didn’t crack each other up, which is very important.”
Clower also points out, “The biggest challenge with comedy is subtlety. Although I find Peter to be hilarious in general, his wit is dry and sometimes understated. Peter is adamant that the choreography be funny, instead of dancers trying to be funny.”
Anastos says the key to unlocking the comedy in this routine was to talk the dancers through it and analyze why something was funny, or if you do something to someone what would their counter reaction be? He then used analogues and suggestions to paint a picture as to what the dancers should be thinking as they are doing the steps.
As to how Anastos felt about the overall process he says, “These kids are smart and latched on to it right away, and once we talked about things they understood everything perfectly. There was a process and they worked at it. While it didn’t come naturally, over the course of the rehearsal period they just got better and better.”
Anastos adds, “I left feeling that this is really going to work and I’m really happy with it.”
With such an expansive balletic career I couldn’t end my conversation without asking Anastos where he thinks classical ballet stands in today’s dance culture. “I think people still like story ballets and they still sell the most tickets. The Sleeping Beautys, Nutcrackers and Swan Lakes are never going to go away because people still want to see things like that.”
He continues, “If you’re running a ballet company today or dancing in ballet today it’s just a lot more challenging to keep the faith. You have to keep your faith in these traditions because they are really important. And if you keep your faith in them; [classical ballet] will never die and it will never go away. But I think a lot of people just don’t have faith in a lot of those old ballets anymore. They try to update them or modernize them and it just doesn’t work. Audiences come and go, but I do think it’s still the story ballets that sell the most tickets and it’s what the people most want to see.”
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com