A spiritual brain from Ballets Trockadero comes home
It was 1976, and Jerome Robbins’ ballet “Dances at a Gathering” was still a success, seven years after its premiere.
âEveryone wanted to see it,â choreographer Peter Anastos recalled in a recent interview. âI thought, my boy, that this thing is completely ripe for a parody. “
As the founder of the all-male comedy company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, which humorously twists the classics and features dancers in transvestites, Anastos was always on the hunt for fodder. Yet on the opening night of “Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet,” his answer to Robbins’ “Dances,” he found himself in the grip of insecurity. âI was absolutely convinced it was the worst ballet I have ever done,â he said. “A total dog.”
But like the ballet on which he was inspired, “Yes, Virginia” was a success – and an enduring success. âAll that time went by,â Anastos said, âand I thought to myself that I really wasn’t done with Jerry Robbins.â
He revisited Robbins – his 1970 ballet “In the Night” – for “Nightcrawlers,” which premiered in New York on Tuesday as part of the Trockadero season at the Joyce Theater. Witty and tuned to Chopin, the dance highlights three couples struggling with relationship issues.
Even though, as he said, terrible things happen to the dancers of “Yes, Virginia”, Anastos sees it as a sunny work. As for his new dance, “I decided to do an evening ballet in which everything still goes just as badly”, he declared. âI said to myself: if they have to suffer during the day, why shouldn’t they also suffer at night? “
Robbins was demanding in the way he cast his ballets, tailoring them for specific dancers; that’s also how it works in Trockadero. âYou have to build tremendous freedom and the ability for them to get out of the script sometimes,â Anastos said. âI used to hate it until I realized that’s what makes it work for the dancer. You let the dancer deal with it. I think that’s the magic of the Trockadero.
Anastos formed the company with Natch Taylor and Anthony Bassae in 1974 but left in 1978, in part, he said, “to see if I was a choreographer.”
But Trockadero leaders were not happy with his departure. The years pass and he remains busy with other projects until Tory Dobrin, the current artistic director of the company, asks Anastos to choreograph a ballet in 2001: âLa Trovatiara Pas de Cinqâ, on Verdi and featuring pirate girls.
Dobrin hopes to bring in more Anastos ballets. âJust having it in the room gives weight to the job,â Dobrin said. “It’s like if you eat a good meal and the chef comes to the table, you feel better even though it is still delicious.”
Anastos lives in Boise, Idaho, where he stayed after retiring as Artistic Director of Ballet Idaho in 2018. He was there when he spoke in a video call about comedy and ballet, Trockadero’s debut. and his education with broken Russian teachers. His ballets are a riot. It’s heartwarming to know that he is too. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What is the temperament of your couples in “Nightcrawlers”?
Some of them are sappy and romantic; some of them are loaded with anxiety. In a lot of Robbins, there is always an unseen and unknown anxiety that is pervasive on stage. There is a very hysterical ballerina who seems unable to live in this world. I always like having a daughter who doesn’t have much to do for her. I always like to have a wallflower in the ballet.
And their partners?
Men are fundamentally indifferent, insensitive, typical men. It’s kind of a parody of a partnership, but everyone has a lot to do. At this point, in 2021, I don’t know how many people are really familiar with âIn the Nightâ or âDances at a Gathering,â but there’s just a wacky inner logic in ballet that makes sense as a comedy. If the audience is laughing, then I guess the ballet is working.
What was the audience like at the start?
Eventually we started touring, but we always created everything in New York because they were the smartest audience. We had a midnight curtain. They were riding in their limousines to Greenwich Village after seeing Fonteyn and Nureyev at the Met Opera House.
Would Fonteyn and Nureyev come to town too?
I never saw Margot or Rudolf after our shows, but they also don’t seem like people who have gone backstage to me, unless they are an equal. I know Natalia Makarova saw us once and really didn’t like us. Although she worked with us; she coached us on “Les Sylphides”. She was a very, very good coach, and she had the comedy.
So why didn’t she like the company?
We were doing “Giselle”, and she thought we were making fun of her. It was me dancing Giselle. I never, ever laughed at her. It was always a vision of a crazy 19th century ballerina. Who is it I was, anyway.
How would you describe the type of ballerina in “Nightcrawlers”?
It’s a more modern ballerina, so they must have a modern sensibility. It’s not on the surface, but there is that kind of painful experience of being a woman right now. You know just encounter and having someone to dance with – it’s all part of what they do on stage. They are modern women with problems.
How did you get to know ballet so well?
I went to every show every night of everything.
At New York?
I had seen a ballet in Albany. My first ballet was âBilly the Kidâ, which is not a good way to start. It certainly leaves you with somewhere to go. And then I moved to New York. Well, actually my first ballet was “Swan Lake”.
Our high school took a trip to New York to see the Broadway show “Oliver!” At that time, they would let us all escape for lunch and go wherever we wanted. We are high school students At New York. It was crazy.
So I walked a few blocks down 42nd Street, and the old Met was there, and I saw this poster: The Royal Ballet, “Swan Lake.” I bought a $ 3 ticket. Three and a half hours later, I stumbled out of the Met and ran to where âOliver! Was, and all the children were on the bus. The show was over; they called the police. They thought I had been kidnapped. I said, “I went to the ballet,” and they just wanted to kill me. They took away my program. I was not allowed to talk to anyone, but I saw my first real ballet. After that, I just couldn’t get enough of it.
Who did you train with in New York?
I really didn’t have good teachers. I studied with all those old broken Russian teachers that nobody really wanted to go to. One was Elisabeth Anderson-Ivantzova. She was a Swedish woman who lived in Russia and danced in the Bolshoi ballet before the revolution. Basically she was teaching in a 19th century classroom and I was fascinated. I mean, the studio was down. She had no rosin. She put a watering can on the ground as seen in old photographs. I was like, Oh my god, it’s like heaven.
Everyone was awful in the classroom, and it was awful. But for a choreographer making fun of old ballets and wanting to know old ballets, it was absolutely priceless. It didn’t make sense at the time, but then do make sense. Much of the Trockadero is from this woman’s class. Thank goodness she will never know.