A witty mastermind of Les Ballets Trockadero comes home

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A witty mastermind of Les Ballets Trockadero comes home
From left, Haojun Xie, Ugo Cirri and Takaomi Yoshino put on their pointe shoes during a rehearsal of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, in New York on Dec. 13, 2021. Peter Anastos returns to the comedic troupe he helped found for “Nightcrawlers,” a Jerome Robbins sendup at the Joyce Theater. Yael Malka/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- It was 1976, and the Jerome Robbins ballet “Dances at a Gathering” was still a hit, seven years after its premiere.

“Everyone wanted to see it,” choreographer Peter Anastos recalled in a recent interview. “I thought, Boy, this thing is completely ripe for a parody.”

As a founder of the comic, all-male company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, which humorously twists the classics and features dancers performing en travesti, Anastos was always on the lookout for fodder. Yet on the opening night of “Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet,” his response to Robbins’ “Dances,” he found himself racked with insecurity. “I was absolutely convinced that it was the worst ballet I had ever done,” he said. “A total dog.”

But like the ballet it was modeled on, “Yes, Virginia” was a hit — and an enduring one at that. “All this time went by,” Anastos said, “and I thought, I’m really not done with Jerry Robbins.”

He revisited Robbins — his 1970 ballet “In the Night” — for “Nightcrawlers,” which has its New York premiere Tuesday as part of the Trockadero season at the Joyce Theater. Witty and set to Chopin, the dance spotlights three couples grappling with relationship issues.

Even though, as he said, terrible things happen to the dancers in “Yes, Virginia,” Anastos sees it as a sunny work. As for his new dance, “I decided I’d make an evening ballet in which everything also always goes wrong,” he said. “I thought, If they’re going to suffer in the daytime, why shouldn’t they suffer at night, too?”

Robbins was exacting in how he cast his ballets, tailoring them for specific dancers; that’s how it works in Trockadero, too. “You have to build in a tremendous amount of freedom and the ability for them to go off-script sometimes,” Anastos said. “I used to hate that until I figured out that’s what makes it work for the dancer. You let the dancer just go with it. I think that’s the Trockadero magic.”

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 those running Trockadero weren’t happy with his departure. Years went by, and he remained occupied with other projects until Tory Dobrin, the company’s current artistic director, asked Anastos to choreograph a ballet in 2001: “La Trovatiara Pas de Cinq,” set to Verdi and featuring pirate girls.

Dobrin hopes to bring in more ballets by Anastos. “Just having him in the room gives weight to the work,” Dobrin said. “It’s like if you eat a nice meal and then the chef comes to the table, you feel better about it even though it’s delicious anyway.”

Anastos lives in Boise, Idaho, where he remained after retiring as the artistic director of Ballet Idaho in 2018. He was there when he spoke in a video call about comedy and ballet, Trockadero’s early days and his education with broken-down Russian teachers. His ballets are a riot. It’s comforting to know that he is, too. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What is the temperament of your couples in “Nightcrawlers”?

A: Some of them are sappy and romantic; some of them are fraught with anxiety. In a lot of Robbins, there’s always some unseen, unknown anxiety that’s pervasive on the stage. There is one very hysterical ballerina who seems like she can’t live in this world. I always like to have one girl that doesn’t have much going on for her. I always like to have one wallflower in the ballet.

Q: What about their partners?

A: The men are basically uncaring, unfeeling, typical men. It’s kind of a parody of partnering, but everybody has a lot to do. At this point, in 2021, I don’t know how many people really know “In the Night” or “Dances at a Gathering,” but there’s just some goofy, inner logic to the ballet that makes sense as a comedy. If the audience laughs, then I guess the ballet works.

Q: What were audiences like in the early days?

A: Eventually we started touring, but we always premiered everything in New York because that was the smartest audience. We used to have a midnight curtain. They would pile into their limos to Greenwich Village after they’d seen Fonteyn and Nureyev at the Met Opera House.

Q: Would Fonteyn and Nureyev ever come downtown, too?

A: I never saw Margot or Rudolf after our shows, but they don’t strike me as people who went backstage either, unless it was some equal. I know that Natalia Makarova saw us once and really didn’t like us. Although she had worked with us; she coached us on “Les Sylphides.” She was a very, very good coach, and she got the comedy.

Q: Then why didn’t she like the company?

A: We were doing “Giselle,” and she thought we were making fun of her. It was me dancing Giselle. I was never, ever making fun of her. It was always some vision of some 19th century crackpot ballerina. That’s who I was, anyway.

Q: How would you describe the type of ballerinas in “Nightcrawlers”?

A: That’s a more modern ballerina, so they have to 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 dating and having somebody to dance with — all that stuff is built into what they’re doing onstage. They’re modern women with issues.

Q: How did you get to know ballet so well?

A: I went to every performance every night of everything.

Q: In New York City?

A: I’d seen a ballet in Albany. My first ballet was “Billy the Kid,” which is not a great way to start. It certainly leaves you someplace to go. And then I moved to New York. Well, actually, my first ballet was “Swan Lake.”

Q: Where?

A: Our high school took a field trip to New York to see the Broadway show “Oliver!” In those days, they let us all escape for lunch and go any place we wanted. We’re high school kids in New York. It was insane.

So I walked a few blocks down from 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 back up to wherever “Oliver!” was, and all the kids were in the bus. The show was over; they had called the police. They thought I’d been kidnapped. I said, “I went to the ballet,” and they just wanted to kill me. They took my program away. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody, but I saw my first real ballet. After that, I just couldn’t get enough.

Q: Whom did you train with in New York?

A: I had really not good teachers. I studied with all these broken-down old Russian teachers that nobody really wanted to go to. One was Elisabeth Anderson‐Ivantzova. She was a Swede who lived in Russia and danced in the Bolshoi Ballet before the revolution. Basically, she was teaching a 19th-century class, and I was fascinated. I mean, the studio was broken down. She had no rosin. She put a watering can on the floor like you see in old photographs. I was like, Oh my God, this is like heaven.

Q: Completely understandable.

A: Everybody was terrible in the class, and it was awful. But for a choreographer making fun of old ballets and wanting to know about old ballets, it was absolutely priceless. It didn’t make sense at the time, but then it did make sense. So much of the Trockadero came out of that woman’s class. Thank God, she’ll never know.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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