Serendipity. As Ballet San Antonio enters its final week of rehearsals leading up to the production of “Peter Pan” at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, Feb. 12-14, there is an ineffable quality that the company seems to have in abundance these days. After a tough stretch, BSA once again has a management team in place that is ready to carry the city’s premiere professional ballet company into the future.
Jenniann Colón has held the executive director for the company a bare month now, but she hit the ground running. With a degree in American studies, minoring in African American studies from University of Texas and a Masters from University of Connecticut in Latin American and Caribbean studies, it seems that Colón has a pedigree making her a more likely candidate for international relations, rather than at the helm of a ballet company. How did she end up here?
“Serendipity,” she said. Despite the fact that she was poised to continue work on her Ph.D with a full scholarship at UConn, love won the day. Her fiancé persuaded her to come back to Texas as he pursued a degree in dentistry. Colón’s parents are here in Texas, as well, making the decision to return even easier. It was only a matter of time before she was put in the path of Christine Varela Mayer, a company board chair. San Antonio, once again, manages to be a big city that acts like a small town.
Colón was director of communications at Academica Management Southwest when she met Mayer at a community event. Her background, which includes public relations, outreach, strategic planning and branding identity across multimedia platforms, proved irresistible to the board who had been looking to fill the position after Courtney Mauro Barker left the company last August.
Colón doesn’t have a background in the performing arts or ballet, “but there was a need to be met,” she said. “I was seen as a good fit because of that, not in spite of it. Our artistic needs are being met by (artistic director) Willy Shives in the studio.” Colón and Shives have already begun to colloaborate and delineate tasks needed for the ballet company’s growth.
“An important part of our company mission statement is to make ballet and the classical arts accessible to the entire San Antonio community and surrounding areas,” Colón said. “This is something we both cherish. We both came from humble beginnings. We understand how important that enrichment is, and making sure that all populations have access to that. This is dear to both our hearts.”
In order to achieve these lofty goals, it is important to get the ballet company on firm, long-term financial footing. Colón’s sensible approach will set measurable goals that move the company forward at this critical point in their development. There is potential in every direction, but the focus at the moment is keeping balance and getting the company through the rest of this tumultuous season.
“We have a core group of people who support Ballet San Antonio and we want to continue to feed that foundation with special events and little perks and access that makes them feel appreciated,” Colón said. “We must also continue to cultivate our corporate sponsors and grants. This is something that I am working on with the board as we speak.”
Ballet supporters recently enjoyed one of those perks in the form of a sneak peek performance at the Tobin’s Alvarez Family Theater. A fairly respectable after-work gathering was treated to champagne as Shives introduced company members and Ballet Idaho’s ballet master, Alex Ossadnik, who conducted much of the the heavy-lifting required to set “Peter Pan.”
The informal yet informative event was intended to give supporters an insider’s look at how the company works through the process of getting a new ballet up and running. This version of the “Peter Pan” ballet was created by acclaimed choreographer Peter Anastos in 1995, while he was the artistic director at Cincinnati Ballet. Anastos was the first to bring the J.M. Barrie tale of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” to the U.S. stage as a ballet.
The man himself arrived in San Antonio on Monday to finalize the details and cleaning required to bring the production to the stage. The name Peter Anastos is still most closely identified with the company he created more than 40 years ago, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, today known as “the world’s foremost all-male comic ballet company.”
“In many quarters, all this time later, I will never be forgiven for starting the Trockadero ballet company,” said Anastos, who hasn’t worked with the company since his departure in 1979. “There’s a lot of people in the dance world who have no sense of humor, and certainly have no self-introspection about the fact that ballet is kind of funny if you let it go.They don’t want that.
“There are also the other types that don’t like the way I came into the business. They feel I kind of snuck in the back door, or something.” he added, “I have never made the choreography ridiculous or cheesy. I have always been respectful. I wanted the audience to laugh at the conceits and some of the craziness of ballet, but not at it.”
Backdoor indeed. In addition to the Trocks, Anastos has led three other companies including his current tenure at Ballet Idaho, as artistic director since 2008. In addition to the ballet, he has choreographed and directed for Broadway, television, opera, film and festivals. He has enjoyed a long-standing association with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Anastos holds the rare honor of having received two Guggenheim Fellowships and another four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a dance scholar, a writer and historian with published essays about ballet for many publications including “The New York Times,” “The Los Angeles Times,”and “Ballet Review,” where he is a member of the Editorial Board. In short, he’s a national treasure.
Yet Anastos didn’t expect his version of “Peter Pan” to live on. “I had kind of let it go,”he said.” I didn’t really think it would be done again. (Shives) really kind of revived it from the ether.”
Serendipity comes into play once again. Shives is a South Texas boy, and after a long career, with the last 16 years spent at the Joffrey Ballet, he found himself in the right place at the right time when the opportunity to join Ballet San Antonio presented itself. Shives and his wife Evie were ready to move back to Texas to be closer to family.
“I had two weeks to work with the company, and I fell in love after two days,” Shives said. It was during this period that he reached out to Anastos about resurrecting his version of “Peter Pan.” Shortly after, Shives was named artistic director before the “Nutcracker” took to the stage in Dec. 2015.
It had been decided a year ago that “Peter Pan” would be performed in Feb. 2016. After the exit of former artistic director Gabriel Zertuche, the question remained exactly which version would be performed. The music had been selected, by happenstance originally composed by Carmon DeLeone for the Anastos production. Shives said, “It just made sense to give Peter a call to see if we could get this done. I remembered that his choreography was just a dream. So dancey, so beautiful.”
Anastos and Shives have known each other since 1985, but much has changed since then. At the time Anastos was the famous choreographer, Shives and wife Evie were young dancers at Milwaukee Ballet.
“I really wanted to work with him again, especially in this capacity,” Anastos said. “It was an opportunity to work together as equals, which is really nice.”
Watching Anastos working with Ballet San Antonio, one gets the measure of the teacher and mentor. Starting with class on a chilly morning last week, he brings the dancers up to speed with a barre that steadily and fastidiously prepares them to do their best work. His demeanor is fairly quiet, but as they transition to working on the staging and refining of choreography on individual dancers, his playful wit comes to the fore.
This revival of “Peter Pan” is certainly “dancey,” as Shives put it, but the production is also full of broad humor and the slapstick comedy required to bring the story to life. Anastos has his comedy chops firmly in place and works to finesse the dancers into the rollicking and frivolous portrayals that will make the performance a success. More so than usual, the dancers must be bigger than life as they take on their characters.
The production becomes even more interesting when the dancers begin flying. It is “Peter Pan,” after all. The pixie dust making this happen will be provided courtesy of Flying By Foy, the foremost company in the business of theatrical flying in the world today. In the coming week, dancers will take their rehearsals onto the stage at the Tobin, where they will work with the apparatus for the first time.
“This project is interesting, because it has changed so much that it is like setting an entirely new production on these dancers,” Anastos said of his tweaks to the choreography for Ballet San Antonio.
San Antonio audiences will be treated to two very different casts. Principals Ian Morris and Sally Turkel will take the roles of Peter and Wendy on opening night. Judging from the sneak peek, they will offer up sparkling, wide-eyed portrayals beautifully danced. They will share the role with demi-soloist Christopher McDaniel and corps de ballet member Yanaylet Lopez in subsequent performances.
McDaniel is a new addition to the company. He appeared in “Swan Lake” earlier in the season, but this marks his first leading role with the company. His energy is infectious and he is technically robust. Lopez is a perennial company favorite, memorable for her exquisite performance as Lucy, the coquettish and doomed character in Zertuche’s “Dracula.”
This is a family-friendly production and ballet-goers should attend with the expectation of a fun evening.
“I like to see dancers looking beautiful. I am very old-fashioned in that regard.” said Anastos, who holds to the philosophy that the audience is looking for uplifting experiences. “People don’t want to see the seven o’clock news, they don’t want to hear about global warming. They come to the ballet to forget about the real world. They want to be taken away to some fabulous place, near heaven. That’s really what ballet is about.”
On a final note, Ballet San Antonio is in good hands. In the front office as well as the studio. The dancers are looking more relaxed and happy than they have in months. Order is restored. Ballet mistress Amy Fote and company manager Danielle Campbell Steans are working as hard as ever, not performing the yeoman’s task of holding the company together with all their might, but as trusted and talented lieutenants to the management, as it should be.
Peter Anastos said it best: “I’ve only been here for a few days, but what I see in the studio is that they know Willy loves them. They know that Willy is their biggest fan. He only wants the best for them, and they know that. There isn’t anything else. He has a big heart and enormous talent. The sky is the limit for this company with him.”
Shives and Colón. A one-two punch.
There will be four performances of “Peter Pan,” Feb. 12-14 at the Tobin Center. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 210-223-8624 or in person at the Tobin Center Box Office at 100 Auditorium Circle. For a 15 percent discount, enter promo code SALIVE. Family package discounts are also available. For more information, click here.
*Top Image: Peter Anastos in rehearsal with Ballet San Antonio for Peter Pan, February 2016. Photo by Tami Kegley.