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Ballet Idaho gets a reboot with new artistic leader and fresh direction

New Ballet Idaho Artistic Director Garrett Anderson emerges from his office with a hand-crank coffee grinder and heads to the kitchenette upstairs at the Esther Simplot Academy Annex.

He is getting caffeinated for another daylong brainstorming session with his new team, then another opportunity to mix with the community in the evening. That’s how the days are rolling as he waits for rehearsals to begin.

“It’s been exhausting and really exhilarating,” he says. “People are enthusiastic, and I think the company is ready for this change.”

This is more than a changing of the guard. It’s a paradigm shift.

Anderson, 36, was hired through a national job search to replace Peter Anastos, who retired after 10 years at the helm. Anderson stepped into the position officially July 1 and started building the foundation for this iteration of classical dance in the Treasure Valley.

Anderson is the fourth artistic director to head the Boise-based company since it took on the name Ballet Idaho in 1992, and he is the youngest, just leaving his full-time performance career in 2015.

He danced with major world companies: San Francisco Ballet, Flanders Ballet in Belgium, the Trey McIntyre Project when it was based in Boise, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. He still performs occasionally with SF Danceworks, a small company based in California’s Bay Area.

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Garrett Anderson, Ballet Idaho’s new artistic director, joins an open ballet class at the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy on July 20, before the season rehearsals were set to begin. Darin Oswald

Because of his dance background, it’s easy to take his personal grace for granted, but he couples it with charm and a clear-eyed intention that makes him an eloquent spokesman for the company and the art form.

Anderson speaks in calm cadence about his goals, which include new choreography, world premieres, a deeper connection to the community and empowered dancers.

“I want to create a company in which the dancers won’t just be relegated to the studio,” Anderson says. “They will understand the organization in a more holistic way, and feel a sense of agency that is not limited to choreography. That ownership will then allow them to take the choreography to a new level.”

His first season is bold. It will bring new contemporary and classical works to the Morrison Center stage, including a fresh take on Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” by BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang in the spring, and a world premiere by Australian ballet star turned choreographer Danielle Rowe in February. Next season the company will unveil a new production of “The Nutcracker.” The company recently received a $300,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust to revitalize the company’s holiday tradition.

Rehearsals haven’t started and already you can feel a difference, say dancer and choreographer Daniel Ojeda.

“I think the board and our audience is looking for a fresher and younger take on dance, and I certainly think that Garrett will build a foundation to get us there,” Ojeda says. “I like that he’s still dancing. He’s still connected in a real way. I’m extremely excited for this coming season. I’m really excited for us to progress in all aspects of dance.”

Wanting to be in Boise

Anderson and his wife, former principal ballerina Courtney Wright Anderson, first came to Boise in the mid-2000s to visit friends.

“We saw TMP perform, floated the river, went to the farmers market and saw kids playing on the streets unsupervised, and fell in love with the city,” he says.

The couple returned to Boise several times, and when he learned of the artistic director opening, he didn’t hesitate to pursue it.

When he arrived for his two-day interview, he won everyone over with his warmth and personality, says Jenny Weaver, Ballet Idaho executive director. She was on the search committee but did not get a say in the final decision.

“He had such an eagerness,” Weaver says. “He wanted to be here and you could feel it. And I’ve never seen anyone come in so organized. He had a plan. It wasn’t perfect, but it was considered and thoughtful. That was impressive.”

Anderson left the interview wanting the job even more.

“After I retired, I found quickly that there was a space that was really hard to fill without dance. When I returned to it, I felt like myself again. Now, stepping into a directorship role I’m able to engage with dance fully,” Anderson says. “I’m shaping and guiding. The scope is broader and the responsibility is greater, but one of the wonderful things about dance is that you never stop learning.”

The company has weathered a lot of change in its history: relocating from Moscow to Boise, forging a 13 year-alliance with Oregon’s Eugene Ballet, and emerging from that in 2008 to build a new Ballet Idaho nearly from scratch.

That was Anastos’ task. A seasoned choreographer and artistic director with the founding of three companies under his belt, he did the heavy lifting. He hired a company of mostly young, inexperienced dancers — some of whom are still under contract — and pulled together a season, including a full-length production of “The Nutcracker,” in a matter of months. He brought the works of George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp into the repertory and nurtured choreographic talent within the company, including Ojeda.

“Peter lifted this company up from nothing,” Weaver says. “It was amazing to work with him and learn from him.”

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Dancer and choreographer Anne Mueller joins Ballet Idaho as its Artistic Director Garrett Anderson’s No. 2 and rehearsal director. Blaine Covert Provided by Ballet Idaho

Setting a new tone

Anderson already is doing a few things to move in a new direction.

For the first NewDance, Anderson is bringing in five experienced choreographers, mostly women, to work with the company, including Boise-based LED artistic director and choreographer Lauren Edson. This will be the first time Edson, who also danced for TMP, has worked with the dancers since founding her own company with husband Andrew Stensaas in 2015.

Rather than seeing her and LED as competition, Anderson says she is a collaborator in creating an audience for dance in Boise.

“I don’t want to exist without being part of the community, and I don’t want to play lip service to that either, and just say ‘go see her show,’” Anderson says. “I want to work with these people. And I know what she will do with Ballet Idaho will be very different than what she does with LED. And she’s excited about it too, for that reason.”

He’s also talking with other arts groups about ways to collaborate on how they can engage the community together.

He hired Anne Mueller, a well-known dancer, choreographer and teacher out of Portland, and co-founder of the TMP, as his No. 2 person — but rather than being called the traditional “ballet mistress,” her title is rehearsal director.

Mueller will teach class occasionally, run rehearsals, keep track of staging, coach for performance quality and share an office with Anderson to shape the company.

“I’m there to support and provide whatever I can to help him realize his artistic vision,” Mueller says. “He seems to have a very collaborative working style and is interested in the diversity of my experience. I know my voice will be heard by him.”

Though they had both danced with TMP and knew about each other’s careers, they had not met until mutual friends suggested Mueller for the position. Once they met, the clicked creatively. Mueller and her husband, filmmaker Lars C. Larsen, move to Boise next month.

She has a long history with ballet in the Northwest and already has made an impact: Mueller helped train Ballet Idaho principal dancer Elizabeth Barreto and several others who’ve danced with the company.

“She’s a gifted instructor and will be a valuable asset to Ballet Idaho, especially when coaching the corps de ballet and lead female roles,” Barreto says.

“While I may be slightly nervous to begin this new chapter, I know we are in good hands with Garrett. He has already shown his amazing artistic vision with the season lineup and I have no doubt that the company will continue to blossom under his leadership.”