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Fairy Tale Fun

Picture a postmodern Cinderella — start with her ugly step-drag queens.

"I know more about drag than any other choreographer around right now and I can make it work," says Peter Anastos, whose willingness to flaunt cross-dressers in a fairy tale told as a quasi-comic ballet seems consistent with an artist who choreographed both "Addams Family" movies.

But even Gomez and Morticia might find this creepy and kooky, not to mention altogether ooky.

"The English actually invented that, putting men in as the two sisters," says Anastos, whose off-center sensibilities shape an unorthodox "Cinderella" as Nevada Ballet Theatre’s season finale.

"It’s a great romance, the story of Cinderella, but it’s also a great comedy so I try to bring out the comic elements. And it makes the fairy tale much more dramatic too, these two big bruising guys picking on this little girl. They dress about 25 years out of date so they’re kind of a mess, trying to be pretty and dainty. It’s so broad, I think people will relax right away."

For the dancer in the girly get-up, subtlety — as much as he can reasonably muster, anyway — is key. "My costume has five or six layers, very Marie Antoinette-ish, a very high purple beehive wig and a green dress," says John Surdick, playing one of the step-drag-sisters. "There’s a fine line between it being entertaining and campy. You can’t laugh at your own joke, everything has to be deadpan. That’s the hardest part."

As far as we know, the prince is still pretty butch in this "Cinderella," but dressing the sisterly hags in drag is a favored ploy from the Anastos playbook. The inventive choreographer was the founding director of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, renowned for its all-male cast in all-female garb. "When I first started out as a choreographer, people were horrified that I wanted to make ballet funny — all the really great classic ballets don’t have humor at all," Anastos says.

"For me it’s not about being funny, but the jokes coming out of the material. Ballet is so fragile and codified and strict that if you just bend it a little bit, you can make it funny. My humor is good-natured, never mean. Now I find it interesting that a lot of companies have comedy evenings. Audiences would rather enjoy themselves and laugh. You can cry all you want at ‘Madame Butterfly.’ "

Though performed in Las Vegas in 2004, this balletic journey of a rags-clad gal finally slipping her digits into that stylish glass footwear has been enhanced with new costumes and settings. "The last one we did here was rented from Hong Kong and it was a Russian-style production, all splashy and colorful," Anastos says. "We decided to set this one during the time of Jane Austen. It’s a beautiful English countryside version of ‘Cinderella’ and it’ll be a lot more just flat-out pretty, a very handsome production."

But to up the ante on the antics, Anastos also created a couple of scenes in "Cinderella’s" final act in which a father shoves his gold-digging daughters at the prince, who has to fend off the ardent trio of marriage-minded maidens. "Comedy is difficult because it’s all about timing and proportion," he says. "Most dancers are not natural comedians, it’s not in their training, so it takes a lot of rehearsal to get the right comic timing."

And inserted into the ballroom scene, he adds, is a wacky little dance, all of which amuses his lead performer.

"He’s done other ballets for our company and we have so much fun," says Yoomi Lee, who dances Cinderella. "This is going to be a challenge for me, with very funny choreography, it’s awesome." She also credits Anastos with guiding her through the score by Russian master Sergei Prokofiev. "With Prokofiev, it’s not easy music for dance," Lee says, "but Peter knows the music and he teaches me how to use the music."

Anastos’ credits stretch from Broadway to Baryshnikov, having choreographed "I Hate Hamlet" in New York and the national tour of "Chess," as well as numerous collaborations with the ballet legend, including the Emmy-nominated "Baryshnikov in Hollywood" for CBS. But for an artist who prizes humor as a vital artistic tool, his contributions to 1991’s "The Addams Family" and its 1993 sequel, "Addams Family Values," slide into his resume with all the natural grace of a pas de deux.

"(Producer) Scott Rudin, he’s known my work for years," Anastos says. "I lived in New York and was worried about how to pay the rent, and then it literally was Hollywood calling. He said, ‘Do you want to come do this movie?’ and I said, ‘But you’re not using ballet dancers.’ He said, ‘That’s OK, just do some funny stuff for the actors.’ "

And anyone who recalls the gravity-defying, wildly entertaining tango between Raoul Julia’s Gomez and Angelica Huston’s Morticia from "Addams Family Values" couldn’t doubt Anastos’ irrepressible tongue-in-cheekiness.

"That was a great challenge for me because I couldn’t rely on anything, just come in and make up these funny dances," he says. "We even had someone do a double back flip."

No such complex calisthenics required for "Cinderella." After all, a tango in the middle of a fairy tale set in the English countryside to a Russian score?

Doesn’t sound like Anastos — unless they’re in drag.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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