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It’s almost disconcerting to see the throng of people crammed into Idaho Shakespeare’s amphitheater—after all, earlier that day, strolling around Boise’s sleepy old downtown on a hot summer afternoon, I saw barely half a dozen pedestrians braving the sun. Yet inside a 12-acre park a few miles away, butting up against the Boise Mountains that run through Idaho like a backbone, the outdoor theater is jammed with people. Some are sprawled on rugs spread on the lawn, while others sit at proper tables and chairs; most have packed a light supper to graze before the play, My Fair Lady. The quality of the production is impressive, far from the community-theater level an outsider might expect: better rain-in-Spain English accents than on Broadway and nuanced, engaging direction. And the packed performance isn’t a one-off. Idaho Shakespeare stages a show almost every night from the end of May through early October; rarely a ticket remains unsold. According to managing director Mark Hofflund, the tally for the season is almost 60,000 tickets—a huge number for a city of 217,000 people.
The bustling theatrical schedule isn’t an anomaly in Idaho’s capital. Boise has become an unlikely hub for the performing arts over the past decade. The longtime mayor, Dave Bieter—a Democrat who was elected in 2015 for a fourth term—has championed a public ordinance established in 2001 that allocates 1.4 percent of municipal capital-project budgets for public art. Under his mayorship, the city’s population has swelled by more than 20 percent; most of that growth has come thanks to the arrival of new tech operations nearby—including major hubs for HP, Micron, and Cradlepoint—drawn to the state’s generous tax credits. Many of the newcomers, transplants from California or the Pacific Northwest, have proven ardent arts supporters.
The city’s passion for performance isn’t new; it’s part of Boise’s origin story. One of the first federal employees dispatched to the nascent Idaho territory in the late 1800s, postmaster and five-time Boise mayor James A. Pinney was such a theater nut that he built a lavish, namesake performance space downtown to help attract touring companies to his isolated new home. (That space, unfortunately, was demolished.) Pinney and his fellow pioneers were so keen for Boise to avoid slumping into a rough-edged cow town that the civic budget was stretched from the outset to fund an orchestra; their aim was to create what they called an Athens of the Sagebrush.
The city’s remoteness—it’s the major American city that’s farthest from any other—is critical to the contemporary-arts scene. “Boise is an island—not a water island, but surrounded by uninhabited nature: deserts, mountains, rivers. So everyone is very much connected, and you can’t marginalize any of the people,” Hofflund says. “We’re an isolated community. We either create what we have or it doesn’t exist.”
Another by-product of such isolation is the sense of togetherness it fosters. “There’s more camaraderie and not so much backstabbing here,” says choreographer Peter Anastos, the artistic director of Ballet Idaho. Cooperation extends to productions. For instance, the local opera tag-teamed with a dance company for a commedia dell’arte–inspired double bill, staging the opera Pagliacci with Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella. “Boise is a city where collaboration happens naturally,” says former dancer Dana Oland, who now writes about culture for the Idaho Statesman. “It’s a small, close-knit, scrappy community which really supports each other.”
Anastos arrived in 2008, the year when a new director was appointed at almost every local culture organization. That’s also the year the acclaimed dancer and choreographer Trey McIntyre, known for mash-ups like A Day in the Life, his pas de deux to Beatles songs, made Boise his base. McIntyre marvels that such a seemingly rugged city is so receptive to his work in modern dance, though locals see synergies McIntyre never imagined. “This is an incredibly fit and physical city,” he says. “So I have a champion triathlete neighbor who asked me, ‘Can you guys teach a class on footwork for runners?’”
Having made his mark in Boise, Anastos, who is also admired in the dance world for cofounding the comic ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in 1974, will soon retire with a career-capping season. Expect longtime Boise champion Mikhail Baryshnikov, a board member, to help with the hunt for a high-profile replacement. The world-famous ex-ballerino is drawn to the city for more than just its cultural assets: “Misha likes to fish here,” Anastos says. “We’ve been trying to get him to do a little fund-raiser for us, so we offered him a fantastic cabin in the woods.”
A Boise Itinerary
Four essential stops in Idaho’s high-culture oasis
The arrival of artistic director Mark Junkert helped this local laggard surge ahead. Junkert reconceived its program and moved it from a nondescript, 2,100-seat auditorium to downtown’s Egyptian Theatre, a restored 1920s movie palace where he can stage up to six shows per season. The highlight of the 2018 season will be André Previn’s take on A Streetcar Named Desire, with rising-star soprano Julie Adams as Blanche.
Boise Art Museum
This small but expertly curated museum is a WPA-era legacy that thrives under the direction of Idaho native Melanie Fales. It has hosted contemporary shows like a retrospective of Kehinde Wiley’s color-soaked neoclassical portraits and an audio-visual, multisensory exhibition from Nick Cave. It’s also been a home berth for Matthew Barney, the internationally known artist and Cremaster filmmaker who was born and raised in Boise.
Idaho Shakespeare Festival
Founded in 1977, this alfresco summer rep program is populist yet innovative, combining punchy productions of Elizabethan drama with stripped-down renditions of major musicals each season— like the recent, bloody pairing of Richard III and Sweeney Todd. The energy and enthusiasm of managing director Mark Hofflund are matched by the talent of the cast he can always secure—often helmed by his wife, actress Lynn Allison.
Ballet Idaho mastermind Peter Anastos was the impishly witty dance guru who cofounded all-male troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo almost four decades ago in NYC. Since 2008, though, Anastos has been staging his signature Lucille Ball–meets– Rudolph Valentino ballets— high-caliber, crowd-pleasing riffs on classics—in Boise. (His Swan Lake hunters were kitted out in camo.)