The Sarasota Ballet will make its New England debut at Jacob’s Pillow in August with a program that includes two works of mid-20th century choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton.
By Iris Fanger
During the past eight years, under the direction of the Brits Iain Webb and his wife Margaret Barbieri, both former members of the Royal Ballet, the Sarasota (Florida) Ballet has grown into a company worthy of national attention. Webb and Barbieri, who had a 25-year career as a leading ballerina with the Royal Ballet Touring Company, have made it their mission to stage the repertory of mid-20th century choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton on this side of the Atlantic, where his works are seldom revived. (The Boston Ballet performed Ashton’s full-length Cinderella last spring).The Sarasota Ballet will make its New England debut at Jacob’s Pillow in August with a program that includes two of Ashton’s works.
This past weekend Sarasota Ballet, accompanied by the Sarasota Orchestra, presented two days of performances at the largest venue in Sarasota, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The program was billed as a “Tribute to the Great Russian Star, Rudolf Nureyev,” and featured three works in which Rudy (as he was universally called) danced the leads: George Balanchine’s Apollo, Ashton’s Jazz Calendar, and Nureyev’s own setting for the 19th century Russian ballet Raymonda Act III. Barbieri had been coached often by Nureyev, as she rose through the ranks in the cast of Raymonda, from corps de ballet to the leading role.
The program opened with Apollo, fully staged with the opening scene of the birth of the god, which is often omitted. Lethe, Apollo’s mother, is placed on top of the familiar stairway, where she twists her body and stretches her legs as if she’s in pain from childbirth. Below, a child wrapping in swaddling hops out — the infant Apollo. Two servants unwrap the bindings and he springs to life and movement. Gaining control of his body, Apollo walks upstage right where he stands, twirling one arm in windmill fashion as he plays the lyre that has been placed in his hands. This pose is one of the iconic gestures of the ballet, which has remained in continuous repertory since Balanchine created it in 1928 to music by Igor Stravinsky.The other memorable moments include the troika of the three muses, Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore, pulling Apollo behind them; the famous sunburst of legs spread out in sunray fashion by the Muses behind Apollo; and the lovely finger to finger touch between Terpsichore and Apollo, a gesture that mirrors Michelangelo’s image of God holding out a hand to Adam in the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
At the Saturday night performance, Juan Gil performed the role of Apollo. He is a handsome young dancer, well up to the technical demands of the role, but somewhat subdued when called on to express the emotions of coming to life and taking charge of the contest between the Muses. Danielle Brown danced the role of Terpsichore, who is the winner of the competition. Yet she was less prominent than expected in comparison to her sister goddesses, Elizabeth Skyes as Calliope and Kate Honea as Polyhymnia. At the end of the performance, Webb came on stage to announce Gil’s promotion from soloist to junior principal dancer.
The dancers showed off the detailed coaching of Webb and Barbieri in the company’s revival of “Jazz Calendar,” a cheeky piece made up of seven segments that is based on the old English nursery rhyme “Monday’s Child,” which describes the personalities of children born on each day of the week. Sir Richard Rodney Bennett composed the bluesy jazz score, well performed by members of the Sarasota Orchestra, conducted by Philip Ellis. Beginning with a sinewy Ellen Overstreet as Monday’s Child (“Monday’s Child is fair of face”), who continually sweeps her hand around her face (mime-speak for pretty), the work moved through variations on the other days of the week to Saturday, a spoof of a men’s ballet class, led by the charismatic Logan Learned as the group show-off, which was followed by Sykes as Sunday’s child, dressed in a rainbow colored version of a Cockney suit. Otherwise the dancers were costumed in unisex leotards of bright hues, often with bubble-like helmets on their heads. The red and blue matching halves for the romantic couple in Friday’s child, performed by Victoria Hulland and Ricardo Graziano, made the couple look like a harlequin matched pair (originally danced by Nureyev and Antoinette Sibley). Derek Jarman provided the designs for the sets and costumes. Given how the piece blurs the line between dance in musical comedy and contemporary ballet style, it’s a wonder that this Ashton work is not presented more often.
The curtain rose to gasps from the audience for the final work, Raymonda Act III. Viewers were startled by the elaborate court setting, complete with stairs, balconies, and chandeliers spread across the stage as well as by the elegant costumes, designed by Barry Kay. (The setting was borrowed from the Royal Opera House). The work is a charmer, set to a score by Alexander Glazunov, complete with Hungarian folk dances, a 16 member corps de ballet for the “Grand Pas” segment, and a strikingly difficult solo beautifully performed by Victoria Hulland as Raymonda, partnered by Ricardo Rhodes.
The Sarasota Ballet program at Jacob’s Pillow (from August 12 to 16), will include Ashton’s Monotones I and II, a world premiere by the company’s principal dancer and choreographer in residence, Ricardo Graziano, and The American by Christopher Wheeldon, currently in the news as director-choreographer of the new musical An American In Paris, which is based on the Gene Kelly film and opens on Broadway later this month.
Iris Fanger is a theater and dance critic based in Boston. She has written reviews and feature articles for the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Patriot Ledger as well as for Dance Magazine and Dancing Times (London).
Former director of the Harvard Summer Dance Center, 1977-1995, she has taught at Lesley Graduate School and Tufts University, as well as Harvard and M.I.T. She received the 2005 Dance Champion Award from the Boston Dance Alliance and in 2008, the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. She lectures widely on dance and theater history.