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Sarasota Ballet’s Mixed Bill

Posted on January 29, 2010

Paquita grand pas,


Always loving to find unfamiliar good dance companies, I recently had the pleasure, while lecturing in Florida, to discover Sarasota Ballet. Bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Gulf of Mexico, Florida is a State known for sunshine, beaches, and palm trees. It is also culturally lively, with estimable art museums, as well as several ballet companies. Miami City Ballet, a guardian of the Balanchine repertoire on Florida’s East Coast, has won deserved acclaim in New York, but Sarasota Ballet on the West Coast is also worth knowing.

The company’s home is an unusual cultural complex made possible by John Ringling (1866-1936), a financier, circus entrepreneur, and art collector. Visitors to his estate in Sarasota, now maintained in partnership with Florida State University, can enjoy the Ringling Museum of Art (with strong Renaissance and Baroque collections), a Circus Museum, Ringling’s ornate Venetian-style mansion, Cà d’Zan (Venetian dialect for “house of John”), and the Asolo Theatre, built in 1798, transported to Florida from its home in Asolo, Italy, and painstakingly reconstructed. The ballet company performed in yet another transplanted theatre: a small, cosy, 19th century opera house from Dunfermline, Scotland (Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s birthplace), that was moved to Sarasota in 1989 to save it from demolition.

Jean Allenby-Weidner founded Sarasota Ballet in 1987. Eddie Toussaint became artistic director in 1990 and was succeeded by Robert de Warren in 1994. Since 2007, the 26 dancers plus eight apprentices and trainees have been directed by Iain Webb, who has assembled a broad repertoire. Dominic Walsh, the resident choreographer, is American, yet Webb also favours British choreographers, or choreographers associated with British companies. Among this season’s attractions are Sir Peter Wright’s production of Giselle, and works by André Prokovsky, Christopher Wheeldon, and John Cranko. Recent offerings have included Sir Frederick Ashton’s Two Pigeons and Les Patineurs, MacMillan’s Las Hermanas, Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas, and Dame Ninette de Valois’ Checkmate.

I attended the first night of a nicely balanced programme (a classical piece, a drama and a comedy) staged by Margaret Barbieri, Webb’s wife, who commutes between Florida and London. I wonder what her production of Galina Samsova’s version of the Paquita grand pas looked like at subsequent performances? On opening night, the corps, though accurate, seemed rather tentative and in need of sharper attack. Yet Kate Honea was confident and dignified in the ballerina role and, despite a few untidy moments, Miguel Piquer was strikingly energetic as her partner.

The other two ballets revealed the company to be adept at both serious and comic characterisation. Peter Darrell’s Othello, to suitably restless music from Liszt’s Faust Symphony, reduces Shakespeare’s tragedy to five characters (one more than José Limón included in his own spare and eloquent Moor’s Pavane). As in every choreographic Othello I’ve encountered, big or small in scale, some plot details demand a familiarity with Shakespeare (just what is all that fuss about a handkerchief?). Yet this one, created in 1971, moves briskly, and the characters are strong. So were the Sarasota dancers. Simon Mummé was a boyishly handsome Cassio and Victoria Hulland a radiant Desdemona. Amy Wood became a no-nonsense Emilia. Downplaying Othello’s Moorishness, Darrell’s choreography instead stresses his steady loss of dignity, which Octavio Martin vividly conveyed step by step. The best role is that of Iago, who becomes a sinister master of ceremonies, introducing the characters and then manipulating them – which Piquer did with demonic intensity.

The evening closed in giggles with the US premiere of Matthew Bourne’s Boutique (1995), an updating of Léonide Massine’s La Boutique fantasque to the Carnaby Street of the 1960s. Paul Edwards designed wild costumes and Bourne devised extravagant wiggles to tell this tale of a young couple (Honea and Logan Learned) in search of wedding attire. Learned was an especially adroit comedian as the wide-eyed young man. As they shop, he and Honea encounter eccentric personages, including a flamboyant designer (Jamie Carter) and Barbie and Ken dolls (Hulland and Ricardo Rhodes). People fall in and out of love, a doll is deconstructed, and everyone ends up with someone. Bourne’s Boutique was fun, yet, for purely selfish reasons, I wish it could have been Massine’s Boutique, a now little-known ballet in the US, and a work I have never seen. Nevertheless, Bourne and the Sarasota Ballet did make me giggle.

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