Rendezvous in Sarasota
On a weekend away from a frigid New York City, I had the chance to see the Sarasota Ballet (based in Sarasota, Florida), in a very intriguing program, composed of Frederick Ashton’s “Les Rendezvous,” Ninette de Valois’ “The Rakes Progress,” and Joe Layton’s “The Grand Tour.” Because all three ballets were created for British companies (The Vic-Wells Ballet, predecessor of the Royal Ballet, or Sadler’s Wells) the evening was entitled “A Right Royal Affair.” The company is celebrating its twentieth year and its fourth under the direction of Iain Webb, originally from Northern England, who danced with the Royal Ballet and Sadler’s Well. His wife, the South African-born ballerina Margaret Barbieri, is the company’s rehearsal director and repetiteur, and stages most of its ballets. During her long career at the Royal Ballet she worked with the most important British choreographers of the twentieth century, including Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, and Antony Tudor. She is clearly the company’s secret weapon, an inexhaustible source of ballet wisdom, especially concerning the British rep, which is fast becoming the company’s specialty. Alistair Macaulay wrote in 2008, on the occasion of the company’s premieres of Ashton’s “Les Patineurs” that the Sarasota Ballet “has suddenly become America’s foremost exponent of Ashton ballets.” Not bad for a small regional company. In March, they will be performing the third of Auguste Bournonville’s “Napoli,” staged by Johan Kobborg of the Royal Ballet (with whom Webb has a fruitful collaboration), and in April, they will do a Balanchine evening, consisting of “Prodigal Son,” “Divertimento No. 15,” and “Who Cares?” In the fall, they danced Twyla Tharp’s paean to dancerly exhaustion, “In the Upper Room.” Webb and Barbieri are clearly interested in pushing their dancers to the limit, and challenging their audiences.
On the evidence of this single performance, character dancing and storytelling are the company’s forte. Not surprising, since Webb was mainly a character dancer at the Royal Ballet, and Barbieri played danced leading roles in most of the great story ballets (“Giselle,” “Coppelia,” “La Fille Mal Gardée,” “Sleeping Beauty”), and created roles in others, including the Black Queen in Ninette de Valois’ “Checkmate,” and Gertrude Lawrence in Joe Layton’s Grand Tour (which was on this program). This is already an anomaly, as so much of contemporary ballet is plotless or abstract, following in the American tradition of Balanchine. But this company seems to relish the challenge of creating characters and telling stories, and not just the usual ones. Of the three works performed, only the first, Ashton’s “Les Rendezvous,” was abstract. This very early work (1935), only his second for the Vic-Wells, was conceived, in his own words, as “simply a vehicle for the exquisite dancing of Stanislas Idzikowski and Alicia Markova.” (It was later danced by Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann.) The spirit of Markova, the Ballets Russes “baby ballerina” who went on to dominate British ballet for decades, lingers over the program like a beneficent fairy: she originated not only the central ballerina role in “Les Rendezvous,” but also the role of the “Betrayed Girl” in de Valois’ “Rakes Progress.
In any case, the Ashton is a charming, gently witty suite of dances requiring all the upper body suppleness, generous épaulement, facial expressiveness, and delicate use of the hands the choreographer is known for. The costumes are simple—white tutus trmmed with pink bows and white gloves for the ladies. There is a solo for the central ballerina in which she must feign losing her balance, and then jump over a puddle; the men tap the women’s shoulders to get their attention; the corps claps in time as if to accompany the principal dancers; there is a lot of kissing. It’s all very prim and cheerful. The steps are very classical, but with the usual Ashton idiosyncrasies, like a pas de chat—with the legs tucked under—that suddenly becomes a jeté—legs extended—mid-jump. The gloves accentuate the detailed use of the fingers. The footwork small and delicate, but very detailed and quick. It looks quite difficult. The dancers were working very hard, and it showed, especially on the small, intimate stage of the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, also sometimes known as the Asolo Theatre. It’s an extremely pretty theatre, but the stage is a bit tight for a larger work like this one, and the audience can see every bead of sweat on the dancers’ faces. This particular cast did not look fully at ease with the challenges of the choreography—except for the three dancers in a short, witty, pas de trois, Sara Sardelli, Logan Learned, and Nicolo Centocchi. They wore somewhat glazed, eagerly painfully cheerful expressions that did not vary from one dance to the next. Of course, it was a première; hopefully with time, and perhaps on a larger stage, they will grow into the choreography and give it more of the variety and charm it requires. Also, a live orchestra would help the dancers relate to the music in a more easy, responsive way. As it was, the recorded music (by Auber, arranged by Contstant Lambert) felt disconnected from the dance.
“The Rake’s Progress” and Layton’s “The Grand Tour” fared much better. “Rake” is one of De Valois’ best-known works (in England), and one of the most representative of her style. We never see her ballets here in U.S. After dancing in the popular British pantomimes early in her career, De Valois joined the Ballets Russes, dancing mostly character roles in ballets such as Nijinska’s “Les Biches” and “Le Train Bleu.” After creating the Vic-Wells Ballet in the early thirties (which would become the Royal Ballet in 1956), she continued to dance character roles and began to create story ballets to capitalize on the talents of dancers like Markova, Margot Fonteyn, and Robert Helpmann. As the very informative (and well-written) Sarasota program notes indicated, “she strove to produce a distinctively English style of choreography, drawing on English themes or sources.” “Rake’s Progress” is a perfect example: it is directly inspired by a series of highly descriptive paintings by William Hogarth, now at the Soane Museum in London, which depict the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the careless and spendthrift heir of a wealthy London merchant. In a series of danced tableaux, the ballet recounts Rakewell’s largesse (in The Reception) and spurning of his virtuous fiancée, an orgy in a whorehouse (a wonderful scene), a gambling party where Rakewell loses everything, debtor’s prison, and the madhouse, where Rakewell raves and then expires, shaken by convulsions.
This remarkable ballet, which the company first performed in 2009, was danced and acted with such vividness that it was difficult to imagine that these were the same dancers that had seemed so remote in the previous work. Especially notable were Octavio Martín as the Rake, whose facial expressions ranged from the confusion and blankness of the first scene, to his complete breakdown in the last; Simon Mummé as the dancing master, performing a spot-on characterization of a tyrannical type well-known to any dancer; Danielle Brown and Abigail Henninger as the dancer and the ballad singer in the brothel scene, and Victoria Hulland as the Betrayed Girl. The long dancing lesson scene is perhaps the high point of the whole ballet, with its prissy teacher who is never satisfied and becomes increasingly annoyed with his student, all the while performing devilishly taxing petit allegro footwork (and clutching a violin). The madhouse scene is a triumph of the grotesque, as each madman acts out his particular folly. The colorful costumes and grotesque makeup all add to the powerful effect of the ballet.
Danielle Brown and Victoria Hulland returned in the final ballet, Layton’s “Grand Tour.” This light piece, set to music by Noël Coward (orchestrated by Hershy Kay), was first performed by Sadler’s Wells in 1971. It is set in the twenties, on the promenade deck of a ship on which an American tourist, an older lady, has embarked, headed for Europe. Her shipmates include various celebrities (Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas) and two gypsy stowaways, whom she protects. It’s more theatre than dance: each character does a little number summarizing his or her particular qualities—George Bernard Shaw is a dirty old man; Noël Coward smokes, Fairbanks (danced by the dashing, Brazilian Ricardo Graziano) is sporty and handsome. It’s quite funny; I especially enjoyed the moment when Fairbanks (Graziano) took out Alice B. Toklas for a spin (a waltz), only to be interrupted by the monumental Gertrude Stein (danced by a man, Miguel Piquer), who then proceeded to lead Toklas in a tango. The ballet has a touching dénouement; the American spinster, very sweetly played by Amy Wood, who has been spurned by her glamorous shipmates for the majority of the trip, is taken out for a very romantic dance with the chief steward (Ricardo Rhodes). Cleverly, Layton retains her awkwardness until the end; she doesn’t suddenly morph into a sexy sylph capable of great feats of dance, but she bumbles through, and her profound joy and gratitude are all the more touching. She, representing the rest of us, has her moment. And Sarasota Ballet is having its.
The next performances by the Sarasota Ballet Will be March 4-6. On the program, Fleming Flindt’s “The Lesson” and Act III of Bournonville’s “Napoli.”
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