Sarasota dance company challenges world’s finest ballet productions
Taking off with resounding national acclaim for the past three years, Sarasota Ballet has jetéd with aplomb into its 25th anniversary season. This season features several company premieres, including the staging of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations which has never been performed by a company outside of England. “It has a huge cast of 60 dancers,” Sarasota Ballet marketing director Mike Marraccini says. “It’s gigantic.”
To understand what makes the world-class company located in the culturally rich jewel that’s only a two-hour drive from Fort Myers, it helps to understand Ashton as well as the passion of director Iain Webb and his wife, assistant director Margaret Barbieri, a former principal of the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. Both are former dancers with a uniquely sublime passion for the art. The results, by all accounts, are dazzling. “They’re doing things nobody else is doing in the country,” says Sanibel islander and ballet-goer Lisa Heidrick. The performances are “all worth going to. It’s on par, if not better, than what they’re doing in New York, San Francisco or Chicago.”
Indeed, they’ve been heralded on their journeys beyond: Washington, D.C., New York and the Berkshires in Massachusetts. When the company debuted with Ashton’s ice-skating themed ballet Les Patineurs at the Kennedy Center’s annual 2013 Ballet Across America, Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman proclaimed theirs a “fresh, bighearted performance” that “ensured its place as the jewel” at the festival. The troupe took it to New York City in 2014.
Sarasota Ballet debuted in 2015 at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Mass. “The Sarasota achievement in Ashton choreography would be cause for warmest congratulation in a British company; to find it in an American company based in a city perched on the Gulf of Mexico is beyond extraordinary,” noted New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay.
Sarasota Ballet challenges audiences with its wide-ranging repertoire, led by 21 of Ashton’s choreographic masterpieces and 12 by his contemporary, George Balanchine, in addition to many others past and present. These include Agnes de Mille, Dame Ninette de Valois, Michel Fokine, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon and more.
Ashton was for decades a revered figure in the dance world. His creative genius was influenced by classical and modern dance, as well as opera. And he influenced them as well. Ashton began choreographing in 1931 for Vic-Wells Ballet and was the director until 1970. (It is now called The Royal Ballet.)
Many of his nearly 100 ballets became landmarks, including Cinderella, and he continued working with contemporary stars, such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, before he died in 1988. “We’ve been touring because of the renown we’re receiving by reviving Ashton ballet,” says Marraccini.
Director Iain Webb, also an Englishman, has taken Sarasota Ballet to new heights since he was tapped to lead it in 2007 with Margaret Barbieri. Since then, they have staged 124 ballets and divertissements, including 35 world premieres and six American premieres.
Sanibel resident and former professional dancer Marsha Wagner performed a small role in Ashton’s Illuminations as a young ballerina with the New York City Ballet. She was thrilled when the Sarasota Ballet staged it, she says, because it hadn’t
Sarasota Ballet challenges audiences with its wide-ranging repertoire.
To find it in an American (ballet) company based in a city perched on the Gulf of Mexico is beyond extraordinary.” —New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay
“been done in years and years and years.” She arrived at the performance a bit wary. “I was totally but totally blown away by the company. Not only did they do a brilliant version honoring Ashton, they got the nuances that I knew having worked with him—they got it to the letter,” she says.
Wagner, who had a multi-stage career, was also impressed with the staging of a Balanchine ballet. “That was brilliantly done,” she says. “The difference between the two choreographers is vast. You have totally different dynamics.”
In December, the innovative company stages its rendition of a holiday classic, John Ringling’s Circus Nutcracker, set to Tchaikovsky’s timeless score by the Sarasota Orchestra. “It’s not just a magnificent performance, which it is, it’s integrating something we all feel strongly about—our history and community,” says Heidrick. “It’s a gift to Sarasota and Southwest Florida.”
Heidrick also is a fan of Theatre of Dreams, in which dancers choreograph their own pieces with resident choreographer Ricardo Graziano. Sarasota is the nearest full resident ballet company, and Heidrick and Wagner encourage aficionados to plan a day trip that includes dinner and visits to the other cultural gems. “It’s really very close—closer than you think,” says Heidrick.
Ricardo Graziano and Ryoko Sadoshima performing in Christopher Wheeldon’s The American.
Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano performing in Alex Harrison’s The Blue Hour.