Sara­sota dance com­pany chal­lenges world’s finest bal­let pro­duc­tions

RSWLiving - - Departments - BY CATHY CHEST­NUT

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.

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