Sarasota Ballet's Sir Fred Steps

Facade from Sarasota Ballet
Sarasota Ballet made their debut at the Joyce Theater on August 8 with an All-Ashton program that was given an extremely twee name: A Knight at the British Ballet. Artistic Director Iain Webb was a former dancer with the Royal Ballet and has decided to take Sarasota Ballet down a different path than the usual one for regional ballet companies. Instead of the mix of contemporary ballet mixed with some Balanchine (with an annual Nutcracker thrown in) Sarasota Ballet has made a commitment to presenting the works of Sir Frederick Ashton, and not just his warhorses like La Fille mal Gardee or Monotones or The Dream but the lesser-known works in his canon.The performance I caught at the Joyce seemed like this endeavor has yielded admirable but mixed results.

Valses sentimentales, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The program was an eclectic one -- only Facade was anywhere near "well-known". The others were all ballets that for whatever reason have fallen out of the general repertory. First up was Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Curtain goes up, music starts playing, and balletomanes are thinking this looks very familiar. That's because it's set to the same music as Balanchine's La Valse (Ravel's famous waltz). Costumes and decor are strikingly similar too -- same ballroom setting, same long maroon dresses for the women. But look closer and the ballet is the exact opposite of Balanchine's -- strange how two different choreographers set the exact same music to ballet at roughly the same time (Ashton's premiered in 1947 and Balanchine's in 1951) but "heard" the music so differently. Balanchine heard darkness, decadence and death in Ravel's waltz. Ashton presents the music as a backdrop for a rather elegant ballroom event. Couples waltz and waltz and it's all very impersonal.

This is where the limitations of Sarasota Ballet were the most apparent. They seemed to suffer from opening night nerves -- legs were stiff and wobbly and the girls made several slips in the final waltz portion. That's all understandable. Less understandable was how all the dancers had these stiff, fixed, front facing smiles at all times. This was the weirdest with the central trio (Danielle Brown, Ricardo Graziano, Jacob Hughes). Even when Brown was being carried aloft in a menage by the two men, her face was squarely to the audience in an unchanging grin. Surely Iain Webb coached them about how much Ashton emphasized interactions between dancers? They all looked like they were gymnasts who were saluting to the judges after nailing a vault.

The other issue I saw throughout the night was partnering. The small Joyce stage and auditorium meant that you often could see the many adjustments partners made in the middle of a performance. But men often had issues with holding their partners without noticeable shifting and women on their end had trouble holding poses without their legs wobbling or form faltering. Not sure whether it was a case of nerves but I did notice that the men were on the whole rather slim and slight.

Tweedeldum and Tweedledee, photo by Andrea Mohin
Intermission and then it was an eclectic mix of pas de deux. All of them were made in the later phase of Ashton's career and showed him branching off into different directions. Tweedledum and Tweedledee (1978) is a brief cameo based on the Alice in Wonderland books. It's a little precious but harmless. A Walk to Paradise Garden (set to gorgeous music from Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet) had Ashton abandoning the prim Fred step and "walking" lift in favor of MacMillan and/or Soviet style acrobatic lifts -- the plank lifts, the torch lift, the upside down lift, you name it. The Soviet-style partnering was beyond the abilities of Ricardo Graziano and Danielle Brown couldn't hold the poses without wobbling.  Too bad because this was by far the most intriguing work in the second set and it had a haunting ending. Jazz Calender/Friday's Child was again marred by too much fixed, front-facing smiles (it's a sexy, sultry duet) and Sinfonietta seemed too derivative of both Monotones (white space suits? Check) and Balanchine's The Unanswered Question (woman being held aloft by six men with her feet never touching the ground? Check). It even had a blatant ripoff of the famous sunburst pose in Apollo for good measure.

Facade final tableau, photo by Frank Atura

It was good that Sarasota Ballet got all their performance nerves and jitters out of the way because the final number of the evening required the entire company and they were magnificent. Individual dancers finally started stealing the show -- Kate Honea as the milkmaid, Sam O'Brien and Patrick Ward deadpan and droll in the Popular Song, Danielle Brown and David Tlaiye in the Tango-Pasodoble. Facade is the oldest number on the program (premiered in 1931) but it's the most timeless. This parody of the English music hall/vaudeville works because it's tongue-in-cheek but also a tribute. The best bits are maybe the Swiss yodeling song with a milkmaid "milking" two cows (really male dancers' fingers), the two soft-shoe dancers in the Popular Song and the Tango-Pasodoble (a parody of the overwrought mannerisms in Latin ballroom dancing). And the entire Sarasota Ballet ensemble was finally on for this ballet. There were no more wobbly arabesques, no more shaky partnering, no more fixed smiles. They were having fun, and the audience was having fun along with them. This was Sir Fred's best step.


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