"Birthday Offering," "Illuminations," "Facade"
The Sarasota Ballet,
Sarasota Opera House,
30 April 2014
by Judith Cruickshank
copyright 2014 by Judith Cruickshank
There used to be a fashion in London for presenting male dancers with laurel wreaths at the end of perform-ances.What they did with them subsequently I don't know, but the custom has long died out. It was revived however last night in Sarasota"s pretty Opera House when Iain Webb, director of the Sarasota ballet, garlanded the bust of Sir Frederick Ashton placed at one side of the stage to mark the opening of the company's four-day Ashton Festival.
In the seven years since he took over as director Webb has built up a considerable repertory of Ashton's ballets. Not that this excludes other creators. No fewer than 32 choreographers and producers are listed in the programme as having worked with these dancers and that doesn't include ballets by the company's resident choreographer, Ricardo Graziano or or works by aspirant choreographers from the company.
Webb's original plan was to show nine complete ballets by Ashton, plus a number of divertissments, some rarely seen. Sadly injury has meant that the promised performance of "Symphonic Variations", arguably Ashton's greatest masterpiece, has had to be cancelled. But last night's opening performance was certainly a good augury for the programmes to come.
There could hardly be a better opening for a celebration than "Birthday Offering". Seven couples in glamorous costumes by Andre Levasseur, Glazunov's pretty music and a set of variations tailored to celebrate the beauty and the gifts of the dancers on whom they were created. I doubt that any company today could field seven real ballerinas -- a ballerina being a very different animal than a principal dancer, however gifted.
The Sarasota company is no exception to that rule but they have attractive dancers, beautifully and lovingly coached. Ashton would have been thrilled by the neat footwork shown by the majority and certainly by the way in which the seven cavaliers threw themselves with relish into the mazurka section he devised for them. Among the women I liked Kate Hornea in the variation created for Nadia Nerina and Sareen Tchekmedyian in the dance made for the tall, slender Beryl Grey -- surprising because Tchekmedyian is not tall and, though slim, is rounded.
Victoria Hulland, splendidly partnered by Graziano ,danced Fonteyn's role and although no dancer can erase the memory of the original, I liked the the simplicity and honesty of her dancing. Like Fonteyn at her best there were no assumed airs and graces.
"Illuminations" which followed is in many ways a difficult piece. Based on the series of poems of the same name written by Arthur Rimbaud it was originally created for New York City Ballet and is danced to Benjamin Britten's musical setting for tenor and strings for nine of the poems. Singer for this performance was Matt Morgan with conductor Ormsby Wilkins and the Sarasota Orchestra.
It might have been helpful if the programme had included Rimbaud's words to give the audience some clue as to the action on stage. As it was Graziano gave a strong performance as The Poet with Ellen Overstreet as Profane Love. I'm not sure whether profane love is a concept which makes a great deal of sense to people of their generation, but both performances need more rough edges to make them resonate with Ashton's intentions and the part autobiographical content of Rimbaud's verses. More successful was Amy Wood, serene as Sacred Love, especially in the sequence where she is partnered by four young men who carry her swooping across the stage.
The programme finished with a bright, fresh and funny performance of "Facade". How many jokes last for more than 80 years? Praise here for all the performers and for Webb's wife, Margaret Barbieri, who staged both this and "Birthday Offering". In "Facade," I would single out especially the four young ladies of the Valse and David Tlaiye as the Gigolo whose performances were all the funnier and more telling because they resisted the temptation to over play.