|The milkmaid of Facade, photo by Frank Atura|
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|
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|
|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.