20th century’s top choreographers represented in Sarasota Ballet’s November performances

Balanchine still technically challenging; Sinfonietta’s dancing a delight; Gala Performance proves dated, in spite of ballerinas’ talents

Iain Webb. Image courtesy Sarasota Ballet
Iain Webb. Image courtesy Sarasota Ballet

Iain Webb is celebrating both his 10-year milestone as director of the Sarasota Ballet and his surprising achievement in transforming a small, regional ballet company into an international one known for its repertoire by the British choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton.

George Balanchine, Antony Tudor and Ashton are the three legendary masters who loom over the 20th century ballet landscape; they all are noted for their brilliance of choreographic vision. Since ballets by all three were scheduled for a program in the Sarasota Opera House — with the added attraction of the Sarasota Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Jonathan McPhee — I bought a ticket for the Nov. 18 performance and looked forward to an evening’s escape into nostalgia.

Balanchine was 24 when he choreographed Apollo, the story of a young god finding his strength as an artist; and it can easily be interpreted as the ballet in which Balanchine himself found his own unique voice. The year was 1928, a time between two world wars and a period of experimentation in the visual arts and in the ballet world. And, perhaps most importantly, it was the first of many years of collaboration between Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky.

Balanchine has said that when he first heard the haunting score of Stravinsky’s Apollo Musagete, he was so impressed by the beauty and clarity of the music that he was inspired to create the iconic, neo-classical style of ballet that eventually became the foundation of his choreography.

I have seen the ballet Apollo many times, but it has been some years since I have had an opportunity to see a performance accompanied by an on-site orchestra, so it was a special treat to hear the orchestra play as the curtain rose on Nov. 18.

Essentially, the ballet tells the story of Apollo, the god of music (Ricardo Rhodes), and his encounter with three muses: Calliope, the muse of poetry (Amy Wood), Polyhymnia, the muse of mime (Kristianne Kleine), and Terpsichore, the muse of dance and song (Victoria Hulland). There is a prologue of a birth scene that ends with Rhodes, now the adult Apollo, alone on stage, playing a lyre with wild arm movements as if getting ready to lasso an object. Then the three muses appear, long legs stretching out in space to announce their entrance.

Each muse receives a symbol of her art from Rhodes and then performs an appropriate solo. I thought that Kleinne’s allegro variation as the muse of mime had style and charisma; but Apollo gave his lyre to Terpsichore (Hulland), a graceful, musical muse close to his own heart.

Ricardo Rhodes. Photo courtesy Sarasota Ballet
Ricardo Rhodes. Photo courtesy Sarasota Ballet

Rhodes, in the demanding title, does his best to convey strength and nobility, but the choreography is difficult. There are many leaps, forward jumps, and quick transitions between solo moments and groupings with the muses. Balanchine extends the traditional classical ballet vocabulary: There are puttering, quick steps on pointe for the muses; quick, flat-footed walks for Apollo, as well as his muses; arms that stretch and intertwine into complex patterns; and legs that jut into space like spokes on a wheel.

Over the years, Balanchine discarded the opening birth scene and simplified the costumes and even some of the choreography, but the essence of the neoclassical style of the ballet has remained. Almost 90 years had passed between the premiere of Apollo and the performance I saw, but the combination of the Stravinsky score and Balanchine’s choreography remains magical and meaningful.

The ‘second act’

I am not always a fan of Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballets, but to my surprise, I found Sinfonietta to be a delightful, fascinating work. Choreographed in 1967, it is an abstract ballet divided into three sections; it was one of the last ballets choreographed by Sir Frederick. The first and third sections — a Toccata and a Tarantella — are lively interpretations of Sir Malcolm Williamson’s fast and urgent musical score.

Sinfonietta is by Sir Frederick Ashton. Image courtesy Sarasota Ballet
Sinfonietta is by Sir Frederick Ashton. Image courtesy Sarasota Ballet

In the opening Toccato section of duets with challenging fast and intricate footwork and conventional partnering, Nicole Padilla and her partner, Xavier Nunez, were a joyful pair as they scampered across the stage, and fun to watch.

The second section, Elegy, is a journey away from all the jumping and high energy of the first and third sections, and it has a dreamlike quality. I wonder about this section — whether it is a subtle comment on the other two sections or whether it is an exercise in choreographic manipulation. I could not find any logical connection between this part and the other sections of Sinfonietta, but both the unitard costumes and the choreography reminded me of Monotones, another abstract Ashton ballet.

Ellen Overstreet. Photo courtesy Sarasota Ballet
Ellen Overstreet. Photo courtesy Sarasota Ballet

That said, I found it a fascinating exercise in balancing and partnering as I watched Ellen Overstreet, a calm flexible dancer, as she bent, stretched and somersaulted while being held aloft. Ricardo Rhodes in a feat of partnering, was assisted in this dramatic stunt by David Tlaiye, Jamie Carter, Daniel Rodriguez and Daniel Pratt. During the entire section, Overstreet was carried and passed around from one “courtier” to another, like an animated basketball, only touching a toe on the ground for a second during this entire section of the ballet.

In contrast to the otherworldliness of the Elegy section, Tarantella, the third and final part of the ballet, reprises the opening with the addition of 16 dancers so that the entire stage is transformed into a lively scene like a country fair, with everyone in bright costumes, whirling around and tapping their feet to fast and furious rhythms.

Sir Frederick knew audiences and knew how to create a happy mood. That is obvious. But the evening’s program had one more ballet.

The ‘third act’

Antony Tudor’s Gala Performance, choreographed in 1938, is a light-hearted, amusing look at the vanities and egos of a trio of competing ballerinas. Kristianne Kleine an overdramatic Russian ballerina; Victoria Hulland, a remote Italian ballerina; and Kate Honea, a dizzy, frazzled French ballerina, played their parts to perfection. But the humor is dated. There is too much going on in the 21st century of television and cellphones for one to be amused by weak satire.

Actually, the subject is an unusual one for a Tudor ballet. Although he was known to be a choreographer intent on discovering the truth of human emotions, and though his other ballets have passed the test of time, depicting humor was obviously a challenging obstacle for Tudor.

More Balanchine is on the program for Dec. 16-17. Jewels, a full evening ballet considered to be one of Mr. B’s masterpieces — with a full orchestra once again — will be presented at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. So — see you at the ballet.