Arts review: Reflections on art as it reflects on life

Sarasota Ballet offers contrasting pieces in first program of 2018-19 season

Ivan Spitale performs a leap in ‘Appalachian Spring.’ Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

“I’ve never seen so many straight backs in an audience,” said a friend of mine, whom I had met during an intermission of a performance by The Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

“That’s because dancers make up most of the audience,” I told her, knowing that Merce had a history of belonging to the avant gardeedge of the dance world and that the company also was understood to have a following among dancers.

An early member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Merce had originated the role of The Preacher in Appalachian Spring, the 1944 ballet about a 19th century American pioneer couple looking toward their future, as Aaron Copeland’s iconic score reflected their changing emotions. It was and has remained a popular ballet of early modern dance. Now, with an invitation from Iain Webb, artistic director of The Sarasota Ballet, it will join works by Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins — among others — in the company’s permanent repertoire.

Graham had been exploring movement and emotion for more than 20 years, since her days with the Denishawn Company, and was still unknown when I, as a teenager, discovered the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.

“It was almost like participating in a secret society,” I said to Peggy Lyman Hays, who was in Sarasota in her role of repetiteur, setting Appalachian Spring on the Sarasota Ballet Company.

We were sitting in a small office, discussing her experience in introducing Graham technique to the dancers.

“They were open to everything, but, of course, the floor work … falling, rolling getting up on quick beats, falling … was difficult,” Hays said.

Hays, or Peggy (modern dance is known for its use of first names), has been associated with the Graham Company in one role or another since the mid 1970s. As we reminisced about “Martha” and earlier days, we become instant friends.

Katelyn May performs in ‘Appalachian Spring.’ Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

I mentioned that I was surprised when I learned that Iain had not only invited the Graham Company to appear in February but that he had also added Appalachian Spring to the repertoire.

“I confess to being curious, but do you set this ballet on many ballet companies?”

Peggy hesitated. “No, not really,” she finally admitted. “It’s mostly for college dance departments. But the [Graham] company does a lot of touring. Right now, they are in Paris and then they’re off to China, and of course,” she added with a warm smile, “we will be here in Sarasota.”

“Will the ballet Diversion of Angels be included on the program for the February visit?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Peggy answered, “but perhaps it will be on Iain’s future shopping list.”

Peggy left for a last-minute rehearsal and I left the studio.

At the elevator, I met Ricardo Graziano, the dancer and the choreographer of Symphony of Sorrows, also scheduled to be part of the upcoming weekend’s performance. My conversation with Peggy was still rolling around in my mind, so I immediately asked Ricardo if he would be dancing in Appalachian Spring, and if so, in what role.

“Yes, I’m in Appalachian Spring,” he said, “and I was surprised to find how much I liked the technique, even though I had sore muscles … and pain; but I have the role of the husband.”

“That role was based on Erick Hawkins, Graham’s husband at the time, and the choreography reflected some of his own individual style of moving,” I told Ricardo. “It was early days of exploring emotion and movement … and in a way paved the path you have followed in some of your choreography. I’m thinking of Symphony of Sorrows.

“However,” I continued, “I do want to know how you choreographed such a moving ballet about the power of grief when you were so young.”

Ryoko Sadoshima and Rickie Bertoni are one of the couples in ‘Symphony of Sorrows.’ Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Ricardo, who has a gentle manner both on and off the stage, told me that he had been drawn to the music of Henryk Mikolaj Goreki; specifically, the slightly dissonant Symphony No. 3, Movement No. 3.

“But I did have a strange experience,” he added in a soft voice, “after I had choreographed the ballet. One of the Sarasota Ballet dancers, a friend of mine, had a fatal accident when he was riding his bicycle, and though the choreography grapples with translating the emotion of grief into movement, I hadn’t had a real-life experience of death.”

“Life and art,” I said. ”Rather a mystical connection.”

Ricardo, who is modest, has created a powerful ballet dealing with deep emotions. There are five couples on stage who disappear into darkness at the start of the ballet. Then one by one, they come forward to tell a desperate story in a series of imaginative duets in which the women seek support from their partners before they again retreat into the darkness.

The five couples appear on stage together in ‘Symphony of Sorrows.’ Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Ricardo choreographed Symphony of Sorrows six years ago. At that time, he had no idea how his ballet exploring the emotions of death and grief would come to echo the feelings of so many people sitting before their television sets, watching the emotional pain of a country coming to grips with the violence rampant in today’s America.