In spite of ‘Fancy Free’ as the headliner, Balanchine works steal the show during Sarasota Ballet’s last program of the season

Logan Learned and Danielle Brown among the outstanding performers on the bill

Image courtesy Sarasota Ballet

The last program of the 2016-17 Sarasota Ballet season included a premiere of Fancy Free, the 1944 wartime ballet that introduced Jerome Robbins to the dance world. I am a fan of Robbins’ ballets, so I was happy to revisit a work I had seen years ago. I also was pleased to see that Sarasota Ballet might begin to explore a new choreographic world.

Robbins often created narrative ballets. Fancy Free is the story of three bored sailors and their competition for the two girls who wander into the same bar where they are drinking and horsing around. The Leonard Bernstein score has a contemporary, subtle riff on jazz. (It was played with vigor on April 28 by the Sarasota Orchestra under the baton of Ormsby Wilkins.) It is easy to see how this ballet ushered into the dance world a new exciting era of a young American aesthetic. But that was 1944 — almost 75 years ago — and there have been many ballets by Robbins since that time.

Yes, there is still a freshness to Fancy Free, and it conveys the sense that one is seeing real people reveal their emotions through movement. Yes, I also have to admit, it is still charming, with much of the humor and athleticism that has marked many of Robbins’ ballets since this initial success. No question, the promise of a gifted choreographer is here, despite the stereotypical depiction of both the sailors and the girls.

The technical difficulty in Fancy Free remains a challenge for the Sarasota Ballet dancers, who must portray their characters and move the plot forward in a seamless interpretation of the choreography, which blends classical ballet and natural movement.

Alex Harrison, Jamie Carter and Ricardo Rhodes as the three sailors bounced through the variations and the good-natured teasing that defined the plot, with expressive friendship, but they needed a few more performances to appear completely free in the roles. However, there were moments of glee and insouciance in Harrison’s somersaults, in Carter’s daring jumps off of a high counter, and in Rhodes’ sexy, squiggly, hip-swirling solo that Robbins had originally choreographed for himself. Daniele Brown and Sareen Tchekmedyian in character as the two girls added a dash of glamor.

I had expected Fancy Free to be the highlight of the evening’s performance, but Valse Fantasie (1967) and Tarantella (1964), two ballets by George Balanchine — choreographed in the 1960s — were a light-hearted, brilliant addition to a program mired in a world at war, given the plots of the other two ballets.

Valse Fantasie, set to a score of the same name by Mikhail Glinka, set my heart soaring. It is an easy, lovely ballet with no plot, just an excuse to explore the waltz in a number of variations. Victoria Hulland was her usual lyrical, musical self as she soared across the stage alone or with her partner, Edward Barnes, a dancer who was new to me but who has an easy strength.

Balanchine has a way of moving dancers in and out of patterns and around the stage that is perfect, and the quartet of girls — dressed in light flowing shifts — were a subtle counterpoint to the main couple.

But it was Tarentella, the second Balanchine ballet of the evening, that quite literally “stole the show.” Set to the toe-tapping rhythms of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, it featured one of Logan Learned’s show-stopping performances. Needless to say, the choreography was lightening fast, as both Logan and his partner, Kate Honea, whirled around the stage, their feet nimbly echoing the quick patter of the tarantella rhythms while they were pretending to beat on a tambourine held high in the air.

Honea has a sharp edge to her dancing, and the choreography gave her ample opportunity to show off her turns and quick footwork.

But Learned is a gifted dancer, and this sets him apart from anyone who shares the stage with him. I can describe how he plays with the music and the character with a shoulder shrug or a nod of his head; but that does not explain a kinesthetic projection that is often described as charisma, or a breath of artistic fire. In short, I saw the dance and not the steps.

Sarasota Ballet performs ‘Checkmate.’ Image from the company via Vimeo

Of course, Checkmate, choreographed by Dame Ninette de Valois — the opening ballet of the program — is an homage to the history of the English ballet under the direction of Dame de Valois. She was the founder of the school and company that eventually became the English Royal Ballet.

The ballet is considered a classical exploration of love and death, or good and evil. It mixes mechanical movements and traditional pointe work for the chess pieces as the story of trust, betrayal and murder unfolds to a magnificent, emotional score created for the work by Sir Arthur Bliss.

Danielle Brown gave a dramatic, stunning performance as the evil Black Queen.

There was no listing of the 2017-18 season, so I have no idea if the Sarasota Ballet is planning to continue dipping into the museum of English choreography or if the artistic direction has been pointed toward more contemporary ballets. Rumor has it that a number of dancers will be dismissed because of budget concerns; yet, at the same time, it is said that the “cream at the top” is bubbling over.