Sarasota Ballet dancers tackle variety in choreography and themes in ‘Portraits of Expression’

Sarasota Ballet dancers gather in a scene from Emeralds. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Emeralds, the first section of George Balanchine’s stunning, full evening ballet Jewels, recaptures the grace and elegance of the Romantic ballets of the 19th century. It was the opening act of Sarasota Ballet’s Portraits of Expressionprogram at the Sarasota Opera House April 5-6.

Set to a lyrical, sweet score by French composer Gabriel Faure, the ballet opens with a vision of the dancers, wearing Barbara Karinska’s bright green costumes and sparkling jewels, stopping for a moment’s pose, as if preparing for a romantic evening.

Romantic love has always been a popular subject in the ballet world; that held true for Balanchine, as well. However, the plot or story of a Balanchine ballet reflects the music he has selected for his vision. Emeralds is no exception. Not only do the gentle rhythms of Faure’s composition cast a mood of yearning and melancholy, as if in a dream world, but they also suggest that yearning as an emotion connected to love is part of Balanchine’s own experience.

As usual in one of Balanchine’s strict, classical ballets, the choreography is a fast-moving, intricate combination of solos, pas de deux, trios, and a group of 10 dancers in a series of small variations. A sense of yearning dominates the choreography, as well, with arms constantly stretching out into the world, symbolizing the dancers seeking love and happiness.

In the first pas de deux of the matinee performance on April 6, Jennifer Hackbarth, a lovely, new member of Sarasota Ballet, was light on her feet and expressed happiness in her duet with Ricardo Rhodes, who has always been a reliable partner in his years with Sarasota Ballet.

In this ode to love, Hackbarth demonstrated a sweetness that appeared a little forced, and some of her quick transitions between steps, though complicated, were a little awkward.

Lauren Ostrander, a dancer with musicality, who was partnered with Ivan Spitale, portrayed a sense of innocence with a turn of her head and a smile for him.

In general, the dancers were competent. The lifts added difficulty, but the smaller nuances of individuality were missing; it were as if the dancers had learned the choreography, but they lacked sufficient connection to the music and to one another.

Rhodes did support Hackbarth in fish dives and other acrobatic lifts, while approaching his own solo with obvious delight. He stood center stage for a moment, his posture saying, “Watch me” as he began twirling and jumping with vigor and an easy energy, making his performance a surprise spark in an otherwise gentle ballet.

A dramatic and gripping interlude

This is a scene from Las Hermanas. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Ahead of the second performance, the audience was told there was a mature warning for Las Hermanas (The Sisters), Sir Kenneth MacMilan’s 1963 ballet about the consequences of repression and love. It is set to Swiss composer Frank Martin’s score, which features the otherworldly sound of a harpsichord.

MacMilan’s version of the 1936 play, based on The House of Bernarda Alba by Frederico Garcia Lorca, was a dramatic challenge for the dancers, as the choreography blends the classical ballet vocabulary with emotional body movements.

The setting is a dark and dreary stone home. As the curtain rose, a family of five girls were sitting on chairs, heads bowed as a woman slowly came down the stairs with the help of a menacing cane. The girls could be prisoners in a jail, as the rumbling music reflected their emotions.

The young women were not small children anymore, and the mother had decided that the oldest girl should marry. Thus, the woman brought a man into the house. Dancing that role, Maximiliano Iglesias glided onto the scene with entitlement and arrogance in every gesture and every movement as he was — to borrow an expression — cock of the walk.

After his character had surveyed the situation, he appeared to have no second thoughts about betraying the oldest sister and responding to the advances of the youngest sister’s passionate embrace. But the oldest sister pointed her finger at the youngest sister, drawing their mother into the problem.

The man disappeared, and all the girls, except the youngest, returned to their chairs.

The youngest girl went up the stairs and entered a room, pulling a curtain to close the door. The ballet then ended with both bleak tragedy and a surprise. It is a dramatic and gripping work danced with energy and strong conviction.

A Gershwin antidote to Las Hermanas

Who Cares is a ballet set to 16 of George Gershwin’s songs that Balanchine asked Hershey Key to orchestrate, as this ballet was to be a gift to New York City.

After the darkness of Las Hermanas, it was a relief to see the stage covered with a flock of dancers in front of a silhouette of New York City skyscrapers and hear the sound of toe-tapping melodies.

Dancers delight in the Gershwin music of Who Cares. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Who can resist the combination of dancers dancing to the Gershwin melodies? The choreography, except for the basic structure common to most Balanchine ballets, is open, loose ad jazzy; the dancers dove in with joy and delight.

The choreography also is fast moving, as one variation follows another in the wink of an eye, each one as delightful as the previous one.

I knew I was going to have trouble choosing a favorite variation, but it might have been Biden My Time, with the surprise of five saucy men dancing their debonair hearts out.

Ricardo Rhodes, who was having a busy afternoon on stage, seemed to equally comfortable as the sauntering man about town in Liza and in his duets with Jessica Assef, Marijana Dominis and Emelia Perkins. The subtle, quick timing in the choreography and quick shifts contrasted with slower footwork, defining Balanchine’s approach to Gershwin’s songs.

Trust in odd moments of partnering, as in The Man I Love, danced by Assef and Rhodes, and then wide strides and catchy balances in Dominis’ solo performance of My One and Only, partly describe the choreography.

The songs are familiar; I found myself tapping a foot and silently hearing some of the words in my mind during this joyful ballet, which connects the vision of two magical artists.

Who Cares is the kind of ballet that you do not want to see end, but the afternoon performance of the Sarasota Ballet came to a finale as the entire company of 24 dancers covered the stage from corner to corner in a reprise of the opening song, Strike Up the Band.