Title of program hints at season to come
Usually, the title given to one of Sarasota Ballet’s programs refers to an overall theme like romance or comedy; but I had to double-check the meaning of “serendipitous” to understand the purpose of the final performances of the season, held over the past weekend. Its title was Serendipitous Movement.
Yes, pairing ballets as diverse as Serenade, (Balanchine), The Letter V (Mark Morris), and Elite Syncopations (Sir Kenneth MacMillan) is a brilliant but unexpected guide to the world of ballet beyond the Romantic period. However, anyone who has been following the Sarasota Ballet under Iain Webb’s direction knows the company’s repertoire has grown far beyond its heavy reliance on the ballets of Sir Frederic Ashton. Since “serendipitous” refers to something unexpected or opportune, I understood that this final program of the season was a harbinger of ballets to come next season. Finally forgetting my mental gymnastics, I settled back to enjoy the music of a live orchestra and the dancing of young and talented company members.
Serenade, Balanchine’s first ballet after settling in the United States, opens with 20 women in filmy, pale blue skirts, simply standing in a focused stillness, their arms bent at the elbow and resting on others’ shoulders, heads slightly to the side. A moment later when they straighten their arms and offer their open palms to the world.
The dancers then slowly and carefully changed their feet from a parallel position to first position, with heel touching heel, as they would do in the first moments of a ballet class.
There is a beautiful simplicity to the first of the four movements as Tchaikovsky’s haunting Serenade for Strings sets the scene. The slow sensuous music of Tchaikovsky’s score creates the emotional arc of the ballet. As the violins sang and cried with each movement of the complex choreography, the connection to the music was so perfect it seemed inevitable.
During the second movement: Waltz, Marijana Dominis, light on her feet, skimmed across the floor and melted into Ricardo Graziano’s strong arms.
In the third movement — Russian Dance — Anna Pellegrino, a dancer new to me, flew across the stage in bounding leaps as the Russian girl who was then joined by four other girls.
The fourth movement of the ballet hinted at the Orpheus legend. Daniel Pratt, as the Elegy Man, raised Pellegrino from the floor. He was helped by Kelly Williams as The Dark Angel, who was hanging over his back as he reached out to Pellegrino. Ultimately, Pellegrino remained alone until four men lifted her above their heads and carried her aloft like a living icon as the ballet slowly came to an end.
Mark Morris, like George Balanchine is primarily influenced by the music he has chosen for a ballet. Morris has said that he listens over and over to the music before starting to work with the dancers. For The Letter V, he turned to Joseph Haydn’s powerful Symphony No. 88 in G.
In the very first moment, the ballet’s 16 dancers burst onto the stage with stretched legs and arms, like bird wings. They zipped through the air. Couples danced together and then parted to join others in a constant exchange of relationships. The many and varied lifts were like punctuation marks. Though there was a seamless flow of movement, it was hard to know what would come next.
In a surprise moment, Luke Schaufuss, a stunning dancer, appeared alone in a solo, emphasizing rolling arms along with small shifts of movement throughout his body until he was joined by Richard House, Samuel Gest and Pratt in an ensemble variation.
Unison movements appeared to be Morris’ favored device, along with rounded arms reaching upward.
Maile Okamura’s green-and-black striped unitards for the male dancers and attractive green dresses for the women, together with Nicole Pearce’s lighting, added to the upbeat mood of the dancing, especially in the mid-section.
The company formed two circles that harkened back to Morris’s’ early days as a folk dancer. Women made up the inner circle while the men created the outer circle as they pranced around. Eventually, they formed a traditional hand-over-hand chain dance.
I had no idea what this section had to do with the rest of the ballet, but it worked. Somehow, Morris has a way of creating movement that echoes and breathes with the music he is using. The last section of this short ballet was reserved for the men in the company. Together, they stood in lines, swinging one leg back and forth while their arms swung in the opposite direction, almost like a metronome.
Then the curtain was lowered, but I was ready to start watching the entire ballet again. I do not know why, but I think the seamless, nonstop dancing intertwined with the music felt like a nod to the human spirit.
Sir Kenneth MacMillan choreographed Elite Syncopations as a fun ballet featuring the ragtime music of Scott Joplin and Joplin’s fellow composers of toe-tapping, rhythmic songs. As part of the ballet’s aesthetic, the stage of the Sarasota Opera House was transformed into a jazz club for this afternoon’s performance. A 12-piece band played on stage, colored lights hung everywhere, and the dancers in Ian Spurling’s zany, wild-colored costumes flitted about, adding to a surprising, delightful scene.
MacMillan used 10 ragtime songs in a masterful blending of the classical ballet vocabulary with American street dances of the 1920s and the 1930s, with hints of the Charleston, the Black Bottom and the Cake Walk scattered throughout the choreography. While the band kept playing, the full cast of dancers kept time with pulsating shoulder and hip rolls, acrobatics and some showing off, along with tumbling tricks and handstands.
The entire cast of the Sarasota Ballet Company danced with elegance, joy and panache.
Individual variations mixed in with the group choreography generated nonstop energy.
To name a few of the variations: Dominique Jenkins and Kelly Williams charmed in a bouncy ballet to Joplin’s The Cascades. Marijana Dominis and Ricardo Graziano added elegance to their waltz in Scott Joplin’s Bethena — A Concert Waltz. Ricki Bertoni enjoyed being the mischievous partner to a teasing Williams in The Alaskan Rag, and Jenkins caressed the floor with her feet in her witty solo to the Calliope Rag.
Yuri Marques, Yui Nonaka and Bertoni pretended to be a trio of acrobatic boxers in the Hot House Rag.
On a personal note: My favorite solo was a showcase for Nonaka’s easy flexibility; she was like a robot toy in the rag Friday Nights, which was composed by Donald Ashwander, an old friend of mine.
Altogether, this was a fascinating program of serendipitous movement and an inspired conclusion to a successful season.