Sarasota Ballet’s final program of 2023 portends great pleasure to come for patrons in latter half of season

The Sarasota Ballet performs George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. Photo by Frank Atura for Sarasota Ballet

(Editor’s note: Because of software issues, the publication of this article was unfortunately delayed. Our critic has talked about the portent of even greater quality in the performances during the second half of Sarasota Ballet’s 2023-24 season, based on the dancing she saw in the final production of 2023.)

George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp sharing a program? An unexpected duo, but not so odd, as first glance suggested.

Both choreographers have explored and redefined the limits of the classical ballet vocabulary. I had seen Balanchine’s Theme and Variations before but had never seen The Upper Room: It was time. In fact, when a friend asked me about the performance, I sent her a copy of my notes and suggested we go together to the next Sarasota Ballet performance this month.

In the latter part of December 2023, when I opened the playbill, I saw that Theme and Variations would begin the program. Balanchine’s 1947 tribute to the classical ballet tradition of Czarist Russia is set to the glorious final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 1884 Suite No. 3.

The curtain rose on a scenic attempt to recreate the ballroom setting of a royal event, with candles and a painted backdrop, but the focus was on the dancers and particularly on Jessica Assef, not only a new member of the Sarasota Ballet but also the company’s newest principal dancer.

Assef, though strong and proud as the role required, still needed an edge of softness to add an aura of individuality to match her glittering tiara. On stage, she appears to be tall, and this created a problem with Maximiliano Iglesias, her partner, who did his best to overcome the difference in their heights. On his own, he showed himself to be an energetic jumper and performed his solo with a joyous energy. However, this was vintage Balanchine: groups of dancers meeting and then parting in groups, solos, pas de deux, with quick footwork and a variety of complicated patterns that blended Balanchine’s choreography with the emotional Tchaikovsky score, especially the final grand polonaise. Though the dancers managed Balanchine’s faster tempos in the otherwise traditional steps, there was little elegance hovering over this well-rehearsed but mundane performance of the iconic ballet Theme and Variations.

I have always found Twyla Tharp’s ballets unforgettable. At the same time, I have thought that her choreographic vision was connected to the general culture. As I had never seen In The Upper Room, I was both curious and impatient for the start of that ballet, but was confused for a moment as the curtain rose on an empty stage: no one and nothing until a few whisps of smoke floated through the air.

This is a scene from Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, performed by Sarasota Ballet. Photo by Frank Atura for Sarasota Ballet

Two dancers (Anna Pellegrino and Dominique Jenkins), wearing Norma Kamali’s black-and-white striped costumes, emerged from the darkness and began to flex their arm and leg muscles as they marched in place. Other dancers joined the two until all 15 dancers were together on the stage and began their movements. In fact, the dancers continued moving without a second’s pause for the next 39 minutes while Philip Glass’s score of repetitious rhythms, odd melodies, strange voices and metallic sounds provided a perfect sound board for the whirling movements of the dancers as they ran forwards and then backwards but always in perpetual motion.

Tharp’s athletic choreography for In The Upper Room explores the possible variety inherent in movement. It is built on nine sections that are defined by changes in the Kamali costumes and shoes, adding red tops, pants and pointe shoes. The dancers, who bound happily through the repetitious score and complicated combinations of straight-leg leaps, jumps, acrobatic headstands and upside-down lifts — with swaying hips and shuddering shoulders — are marvels of endurance.

As the ballet reached its finale, both the dancers and I felt exhausted but joyous; but the audience had already recognized the power of dance, as one curtain call after another — accompanied by many bravos — added to the wonder of watching a masterpiece unfold.