Strong emotional interpretations and high energy mark contrasts of two of three ballets in ‘Symphonic Tales’

Dancers struggle still with musicality in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations

Danielle Brown and Marcelo Gomes in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Las Hermanas. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Symphonic Tales, Sarasota Ballet’s second program of the season, opened with George Balanchine’s tribute to Imperial Russia (Theme and Variations) and closed with his romantic view of cowboys and dance hall girls in the American West (Western Symphony).

It featured a midway turn in the repressed world of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Las Hermanas, a re-imagined interpretation of Federico Garcia-Lorca’s allegory of fascist Spain in his play The House of Bernarda Alba.

The ability of the dancers to meet the challenges inherent in the complex choreography of these three diverse ballets confirmed Sarasota Ballet’s growing sophistication.

Though classical ballet is the source of the choreography for both the Balanchine ballets, MacMillan explored an uneven — in my opinion — blend of the classical ballet vocabulary with natural movements to express the story of seduction in his ballet Las Hermanas. Guest artist Marcelo Gomes, in his role as the devious suitor, brought focus and charisma to a convincing performance as the pivotal force whose actions add tragedy to this story of repressed sexual emotions.

A widowed mother (Victoria Hulland in a convincing but surprise role) keeps her daughters locked up in Nicholas Giorgladis’ effective set of a dreary, cave-like house. Then she chooses a man to marry her eldest daughter, Danielle Brown in a deeply felt portrayal of a repressed, tightly coiled woman. The man (Gomes), who knows that The Eldest Daughter comes with a fortune, lets his own sense of machismo dictate his every move. Though that daughter (Brown) repels his advances, he persistently attempts to seduce her.

Victoria Holland and Danielle Brown in Las Hermanas. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

But unknown to anyone else in the family, it is The Youngest Sister (Ellen Overstreet), who has happily welcomed the strong arms of the all-too-willing man (Gomes), as evidenced in a passionate, intense pas de deus of agile lifts.

Betrayed by The Jealous Sister (Katelyn May), the man sneaks away like an insect, shifting his weight in a series of deep plies, as he almost crawls toward the only open door in the house, leaving The Youngest Sister (Overstreet) to her sad fate.

Frank Martins’ unusual, terse score — played by the Sarasota Orchestra under the direction of Ormsby Wilkins, with the addition of the harpsichordist Anastasiya Poff — created an emotional echo for this tragic story.

The evening started off on a much happier note with a glamorous ballroom of sparkling chandeliers and heavy brocaded drapes encircling the stage, as the orchestra began to play the familiar melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Suite no. 3 for Orchestra in G major. The music has a lightness and an elegance. Balanchine often turned to Tchaikovsky, whom he admired, for his ballets.

Theme and Variations is Balanchine’s graceful exploration of Imperial Russia’s forgotten world.

Kate Honea and Ricardo Rhodes in George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Not surprising, the ballet required strong technical skills, as Balanchine explored every step and every combination to be found in a description of the classical ballet vocabulary. Though the two leads — Kate Honea and Ricardo Rhodes — ably handled the difficult, fast-moving technical challenges in the choreography, it appeared that everyone was more focused on the steps than on the spirit of the music. So, all in all, this proved a pedestrian interpretation of a lovely Tchaikovsky score.

However, in a surprise turnaround, the dancers embraced Western Symphony with the lively spirit and energy missing from their stilted interpretation of Theme and Variations.

Set to a medley of traditional songs such as Red River Valley and Oh, Dem Golden Slippers, with costumes reflecting the imagined world of the American West as visualized by two Russian immigrants — George Balanchine and Karinska — the ballet added a light touch after MacMillan’s foray into the depths of intense emotion.

The Sarasota Ballet in Balanchine’s Western Symphony. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Western Symphony is a a bit of a lark — a make-believe visit to the world of cowboys in a fantasy interpretation of their lives when they are not chasing after errant cows. The ballet is structured on five different musical sections, each choreographed around a central couple. But the music is familiar, and the rhythms keep the dancers jumping as they show off nimble, tricky footwork in patterns that recall square dance moves.

Katelyn May and Ricki Bertoni in Western Symphony. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

As the lead couple in the Allegro, Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano swept across the stage in a flirtatious, high-spirited dance. Katelyn May (a dancer I am just getting to know) was saucy and coquettish, flirting with Ricki Bertoni in the more lyrical Adagio.

I was curious about Luke Schaufuss a newcomer to Sarasota Ballet who partnered Ellen Overstreet in the Rondo, as he is the son of Peter Schaufuss, making him a representative of the newest generation in a European ballet dynasty.

Topping off the ballet, Kate Honea, partnered by Yuki Nonaka, added a note of bravado with a daring fish dive. The evening ended with a toe-tapping, high-energy mood. But isn’t that what a ballet performance promises?