‘Troy Game’ shines as Sarasota Ballet combines contemporary ballets into a ‘Moving Identities’ program

Single-sex casts in two of the evening’s ballets produce mixed results

Pianist Thomas Pandolfi accompanies Sarasota Ballet dancers in Valsinhas. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy Sarasota Ballet

Moving Identities, the first Sarasota Ballet offering of 2018, is rather an odd way of describing a program of three contemporary ballets by three different choreographers: Paul Taylor, Ricardo Graziano and Robert North. Separated by age and experience, they are united by a vision of dance freed from pointe shoes and the boundaries of classical ballet choreography.

However, how to convince the public that this barefoot program was worth seeing? Changing casts in two of the ballets (Valsinhas and Troy Game) was the solution: alternating performances between all-female and all-male dancers. I know that the question of gender is part of today’s social web, but I am aware that the idea of changing these casts was not focused on social issues but on exploring the questions of female/male physicality and energy, and how, if at all, the choreographers’ original intentions would be affected.

Since I attended only one performance, my comments are based on my reaction to the casts I saw, and since the idea of changing “identities” shaped the evening’s program, I let my imagination wonder about other possibilities as I watched both Valsinhas and Troy Game.

Airs, Paul Taylor’s challenging 1978 ballet of continuous movement and intricate coupling, set to the music of George Frederick Handel, was the most elegant, sophisticated ballet of the evening. Taylor, whose roots in contemporary dance are solid, explored the classical ballet vocabulary in the many balances, arabesques, jumps and lifts in his choreography for Airs. In this mixed ballet, the three male dancers were bare-chested, and the three women were in pale blue, wispy chiffon costumes that created the illusion of mermaids gliding through the sea.

Kristianne Kleine, in a slow, sensuous back-bending solo, brought to my mind an ancient statuette, while Victoria Hulland and Ricardo Graziano were comfortable in tricky balances that had Hulland lingering in the air. The quick energetic shifts and the wide open, curved arms that stretched and pierced the space around the men as they jumped or posed were some of Taylor’s signature moves.

All in all, this was a competent first performance of a new ballet that employed an entirely different vocabulary for the dancers. It was not surprising that they appeared careful with the movements while both the music and the choreography urged more buoyancy.

Ricardo Graziano. Photo courtesy Sarasota Ballet

Valsinhas, a 2013 work by Ricardo Graziano — the youngest of the evening’s choreographers — was set to a group of Franz Schubert’s waltzes. Both the piano and pianist, Thomas Pandolfi, were on the stage, so I was reminded of the many “piano” ballets that were popular at one time. There was a sense of deja vu, even though Pandolfi played with feeling. Valsinhas was originally choreographed for five men, but this performance was danced by five women: Victoria Hulland, Samantha Bennoit, Kate Honea, Kristianne Kleine and newcomer Katelyn May. Even though the women had no problem with the tumbling, the acrobatics or the jumps, and they danced with both a lightness and intensity, I personally thought Valsinhas would be more interesting with a mixed group.

Graziano has a light touch as a choreographer, evidenced by amusing sections with oddly flexed fists, strenuous jumps, peculiar pirouettes and complicated steps. Though Valsinhas was nicely constructed with interesting floor patterns — as well as a variety of solos, duets and group combinations — it was also repetitious. I felt as though I were seeing a young choreographer exploring movement for its own sake; yet, even comedy relies on a punch line if not a fuller story.

However, I have to say that the ballet was an audience favorite.

For me, the highlight of the evening was Robert North’s Troy Game (1974), set to an inventive, foot-tapping score mixing the pulsating rhythms of Brazilian Batucada with samba and with Bob Downes’ own Shadow Boxing at 3am.

In the performance I saw, six men in rainbow-colored briefs and leg warmers had fun spoofing the macho attachment to competitive sports and displays of magnificent muscles as they tore through demanding, syncopated choreography borrowed from Brazilian Capoera, Japanese Akidok and American modern dance.

The ballet relied on caricatures from its first moment, as the men — Weslley Carvalho, Filippo Valmorbida, Daniel Pratt, Wilson Livingston, Ricki Bertoni, Jamie Carter, Patrick Ward and a mischievous Logan Learned — entered the stage with grunts that accompanied their somersaults. While admiring their muscles, the men morphed into poses as silent and picturesque as friezes found on Greek vases.

Male dancers perform in Troy Game on Jan. 26. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Then the drumming began, and the dancing grew serious, even as the mood segued into one of inspired playfulness. Seemingly every form of athletic endeavor, by turn, felt the treatment of Norton’s satiric vision, but putting the spotlight on physicality and male vanity led to a beautiful, fluid exploration of movement. Bodies soared through space. The ballet may spoof machismo, but glorious dancing is the result.

Even though it was choreographed almost 45 years ago, Troy Game remains fresh and fun, and I, for one, would have been happy to see Friday night’s performance again from the beginning.

Last but not least, kudos to the Sarasota Ballet dancers who opened their hearts and muscles to this demanding experience.