New York City is a risky place for regional dance companies to visit. First, there is all that stuff (that we hoity-toity New Yorkers delightedly promote) about balletomanes being notoriously picky and some critics being persnickety and anal-retentive. A regional company that marches in here armed with Balanchine or some we-can-split-our-legs-just-like-you choreography, or heaven forbid, its mountain fresh version of Giselle is basically trying to sell coals to Newcastle. The exception, of course, is that spunky company down in Miami which we’ve deemed our sixth balletic borough.
When a ballet company arrives bearing works that New York City isn’t likely to see because those works are more historically important (read fat-free, vitamin rich) than commercially appealing (read trans-fats, sodium, sugar), it seems that the internal organs of this city’s ballet body rejoice in receiving new nutrition while the appetites grumble for carbs. That’s just the way it goes...
Sarasota Ballet is in the middle of its debut season at the Joyce Theater where it is presenting a program of Frederick Ashton’s infrequently seen works that reveal his unabashed love for playing with steps much the way that true poets love playing with language. The selections include one-acts of lighter fare, some with small casts, that might at first appear to be chamber works. But none of them are. The facts that they fit on the small Joyce Theater stage and are viewed by an audience sitting as close as they might sit in a studio rehearsal environment, encourage a depth of detailed observation that is unintended and tends to over-contain the pleasurable effect of the choreography.
The program's title, A Knight of the British Ballet, is a stroke of creativity to which Ashton would have given a wink and a smile – it plays with words the way he loved playing with steps.
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales to Ravel’s La Valse was premiered by Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1947, four years before Balanchine made his ballet to the same music which uses some of the same themes and also costumes the ladies in gloves and Romantic pink tulle. On Tuesday night, the French perfume of the piece wafted gently across the foot of the stage as Sarasota Ballet’s fine-mannered artists swooped, bent, and swirled in close proximity. Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano led the cast of ten with the graciousness of a time gone by – a graciousness that in contemporary times is mostly observed on theatrical stages, but rarely in real life. Haglund especially enjoyed the warmth of the dancers’ expressions which communicated not only their personal joy in dancing but their desire to share their gifts with the audience.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee (music: Percy Grainger), created in 1977 as a Royal Ballet gala piece, is pure fun and nonsense based on Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass characters. It would be hard to find an author who loved playing with language more than Carroll, and here Ashton's love of his own language matched Carroll's step for step. The trio of Alex Harrison, Logan Learned, and Samantha Benoit as Alice captured the broadness and the subtleties of the humor along with slick-skilled steps that included crazy-knee circles while turning en dehors and the sweet influence of cake walk and shuffle-hops. Once again, the dancers’ expressions lent much to the theatrical enjoyment of the dance. For those who are not able to see Sarasota Ballet’s Joyce Theater engagement, here is a video link to that early performance of Tweedledum and Tweedledee by the Royal Ballet.
The Walk to the Paradise Garden, another gala piece from 1972, again featured the luminous Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano with Jacob Hughes making a brief appearance at the end. Set to music from Delius’ opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, it is a sensual pas de deux in which the characters roll around rapturously but, as in R&J, end up dead.
Jazz Calendar (1968) to music by Richard Rodney Bennet, was a last minute creation by Ashton to fill a program at the Royal Opera House after the cancellation of Aida. It was based on the nursery rhyme Monday’s Child. Sarasota Ballet presented the excerpted Friday’s Child which Ashton originally made for Antoinette Sibley and Rudolph Nureyev as an amusing hyper-sexual play on the nursery rhyme’s line Friday’s child is loving and giving. Today, the pas de deux looks very dated but nevertheless was interesting to see.
If the second movement from Sinfonietta had been created to music by Eric Satie instead of by Sir Malcolm Williamson, it could have served as the Monotones III that we once suggested was needed after a local company danced Monotones I and II last year here. First, there is the costuming of sleek leotards and strange head caps. Then there is the extreme limb manipulation of the sole woman in the cast with five men. While this choreography from 1967 also looked dated, its influence in other choreographers' works was apparent – most notably in Gerald Arpino’s Round of Angels and MacMillan’s Act II dance for Manon who is manipulated around in the air by her male suitors. Arpino and Robert Joffrey were great admirers of Ashton and often included his works in their company’s repertory.
Façade (1931) is still frequently performed today around the world. Ashton’s tongue-in-cheek takeoff on various forms of dance (polka, tango, foxtrot, etc.) with its accessible rhythms, good-natured humor, complex dance technique at whiplash speeds, and nods back to the 1920s provide today’s dancers with plenty of challenges and audiences with plenty of entertainment. Once again, the dancers’ vivid expressions sealed the deal on this ballet. Scotch Rhapsody with Ryoko Sadoshima, Nicole Padilla, and Alex Harrison was a highlight as was Victoria Hulland’s Polka.
The HH Pump Bump Award, a magenta garden by Louboutin, is bestowed upon the cast of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales for all the romance they brought to Ravel’s music.