Sarasota Ballet’s 2021 season officially began with “New World.” So, it was time to cast aside my pajamas and chardonnay, and head back inside the Mertz Theatre for the company’s first live production. While it was incredibly impressive that the Sarasota Ballet nimbly pivoted to digital performances, seeing black clad balletomanes filing past the COVID checkpoint before climbing up those familiar steps was a relief.
Aside from the impending doom of mounting COVID deaths, the most difficult aspect of the last eighteen lean months has been the lack of live theater to bring solace and beauty. Watching the company’s performances online last season was a lovely and hopeful substitute, like stevia – a healthy, safe alternative that cannot replace the original.
The last live Sarasota Ballet performance was in February 2020, when the company presented The Paul Taylor Dance Company. We were stuck in traffic heading toward the theater because the then Vice President Mike Pence was in town. We grabbed a quick bite in the Ringling Museum restaurant and spotted my two favorite company dancers of all time Ricardo Rhodes and Ellen Overstreet, who retired this summer, much to my disappointment. Who knew it would be nearly two years until we would slide into the comfy, familiar red chairs at the Mertz again?
The company produced a deeply emotional video welcoming the audience back to the theater after such a long, forced hiatus. The reciprocal relationship that the dancers have with the audience was so touching and made me cry; and I believe that they truly missed us as much as we have missed them.
When the curtain rose, the dancers in three-dimensions was truly a sight for sore eyes. Principal dancer Virginia Hulland was back after maternity leave, in what may well have been part of the noted pandemic ballet baby boom. Her performance in the role of “The Bride” was revelatory. She was full of life and promise for the future. So much of “Appalachian Spring” is joyful – depicting a new marriage on the prairie.
But the breakout performance of the piece belonged to Ivan Spitale, as “The Reverend” whom he depicted as a diabolical figure casting dread in the small prairie town even as a coterie of dancers followed him devotedly around the stage.
Ricardo Graziano choreographed a new piece called “Sonatina” which was a beautiful confection that ended the evening on a high note and left me eager for the rest of the season.
In college, I wrote a semi-controversial arts column about the importance of seeing live performances, because I was disappointed to be one of a very small number of coeds who availed themselves of $4.00 student tickets to see top dance companies, including that of Erick Hawkins, who originated the role of The Husbandman in “Appalachian Spring,” the first piece of “New World.” Live performances feed my soul; and I wanted everyone to partake of what I saw when the theater lights dimmed, the curtains rose, and the magic onstage began.
The live ballet season is a sight for sore eyes, and I can’t wait to see what else the company has in store.