Sarasota Ballet’s latest triple bill “Expressions” was a joy to behold and some new faces in the company made an indelible impression. The company’s all British program demonstrated once again that Artistic Director Ian Webb’s decision to hone in on staging the British canon has paid off in spades. I can’t imagine there is another company outside of the United Kingdom that is so sure-footed and at this point truly transcendent when performing the work of royal choreographers including Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Sir Frederick Ashton who were featured in “Expressions.” Who knew that deep in the gulf coast of Florida one could find a thriving British artistic outpost?
The first piece of the evening, MacMillan’s “Danses Concertantes,” was notable for very unusual costumes, precise movements, and the energized Stravinsky score performed by a live orchestra. The orchestra provided a fuller experience filling the gaps among the dancers who were less recognizable with their eyes frequently masked and with their heads covered with tight black head caps with ornaments perched atop their heads designed by Nicholas Georgiadas.
Luke Schaufuss, who seems to perform less frequently than some of the other principals, is astonishing and captivating in his lead role. He is tall and grand and achieves great heights whenever he leaves the floor. Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano always pair beautifully and are the graceful “go to” duet. This stylized piece was an exciting way to begin the evening and was a thrilling addition to the repertoire. I always enjoy premieres that I know I will likely be able to see again in future performances. Although dance is ephemeral and fleeting, as a follower of the Sarasota Ballet, I know that I can revisit a piece again in later seasons. This will surely become a signature favorite that can spice up any triple bill.
The two remaining Ashton pieces were among the finest performances by the Sarasota Ballet. “Dante Sonata,” a new piece for the company, is an epic battle between good and evil. The dancers were pure fire on stage. The Children of the Light were led by Brown, Marijana Dominis, and Richard House, and the Children of Darkness were led by Lauren Ostrander and Ricardo Graziano. Ostrander is such an outstanding character actress in addition to being a powerhouse dancer, she dominated with a wicked glare and ability to make her lithe frame take up space on stage. The women all wore their hair down, and it functioned as a prop, and all the dancers were barefoot as if they were forced to run from their homes in the dead of night.
The piece was created in 1940 after the German invasion of Poland, and the tortured anguish as the Children of the Light tried to resist the darkness was palpable. Apparently, after the war, the ballet was considered lost. Thankfully after fifty years the original cast and Choreographer and Director David Bintley were able to reconstruct it for modern audiences, and “Expressions” marked its Sarasota debut. When the forces of good and evil are again in a dire battle for the direction of our world, we need a piece like “Dante Sonata” with its stark and wondrous nature to capture and reflect the current mood. At the conclusion of the piece, I was struck that Brown seemed to be reaching toward the darkness exemplified by Graziano, a charismatic figure, who surely captivated her attention, in a poignant reminder that we must stand at the breech to guard against dark forces that may seek to corrupt the precariousness and fragility of our desire for good. What a remarkable achievement to have saved this layered, textured, dramatic ballet for us to experience.
The final piece of the evening “Rhapsody” was a tour-de-force. Yuki Nonaka was a slow burn in the role originated by Mikhail Baryshnikov. When I read that the piece was created for Baryshnikov, I mused that Nonaka who has been a lower profile dancer to date was selected for this role. Nonaka continued to top himself throughout the piece reaching ever more ethereal levels as he defied gravity on stage. “Rhapsody” was swoonworthy to say the least – I could barely take a breath watching the company perform this delightful and courtly piece that brought Ashton out of retirement to choreograph for none other than the Queen Mum. Most noteworthy was the breakout performance of the luminous Macarena Giminez, a new principal with the company. I can’t wait to see what else she has in store this season. This was a performance fit for royalty, and as Ashton said with this piece, he “pulled out all the plugs.” It was joyous and riveting, and I’ve been riding high on the exuberance of the company’s performance of “Expressions” ever since.