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Big Steps

The Sarasota Ballet is nothing if not ambitious. Under the artistic leadership of Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri, the company has performed large nineteenth-century works like “La Sylphide” and “Giselle,” but also major works by Frederick Ashton like “La Fille Mal Gardée” and assorted ballets by Kenneth MacMillan, Antony Tudor, Paul Taylor, and George Balanchine. They also do newer works, and recently hired Jessica Lang to be their artist in residence.


Sarasota Ballet: “Theme and Variations” and “In the Upper Room”


Sarasota Opera House, Sarasota, FL, December 17, 2023


Marina Harss

Sarasota Ballet in George Balanchine's “Theme and Variations.” Photograph by Frank Atura

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These are not just any ballets. This past weekend, as part of its third program of the season, the dancers performed one of the most difficult and exalted Balanchine ballets of all: “Theme and Variations.” Created in 1947 for Ballet Theatre (the original American Ballet Theatre), it was meant to be a compendium of everything Balanchine had learned from the ballets of Marius Petipa in his years at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg. “The work emerges as a kind of glorified epitome of Petipa,” wrote the critic John Martin after its premiere, immediately declaring it a masterpiece. 

Its pure, virtuosic, and highly exposing choreography continues to be a challenge to dancers. At New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, where it is performed regularly, it is given only to the most technically assured principal dancers. In one of the solos for the male lead, for example, he is required to do a series of six double tours, each followed by a pirouette, the last one down to one knee. I’ve heard many a fine dancer grumble about this trial by fire.

Sarasota Ballet has presented the work twice before, in 2017 and 2019. I didn’t see it then, but of its present iteration, prepared by the former City Ballet dancer Philip Neal, I can say that the company pulled it off, just barely, and with some reservations. The first reservation regards the dimensions of the stage of the Sarasota Opera House, which is simply too small for this grand ballet. The setting, fussy curtains with the hint of a ballroom beyond, by Peter Farmer, made the space look even smaller. (It’s often performed without a backdrop.) The cast of twenty-six, with the women in wide tutus, left little space for the kind of space-eating dancing, bending, and tilting, that defines the Balanchine style.

Sarasota Ballet in George Balanchine's “Theme and Variations.” Photograph by Frank Atura

The second issue, which may be conditioned by the first, is the kind of dancing that makes “Theme and Variations” such an exciting ballet. It may be a glorification of Petipa, but it is also Balanchine, which means bold, big, dynamic movement that stretches and projects into space. The dancing here was reserved, even polite, with the corps in particular dancing with small steps and contained movements, in part so as to avoid bumping into each other.

This was also often true of the leads. I saw two casts, one led by Jennifer Hackbarth (a relatively new dancer to the company) and Ricardo Rhodes (a veteran). The other was led by Jessica Assef (an even newer dancer, hailing from the Atlanta Ballet) and Maximiliano Iglesias, who arrived from Argentina a little over a year ago. They had different strengths, but generally the dancing was smaller than it should be. Iglesias was the most musical; he phrases the steps beautifully, creating arcs within the choreography, and generally giving the impression of being moved by the melodies and textures emerging from the orchestra. He also uses his body freely, bending and shaping the steps to make them flow into each other more organically. (The Sarasota Orchestra, performing under the baton of Jonathan McPhee, sounded wonderfully full and vibrant in its interpretation of the last movement Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3, to which the ballet is set. Kudos to the violinist featured in the pas de deux, who played the melody with a keening urgency.) Iglesias got through the gauntlet of tours-into-pirouettes unscathed and moved with gravity and weight through the lush footwork of the slower solo that precedes it. And he is a warm, attentive partner, which made the pas de deux feel personal and alive rather than like a neutral demonstration of classical steps.

Jennifer Hackbarth and Ricardo Rhodes in George Balanchine's “Theme and Variations.” Photograph by Frank Atura

His partner was the newly-arrived Jessica Assef, born in Brazil and more recently a member of the Orlando and Atlanta ballet companies. Also a musical, lyrical dancer, she made more of the simple, grand but grounded steps at the start of the ballet and the beautiful details of the legs—the way the dancer seems to kiss the air with one foot before swinging the leg into arabesque—in the pas de deux. Some of the more technical moments, like the quick chains of turns and the gargouillades—a little jump in which each foot draws a little circle in the air—were less dazzling than they could be.

In the other cast, Jennifer Hackbarth had no problem with the technical feats—her gargouillades were great. But she was less connected to the music and to her partner, Ricardo Rhodes. Rhodes, a gracious and elegant dancer, was not quite up to the most challenging passages of the ballet, at least on opening night. 

Which is all to say that “Theme and Variations” is a steep climb, and would probably require more performances, a bigger stage, and a deeper bench of principal dancers to really reach its full glory. 

Sierra Abelardo and Daniel Pratt in Twyla Tharp's “In the Upper Room.” Photograph by Frank Atura

The closing work of the program, Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” is a real barnstormer. As difficult and exhausting as it is, it never fails to miss the mark. Along with its driving and constantly churning score by Philip Glass (played in recording), the choreography just grows and grows, from a cool, almost nonchalant opening to an ecstatic, sweaty, almost gladiatorial dénouement. Each section introduces differently-assorted dancers, some in sneakers, others in ballet slippers and pointe shoes, all dressed in combinations of Norma Kamali’s black-and-white stripes and red leotards. It’s a very 1980’s ballet (it premiered in 1986) not only because of the look, but because of its vocabulary, which combines aerobics, sports drills, soft-shoe, karate kicks, and Tharp’s own highly personal, pared-down vocabulary of ballet.

Here, the Sarasota dancers look completely like themselves. The exhaustion of the relentlessly aerobic movement frees them; they don’t worry about making mistakes or looking perfect. Instead, they allow themselves to be driven ever forward by the music, moving with a look of ease and confidence. Shelley Washington, who set the ballet, has gotten them to let go of their tendency to smile brightly and move with politeness. Here, they go for broke. A few standouts in the cast—the same at both performances— included Iglesias and Ivan Spitale among the “Stompers,” guys in sneakers who move with the cool superiority of high school jocks; Lauren Ostrander and Sierra Abelardo, strong and refined in two of the ballerina roles; and the ferocious Anna Pellegrino and Dominique Jenkins, who both start and end the ballet. 

It's good that Sarasota Ballet keeps aiming high. That is the only way for a company to grow. And if at times they don’t quit reach their mark, it’s just a step along the way.

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, The Boy from Kyiv, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.



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