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Balanchine in Sarasota

Covid-19 has been devastating to the performing arts. However, over the weekend I watched a performance by the Sarasota Ballet that reminded me of a pandemic silver lining: expanded accessibility. From my apartment in Brooklyn I’ve been able to see performances streamed from all over the world. These digital shows are a little surreal, and they cannot compete with live ones, but they do offer a glimpse of companies I usually don’t have the ability to see. In a normal year, I would not have had the opportunity to review this small Gulf Coast troupe, but this year I was able to watch their charming All-Balanchine program virtually. They danced four excerpts as well as “Tarantella” in its entirety.

Performance

Sarasota Ballet: Digital Program 2, streamed from November 20, 2020

Place

Faye Arthurs

Words

Faye Arthurs

Sarasota Ballet in George Balanchine's “Western Symphony.” Image courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

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Naturally, adjustments were made for the times. All of the selections were staged and coached by former Balanchine ballerina Sandra Jennings—from her bedroom in California, over Zoom. The company has 38 dancers on its roster, but for the sake of safety, this broadcast utilized only 19. Company director Iain Webb served as the evening’s emcee, appearing between clips to supply a few facts about each ballet: a premiere date, original cast members, or when the piece was acquired by the SB. Many of the ballets were fairly new to the repertory, and the dancers’ enthusiasm showed.

The performance began with the pas de deux from “Donizetti Variations.” Principal Katelyn May and Coryphée Yuri Marques were bubbly, if a bit careful, in the lead roles. I wanted her to pull away further in one series of éffacé penché arabesques, and for him to wait until the last minute to grab her hand as she dove into them in croisé in another. They also needed to travel more, though it was clear from the Grape Dance interlude before May’s solo that the stage was on the small side. (The four Grape women weren’t struggling to stay on the music, as is typical on a larger stage.) But May and Marques’s big grins carried them through. Warmth appears to be a company trademark; castmates beamed at each other wherever they could. Perhaps it’s all that Florida sunshine.

Kate Honea and Yuki Nonaka likewise danced a joyful “Tarantella.” They were completely in control throughout this tricky, rambunctious duet. Honea got sassier as she got more tired, which was cute. The 2nd movement from “Western Symphony” followed, with May returning as the lead opposite Character Principal Ricki Bertoni. For a small company, they sure have a lot of ranks. Bertoni’s acting skills were on fine display as the rhinestone cowboy, and he danced well too. May was more relaxed here. She has a delicate, floaty quality that made her a natural fit for the “dream ballerina” role. They played it straight instead of hamming it up, which suited them well.

Lauren Ostrander and Ivan Spitale in George Balanchine's “The Four Temperaments.” Image courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

After all that sunniness, I wondered how the troupe would look in Balanchine’s coolly detached “The Four Temperaments.” The answer: calm and clean. It was interesting, and different, from the edgy incisiveness I’m accustomed to seeing at the New York City Ballet—or from the Miami City Ballet right on the opposite coast from the SB. It made me remember that Balanchine innovated a way of dancing as much as he created new dances, but his ballets do not necessarily suffer when they are done in a less rigorous manner. The Sarasota approach emphasized the piece’s simple geometries. The troupe dances a lot of Ashton as well as classic story ballets, which may account for their unaffected style.

The principal sections from “Who Cares?” closed the program, and the dancers’ easygoing rapport made this selection a pleasure. Honea, back again, was especially lovely dancing “The Man I Love” pas de deux with the polished Ricardo Rhodes. The long, strong Janae Korte was glamorous here, and her partner Ricardo Graziano really captured the Fred Astaire vibe. I liked Lauren Ostrander’s attention to detail in the flicking jump step which opened her solo. Again, it was interesting to see a more classical company tackle one of Balanchine’s jazzier pieces. Watching Ostrander and Richard House in the “Embraceable You” pas, I was struck anew with Balanchine’s seamless integration of ballroom and ballet.

Kate Honea and Ricardo Rhodes in George Balanchine's “Who Cares.” Image courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

This is the SB’s 30th Anniversary season, and though it has surely panned out differently than intended, I hope this moment of increased online visibility serves them well into the future. This was their second digital program, and Webb mentioned that their first program had viewers from all over the globe. They have another program coming out in December. I’d recommend it; this is a crucial time for supporting the arts if you can swing it. Companies large and small need all the help they can get right now. For $35—less than the cost of a normal audience seat, and far less than the cost of a show ticket plus a trip to Florida—you have access to a SB performance and digital extras.

The extras for the All-Balanchine program included a meandering yet insightful talk by repetiteur Sandra Jennings. She shared some anecdotes about working with Balanchine. It was particularly nice to hear her say that Balanchine made everyone in the company feel valued and that each contribution was meaningful. “He never made me feel that I was less important than a big star in the company,” she said. Also included in the extras was an interview between Webb and the young dancers Korte and Ostrander. At the end of it he promoted them from the rank of corps to coryphée. They were adorably ecstatic. Clearly, Webb is not only following Balanchine’s lead in his programming.

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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