Sarasota Ballet is known for its scrupulous renditions of ballets by Frederick Ashton and other British choreographers, as well as for its general excellence in classical dance. What it is less known for is commissioning new works from living choreographers. Which makes its new “A Comedy of Errors,” which premiered at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on March 26th, all the more remarkable.
A two-act, evening-length story ballet is no small undertaking. In this case, it includes not only new choreography by the British choreographer David Bintley but also a commissioned score by the Australian composer Matthew Hindson; elaborate, handsome sets by Dick Bird; as well as the deployment of most of the ballet company, and live accompaniment by the Sarasota Orchestra. This new ballet is an act of faith in the company as well as an act of courage.
And in many ways, it succeeds. “A Comedy of Errors” is warm-hearted, ebullient, and pleasing to the eye and ear. Hindson’s score hews closely to the action, underscoring the story’s farcical elements and deftly playing upon a variety of musical styles, from jazz to techno to a spoof of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty (and Ravel’s Boléro). Paul Murphy, principal conductor of the Birmingham Royal Ballet orchestra, kept things moving at a lively clip.
Bintleys’ choreography, mostly performed in sneakers or character shoes—with the exception of the afore-mentioned Sleeping Beauty knockoff, which is on pointe—is pleasingly unaffected, full of light, bright steps, and heavily indebted to Frederick Ashton. This is not surprising, given that Bintley is a former member of the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, precursor of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. (He later directed the troupe.) As a dancer, Bintley often performed character roles in Ashton ballets.
One’s mind immediately turns to Ashton’s “The Dream,” which has a similarly convoluted plot animated by a series of romantic entanglements; as well as his “Cinderella,” with its broad comedy for the two “ugly sisters.”
Another thing that comes to mind is the Broadway show “Mamma Mia.” Not only does “Comedy of Errors” have the ebullience of a Broadway show, but it shares with that particular musical a bright beachy locale as well as a nostalgic patina. “Oh, we were young once!” it declares, with indulgence toward past sins. The effect is both appealing and, somehow, disappointing. Though the production is new, it could have been created twenty years ago, or forty. Many of the jokes feel stale. The plot and humor tend to fall back on clichés: the neglected wife cheered up by the gift of a diamond necklace, the scene-chewing mustachoed flamenco dancer, the clingy mistress. As in most farces (and the commedia dell-arte), they are stock characters, which is fair enough. But they lack the specificity of detail that might lift them from the realm of the broad guffaw to that spark of recognition one feels while watching Ashton’s ”La Fille Mal Gardée,” or a newer work like Alexei Ratmansky’s ”The Bright Stream.” These characters’ foibles are too generic.
Bintley’s ballet is based on Shakespeare’s early farce “The Comedy of Errors,” which hinges on a series of near-misses and cases of mistaken identity, all springing from the fact that two sets of twins have been separated at birth. Bintley updates the setting. Two ladies from Ramsbottom (which the program helpfully tells us is a town 12 miles northwest of Manchester, England) once spent a holiday on the Spanish Costa del Sol in the 1970’s, during which they both conceived sets of twins. (This is explained in a series of projections at the start of the ballet.) Each has given up one twin for adoption—a detail that barely raises an eyebrow. Then, thirty years on, the two friends vacation together on the island of Ibiza, where their adopted offspring have since settled. The pairs of twins are indicated by hairstyle and costume. Ricardo Graziano as Tony and his twin Anthony, danced by Ivan Spitale, wear yellow suits and a grey streak in their hair. (Their mother has a similar hairstyle.) Del of Ibiza and Derek of Ramsbottom both have a mop of red curls—like their mum—and wear Hawaiian shirts. The locals, including both Tony’s wife and his mistress, keep mistaking them for each other. Jealous rages and other forms of mayhem ensue.
It’s all quite silly, and, in the first act, a little confusing. We don’t see enough of the two middle-aged mamas to remember how they fit into the story. But as the ballet progresses, and the plot resolves itself into a series of lively set pieces, the confusion lifts. The ballet’s best moments are its group numbers: a jazzercise class for a group of bathing beauties poolside at the local grand hotel; the fumbling antics of a team of drunk lads on holiday together, including one poor bloke who is desperate for a bathroom break; a toga party at a local night-club; and, in the second act, a “Garland Dance”-like ensemble, performed in bikinis, on pointe.
Toward the end, the ballet becomes a Keystone-Cop like series of chases, in which the twins enter and exit, while a variety of ingenious ruses keeps them apart. Then, finally, everything is cleared up, and order restored. The local bewhiskered policeman—facial hair and sex appeal being synonymous—turns out to be the father of all four boys. Tony’s neglected wife Adriana (a gorgeously expansive Danielle Brown, radiant in red) returns to her husband. Anthony of Ramsbottom finds love with Adriana’s bookish sister, danced by the crisp, efficient Marijana Dominis.
The final scene depicts their beach-front wedding. The feeling is celebratory, and, despite misgivings about the ballet’s fusty plot and characters, the overall effect of the ballet is cheery and warm, and somehow just right for beachy Sarasota.