Vacationing in Florida has long been a tradition in my family. As a child, I went every year to my grandmother’s home in Bradenton Beach, a lazy island town on the Gulf Coast, and my parents recently began spending their winters in the same area. This year, I made an addition to the usual itinerary of poolside lounging and seafood dinners: a visit to the nearby Sarasota Ballet. (My mother accompanied me on what was her first ballet performance.)
Sarasota Ballet is a promising small company led by Iain Webb, a former dancer with London’s Royal Ballet who took the reins in Sarasota in 2007. The company has earned renown for its productions of Frederick Ashton’s choreography, a staple of the repertory that Webb danced in London. I regrettably was not able to see any Ashton during my stay, but I did catch a triple-bill (titled “My Way”) of works by George Balanchine, Dominic Walsh, and Twyla Tharp. The variety on the program was encouraging. I was even more impressed to learn that all three works were company premieres.
These are not all easy ballets to perform: The program opener, George Balanchine’s Serenade, is a cornerstone of American ballet that requires a cast of 28, the vast majority of them women. There were other hurdles in Sarasota — a relatively small stage at the Sarasota Opera House, a tape of the Tchaikovsky score — and a few noticeable missteps in the dancing. Because Serenade is in so many ways a communal dance, a certain level of uniformity is required to unlock its magic, and this cast often disagreed on the timing of steps and the nuances of posture.
The dynamic choreography never bores, though, and what this cast lacked in polish it made up for in energy. Sara Sardelli stood out as female lead in the “Waltz,” giving a highly musical performance. I hope the company continues to perform Serenade, and the rest of the audience that night might agree. There was an unusual stillness in the theater throughout the performance. No cough drops were unwrapped, and not a whisper could be heard. (It made me wonder whether some of the noisier New York City Ballet audiences take Balanchine for granted. )
The company next tackled more contemporary fare: Houston-based choreographer Dominic Walsh’s Bello. The 20-minute work, made in 2005, depicts a man contemplating his life, through remembrances of the women who have shaped him. The protagonist, played by a countertenor (in this performance, Gerrod Pagenkopf), sits behind a desk and sings five Handel arias. Pairs of dancers — memories of relationships long gone — come and go on a stage filled with fog.
The juxtaposition of movement and music was jarring. Walsh’s choreography, full of gyrating bodies and melodramatic gestures, looked thin alongside Handel’s music and Pagenkopf’s sweet voice. And for a dance that claimed to be about self-examination, Bello could be bafflingly salacious: Each of the four men emerged in progressively less clothing, and they often struck poses that showed off their physiques — their rear ends in particular — to tasteless effect. (My mother, bless her, tried to remain positive on this point: “At least their bodies looked nice.”)
Fortunately, the well-chosen finale, Twyla Tharp’s 1982 popular Nine Sinatra Songs, gave company members ample opportunities to shine. Before this performance, I had seen only the consolidated version of the piece, 1984’s Sinatra Suite, a staple in American Ballet Theatre’s repertory. Sarasota Ballet’s strong performance made me wonder why the full work — far superior to the suite — isn’t seen in New York more often.
Nine Sinatra Songs is mostly a series of ballroom-style duets set to the recordings of Frank Sinatra, and this cast brought rich characterization to each. Fumbling with his hands and spinning his partner one too many times to “Forget Domani,” Alex Harrison looked like a nervous teenager taking Anais Blake on a first date. Danielle Brown and Ricki Bertoni found a delicate balance between violence and affection in their duet to “That’s Life.”
Only twice, both times in passages set to “My Way,” is more than one couple on stage, and these pairings — once utterly unique — suddenly become anonymous: a series of dates happening concurrently at a New York City nightclub. Yet it’s these group scenes that are the most triumphant, moving, and memorable.
This rendition of Nine Sinatra Songs was made even more satisfying by my mother’s reaction to it. My mother loves to dance socially, but she initially had doubts about whether “going to the ballet” would be for her. Nine Sinatra Songs, and its charismatic interpreters at Sarasota Ballet, won her over. She was talking about it for days.