It may not be easy to lead a dance company during a pandemic, but the Sarasota Ballet has managed to cope. He kept the dancers together and provided a stable job while larger troupes were forced to put their dancers on leave for long periods of time. Sarasota dancers have been taking classes and rehearsing – under strict protocols – since September. And while they haven’t yet been able to perform to a live audience in what should have been a 30th anniversary celebration season, they have embarked on an ambitious series of virtual shows.
The current episode, Program 3, was released on Friday and is available until Tuesday. Like the two that preceded it, it consists mainly of short works and excerpts, performed by a small number of dancers. Like much of the company’s repertoire, it is heavily focused on British ballets; in fact, all but one of the choreographers, Illinois-born Dominic Walsh, were born in the UK.
The Sarasota Ballet is known for its sensitive interpretations of Frederick Ashton’s ballets, and although there is no Ashton piece on the program, the Ashtonian spirit is certainly alive in the pas de quatre of the 1976 “Summertide”. by Peter Wright. This is evident in the sculptural formations created by the four dancers and in the delicate but complex partnership, often for three or four dancers at a time. The entire piece, set to the shimmering second movement of Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Concerto, seems to shine, with the dancers, led by Ellen Overstreet and Ricardo Rhodes, moving like angelic creatures against a pastel and gold background.
Dominic Walsh’s 2011 solo “Clair de Lune” is the only contemporary element of the program. And while it’s not a very interesting piece, its pantomime effects gave Ivan Spitale (who joined in 2018) the opportunity to exercise his considerable acting skills: an expressive face, intelligent eyes and ability to shape and isolate movement, now like a puppet, now like a bird in flight. Spitale returns as a male siren in the funny and bizarre “Merman Solo” from “The Infernal Galop” by Matthew Bourne in 1989. This first work by Bourne, who went on to create the famous all-male “Swan Lake”, is full of smart ideas. With great wit and style, Spitale collapsed onto the stage, waving his arms and shoulders, flexing his feet as if they were fins, to the delight of three merry sailors.
There are three pas de deux, the first of which was Wright’s “The Mirror Walkers” (1963), a rather static piece that insufficiently exploits the breadth of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 1. “The American,” one of Christopher Wheeldon’s first works from 2001, reveals this choreographer’s ease in creating forms that seamlessly transform into new forms, reinforced by his flexible use of the spine.
Most distinguished of all is the central pas de deux in Kenneth MacMillan’s ‘Concerto’ in 1966. It is extremely difficult work, even if it does not seem like it. The challenge lies in the absolute purity of the movement. The dancers, and in particular the woman (Overstreet), float through clean, open forms, sustained by the cosmically slow andante from Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. The duet begins as a ballet class, with the woman using her partner almost like a barre. Gradually, the partnership turns into floating elevators with the female body open and stretched out in space. Overstreet is an expressive dancer; I especially enjoy the way she uses her upper body and her eyes to communicate feelings and connections. Richard House, his partner, is supportive and present. Still, there is a slight tension in the partnership here. The confidence and ease that come with multiple performances haven’t quite been achieved.
The most significant work on the program, in terms of length, was one-act “Othello” by Peter Darrell from 1971, first performed here in 2010. Kudos to Darrell for incorporating all the main points of the plot in 20 minutes of dancing. But the declamatory and somewhat platinous choreography does not leave the dancers, led here by an energetic Ricardo Graziano (in the role of the traitor Iago), the possibility of growing up. The characters are little more than two-dimensional cutouts, which is a shame, as it’s clear that the company has some good actor-dancers.
Nonetheless, the fact that Sarasota Ballet put together another satisfying program of well-chosen and well-danced works during this difficult time is an achievement in itself. The set, by Meybis Chavarria, Bill Wagy and Andres Paz, is simple and clean, and puts the focus where it matters most, on the dance. Personally, I could do without the canned applause. The company can safely leave this for viewers watching at home.
New York and Sarasota-based freelance dance writer and critic Marina Harss is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker.
The Sarasota Ballet
Digital program 3. Revised January 1. Available online until January 5. Sarasotaballet.org