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Under the incomparable direction of Iain Webb, with staging, rehearsing and coaching by Margaret Barbieri, Sarasota Ballet's Victorian Winters is an impressive staging of three distinctly diverse pieces; Sir Frederick Ashton'sLes Patineurs, George Balanchine's Diamonds, and Sir Frederick Ashton's Enigma Variations.Sir Frederick Ashton created more than 100 works in his lifetime and shaped the style of the Royal Ballet. George Balanchine, known as the father of American ballet, co-founded the New York City Ballet and was their artistic director for more than 35 years. Needless to say you can expect something special, something difficult, and something grand from both of these iconic ballet visionaries. Likewise, those of us in Sarasota have come to expect and appreciate Sarasota Ballet whose talent embraces such challenging and elegant work.

Sir Frederick Ashton's Les Patineurs is such a unique piece. Originally choreographed in 1937, the ballet takes us to a Victorian-era skating party on a frozen pond during a winter's eve. At curtain rise we are immediately drawn to the majestic white arches at the back of the stage and white flooring resembling ice that give a chill to the air. Several scattered lanterns hung about split the bright white scene with an amber glow and offered a touch of warmth. We are introduced to a mixture of "skaters" who glide effortlessly on the surface wearing brightly colored winter garments, while a light occasional snow falls. Brown Couples, (Samantha Benoit, Yuri Marques, Asia Bui, Yuya Mizushima, Paige Young, Nicolas Moreno, Anna Pellegrino, Daniel Pratt) embodied patterns of pastel blues and chestnut browns spiraling from one end of the "pond" to the other. Blue Boy, (Ivan Duarte) cocking his head playfully from side to side, dazzled the audience with his boyish charm as he fearlessly executed bold leaps and rapid pirouettes, stopping on a dime. Red Girls, (Amy Wood, Ellen Overstreet) were beautiful flashes of bright red against the stark white of this winter wonderland. Not to be outdone, Blue Girls, (Kate Honea, Katelyn May) seared the frozen pond with cool blue tones and fancy footwork. White Couple, (Victoria Hulland, Jamie Carter) were a vision of grace and elegance performing majestic moves with layers of romantic overtones.

Enigma Variations (My Friends Pictured Within) is a one-act ballet by Frederick Ashton. The setting is in Worcestershire, England in 1899. The staging of this piece is nothing less than magnificent. Composer Edward Elgar had his wife and friends in mind while writing the music. Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma, were dedicated to, "My friends pictured within". The 13 variations represent his wife and 12 of his friends, and in the finale, Elgar himself. It was Ashton who choreographed the work suggested by designed Julia Trevelyn Oman, and brought the characters to life in the form of the ballet. The story is about a fictitious gathering of friends with Elgar (Ricardo Graziano) and his wife, The Lady (Victoria Hulland) at their home. The audience was awestruck noting the palatial setting boasting a grandiose staircase, inviting sitting areas, a view of the outside garden walkway and towering trees full of autumn leaves that occasionally wafted to the ground. As each variation of the music is played, it is danced by the characters for which Elgar composed the variation. The Victorian-era costumes were striking and very distinguished. Mr. Graziano portrayed the rather somber Elgar a dignity befitting his strong and steady moves. Miss Hulland was graceful and delicate as his smitten wife.

George Balanchine's Diamonds was another stunning opening with a bright blue background, long flowing white draperies and 2 elegant chandeliers hanging high above. This piece is the closing number to Balanchine's full-length ballet, Jewels. It is a tribute Imperial Russia's 19th Century opulence and recognition of Balanchine's Russian heritage. Eight willow-like dancers with tiaras and rhinestone adorned neck and waistlines filled the stage with intricate patterns of grace. Then come the regal ballerina and her handsome swain. Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano were stunning together. His strength and her poise and flexibility were captivating, particularly throughout an extended pas de deux. The stage was aglow with the twinkling of rhinestones on every costume when over 30 dancers re-joined them for a magnificent grand polonaise finale.

A live orchestra highlighted all of this magnificence. Thank you Sarasota Orchestra under the masterful baton of Jonathan McPhee. What an elegant way to end a delightful evening.

I'm sure I have said this before, but I must say it again. I don't think many ballet companies can pull off this type of program. It's risky, difficult and has to be done with finesse. These pieces once again display the grueling work ethic, diversity, tenacity, and sheer talent Sarasota Ballet possesses.

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