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The second program of The Sarasota Ballet’s digital fall season, featuring excerpts from the works of George Balanchine, was released this weekend, offering an hour-long sampler from the man conceded to be the greatest choreographic genius of the 20th century.

Balanchine’s repertoire is considered a “must have” for any reputable American ballet company and, despite its abiding loyalty to British choreographer Frederick Ashton, The Sarasota Ballet has also amassed a sizable number of the former New York City Ballet director’s pieces in its repertoire.  

Unfortunately, for this program the company couldn’t really tap into the depth of that stable, due to the need to limit the lineup to mostly brief solos, pas de deux and small ensembles excerpts, chosen to minimize risk to dancers and staff during the pandemic. Though it is varied stylistically, performed with polish and expertly filmed, because the presentation lacks a single meaty entry, it has an aura of a “greatest hits” gala fundraiser.

Nevertheless, it’s a colorful, entertaining program that should be especially appealing to those who aren’t so familiar with the great man’s works. (Is there anyone?) In any case, whether you’re a longtime aficionado or a new initiate, I would recommend watching first the interview with Balanchine Trust repetiteur Sandra Jennings (who staged, coached and rehearsed the program by Zoom from her home in California) included in the “extra features” package that comes with any digital ticket.

Jennings, who danced at New York City Ballet for Balanchine before his death in 1983, shares a wealth of insights into the ballets on the program and the choreographer himself. The “extras” also include a Q & A with third-year dancers Lauren Ostrander and Janae Kortae, who talk about dancing Balanchine’s choreography and who receive an unsuspected surprise (I won’t reveal) at the end of their chat with director Iain Webb.

The necessity of the digital format and limited dancer contact has put Webb, known for spreading performance opportunities equitably throughout the company’s ranks, in a bit of a bind. For this program it was clear from the casting that he’s trying to make sure his newest novices aren’t sitting out the season, while insuring his veteran dancers, closest to retirement, are getting some final stage time.

For example, in the opening “Donizetti Variations,” he had third year dancer Yuri Marques (promoted from the corps to coryphee earlier this year) partnering established principal Katelyn May, as three corps members (Kelly Williams, Claire Glavin and Kortae) and apprentice Melanie Wells made up the female ensemble. While May’s technique and musicality were a step above everyone else, her frozen smile was less engaging than the genuine exuberance of her less experienced counterparts, who were clearly enjoying an opportunity to perform at last.

Again in the fiendishly fast “Tarantella,” principal Kate Honea, the longest-tenured dancer (she joined the company in 2002) was paired with a boyish Yuki Nonaka, a corps dancer who two years ago was in the company’s conservatory program. And in the second movement from “Western Symphony,” Ricki Bertoni, a 13-year company member who has danced mostly character roles for the past five years, was cast as the lonely lead cowboy, surrounded by a bevy of saloon girls I’d guess to be little more than half his age (corps members Mikayla Hutton and Dominique Jenkins and apprentices Kannedy Falyn Cassada and Macyn Vogt).

The tantalizing glimpse of one of Balanchine’s greatest “black and white ballets,” (so called because the dancers wear practice black and white leotards and tights), “The Four Temperaments,” was a serious tease to those who know this earliest of Balanchine’s experimental works, which combines classical steps with a lean and angular style.

Viewers are treated to just the first three brief themes from this still modern-looking 1946 work, inspired by the medieval belief that humans were made up of four different “humors” – melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic and choleric. Ellen Overstreet and Daniel Pratt excel in the first theme, which is languid, calm and serene; Ostrander and Ivan Spitale in the second, a burst of power and syncopation; and Kortae and Richard House in the third, a sublime melding of the first two. The only thing that was missing was more.

It’s Webb’s regular formula to end any program with an upbeat crowd pleaser and that was true even in the digital format. The program concludes with eight variations from “Who Cares?” Balanchine’s valentine to Broadway and New York City, performed before a backdrop of silhouetted skyscrapers. So joyous is this score of familiar George Gershwin tunes that even though the dancers were not performing before an audience, they came exuberantly alive, exhibiting a zest and spontaneity missing in some of the earlier pieces.

Especially noteworthy were the ever-charismatic Ricardo Rhodes (partnering Honea) in the romantic “The Man I Love”; Kortae in the jazzy “Stairway to Paradise”; and Ostrander in “My One and Only,” which contains a remarkably long segment where she never comes off pointe.

Kudos are also due to the videography team of Andres Paz, Billy Wagy and Meybis Chavarria (who also did the editing), for delivering another easy-on-the-eyes digital package. Indeed, everyone involved in this production deserves credit – for keeping the dancers employed, audiences engaged and ballet alive in this time of such great challenges for the performing arts.

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