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Eminently Victorian

Sarasota Ballet didn’t rely this year on “The Nutcracker” for holiday sparkle. Instead, it dipped into its trinket box of repertory and pulled out three baubles to make up a “Victorian Winters” program. The most glittery was predictable: Balanchine’s “Diamonds” fronted by two company ballerinas. One lucky one was squired by guest star Marcelo Gomes; both proved themselves up to the lead.

But the most polished gem came first: Margaret Barbieri’s snow-globe setting of Ashton’s “Les Patineurs.” From 1937, it’s still an enchanting example of how Ashton could take a familiar activity – ice skating – and translate it to classical ballet.

Barbieri sets Ashton with the urbane grace of a landscape architect: the beautiful vistas and central fountains are there, but the joy is in getting lost wandering the side lanes and marveling how brilliantly the whole thing is laid out. She kept the corps de ballet neatly trimmed, and it blossomed: In both casts, the dancers paid careful attention to line: their arabesques all were straight, their heads all looked out from under their arms at the same angle. Four men made small skating steps to center stage, set up for neat double turns, and then skated back.

Another part of the company’s sheen is the individuality of the dancers: they all have recognizable qualities that distinguish and familiarize them. The Blue Boy is a virtuoso part, and right in Ivan Duarte’s wheelhouse. Shorter and a pyrotechnician, he’s likable but not cheap. The fireworks were backed up with good schooling as he ended multiple turns in a high, punctilious relévé.

Victoria Hulland is blond and ladylike; her Victorian beauty seems straight out of a Whistler canvas.   In a different company that could seem pallid and lethargic. Artistic Director Iain Webb’s accent on Ashton has given her a repertory that uses her composure: As she pivoted and was lifted by Jamie Carter in the main duet in white, the two of them looked like a cake topper come to life.

Hulland brought a similar pale depth to Lady Elgar in Ashton’s “Enigma Variations” but the production has lost some of the brand-new luster it had when the company first danced it two years ago.

“Enigma” is difficult to keep up. Ashton’s moods are fragile and “Enigma” veers between subtle and twee. It takes a great staging and smart dancers to get the balance. Ashton’s instinct with big music is to move against it.  In the Nimrod variation the music soars and Ashton sets the simplest lift: Elgar raising his wife straight up. A few seconds later Elgar, Lady Elgar and Jaeger rush forward only to be stopped by the Fourth Wall. By now that’s a cliché but in the right hands it’s still breathtaking.

Not only does the shadow-box mood need to be right, the ballet is technically grueling, and requires good acting to transmit a story most of the audience doesn’t know. (Though it doesn’t fully need to – “Enigma” is about Elgar’s friends and career, but like the music itself, it works fine if you think of it as discrete character sketches).

This time round, the company didn’t act, it ACTED with an eye on effects rather than actions. “I touch your shoulder! I gaze at you meaningfully!” Ballet acting works better with a purpose rather than a mood: trying to convince someone to keep working at his art, rather than looking concerned.

Webb still has an eye for talent – not only for dancers, but musicians. This program brought in Jonathan McPhee to conduct, best known as music director for the Boston Ballet. Along with Duarte, other recent dancer arrivals show promise. Filippo Valmorbida is quite short, but the Royal Ballet had Wayne Sleep and Ashton made the role of George Robertson Sinclair for him. For Valmorbida in that part and Duarte in “Les Patineurs,” that adds up to a meaningful repertory rather than endless jesters.

Katelyn May is a new principal with strong technique and versatility. In one cast she was Winifred Norbury, striding side to side and lifting up her skirt to show her shoe. In the other she was a beaming Dora Penny and she’s been good in most everything.

Thomas Giugovaz was more of a puzzle. From Trieste and trained at La Scala, he’s not tall, but has both long legs and a long back, with feet like supple paws. How to best feature him? Blue Boy was at the edge of his range – the lines were handsome but his stretchiness made his jumps look low-octane. But doing the ferocious grands battements and quicksilver changes of direction as Arthur Troyte Griffith, he scored. It made sense: Troyte was Anthony Dowell’s role and that’s closer to Giugovaz’s type than a pyrotechnician.

On the other hand, Webb almost killed some of his veterans. For Ricardo Graziano, good performances as Elgar and in “Diamonds” should have been enough. Handing him Troyte in the alternate cast of “Enigma” was a bridge too far.

After Barbieri’s punctilious setting of “Les Patineurs” it was jarring to see heads tilting every which way in the opening tableau of “Diamonds.” We’d barely notice it at New York City Ballet, that’s just company style. But when you see clean and ragged on the same program, it sticks out. And if you’re going to have Balanchine flyaway arms, there had best be Balanchine legs to compensate and that’s not Sarasota’s jam.

The ballerina role was double cast; both dancers succeeded. Danielle Brown has been with the company as long as Webb and she’s grown in artistry the whole time. She came back from surgery to dance with Graziano and characterized the role like Odette in “Swan Lake” Act 4: her downcast gaze recalled a bird with a wounded heart.

Ellen Overstreet went instead for “Swan Lake” Act 2: closer to a vision, and she reacted tentatively to guest artist Marcelo Gomes as if she were unsure whether to approach him. Both women used the same plucked note when the couple met at center stage as a transition: for Brown it seemed like a shock to wakefulness. Overstreet made it the moment she decided to look at Gomes.

From her debut in “Symphonic Variations” when she entered the company in 2012 at age 19, Overstreet has had ballerina instincts. She knows what a ballerina should look like. Here she deployed every trick and mannerism: far-off gazes and emotional swoons – and made them all work. Her Diamonds characterization was a compendium of clichés, but in gifted hands that adds up to the idea of a ballerina. Like Alexandra Ansanelli a dance generation prior, she can take the fantasy and make it real.

Gomes, the consummate porteur, may have been the bona fide star but he made himself invisible in full-on cavalier mode. He looked only at Overstreet and so did we. Through his grace and her skill she wasn’t outclassed onstage – a major achievement. He’s not a Balanchine dancer; in his solo work in the scherzo, the accenting was too even, but he’s still a star with beautiful technique. He treated us to a silent circuit of jumps and beautiful turns with feline agility.

As well as both women did, there was room to grow. Brown had one sad look on her face the whole duet, which limited the emotional range even while her body was soaring. Younger, Overstreet is the ballerina apparent of the company and she’s gorgeous – from the ankles up.  Her pointe work was blocky and weak – a manège of inside en dedans turns almost went awry. Her placement is also too careful. In Balanchine – off balance means off balance, not on balance but looking upwards.

Even when the company didn’t knock the ball out of the park, the program was well worth traveling to see. Sarasota is one of the companies most worth watching today. Competitive superlatives don’t matter: don’t go looking for the longest balance, the most turns, the highest leg, more, more, mostest. The company has a jewel-box repertory and a distinct personality, and that’s worth 64 fouettés or more.

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