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Winter Wonderland

A triple bill is a complicated balancing act, needing an inviting opener, a solid middle, and a bravura finish. The art of putting them together seems to have been lost in a number of companies, but Iain Webb, the director of the Sarasota Ballet, created a magical combination for his "Victorian Winters" program.  The opening ballet, Sir Frederick Ashton's 1937 "Les Patineurs", is a warm-hearted Currier & Ives vision of a skating rink full of friends -- even in the warm Florida weather the concession stand could probably sell a lot of hot chocolate during the intermission.  Ashton's "Enigma Variations", choreographed in 1968, is a more somber look at friendship, love, and artistic isolation, a haunting and unique work.  Balanchine's glittering "Diamonds" made a glorious finale, with its white-tutued corps forming intricate snowflake patterns.

The Sarasota Ballet has been dancing "Les Patineurs" since 2008 and its youthful charm and technical flamboyance suits the company well.  The corps were especially impressive as they dug into Ashton's complex bends and twists with complete confidence and I especially enjoyed the synchronized swooshing sounds as they swept their feet along the floor, giving a weighted push to the simulated skating.

Both of the boys in blue (Ivan Duarte on Friday and Saturday nights and Thomas Giugovaz in the matinee) were crisp and elegant, tossing off the little beats and thrilling turns with an engaging charm.  Giugovaz made a bit more of the complicated over the knee jumps than Duarte, but they both gave the impression that they could toss off turns a la second forever.

Both sets of the girls in blue were well-matched, even down to the hair color.  (The blondes, Kate Honea and Katelyn May, got the evenings and the brunettes, Samantha Benoit and Asia Bui, got the matinee.)  Honea and May had an especially sparkling turning contest with Honea's crisp fouettés, many with her leg outstretched, slightly edging out May's elegant turns.  The more elegant girls in red with their slightly snooty prance got their comeuppance as they took their spill with fine comedic timing, and again the two pairs (Amy Wood and Ellen Overstreet on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and Lauren Ostrander and Janae Korte on Saturday night) were perfectly matched.

The romantic couple in white (Victoria Holland and Jamie Carter on Friday and Saturday night and Christine Windsor and Richard Houston at the matinee) flirted decorously, though the series of lifts where the man tilts his partner as she extends her legs has become a bit gymnastic, each lift stretched to the max and exposing some frilly drawers in a most un-Victorian manner.

Holland and Carter both danced in "Enigma Variations", Carter as the youthful and elegant Richard Arnold and Holland in the pivotal role of Lady Elgar.  "Enigma Variations" is a multilayered work, portraying the late-nineteenth century British composer, Sir Edward Elgar and his circle of friends.  It may be a coincidence, but late in their careers both Ashton and Balanchine choreographed ballets based on unhappy, frustrated artists; Ashton's "Enigma Variations" focuses on the doubts and insecurities of a middle-aged Elgar before his first success and Balanchine's 1980 "Davidsbündlertänze" explores Robert Schumann's frustration, madness, and suicide, and both ballets feature their loyal, loving, yet often helpless wives.  Both works also merge the real with the abstract, though Ashton's work is, to my mind, the more subtle.  Balanchine has his women change from character shoes to point shoes midway through the work, and then back again for the final denouement, an obvious signal to the audience that gears are being shifted.  Ashton's dancers flow from everyday gestures (a handshake, a man adjusting a pair of glasses, someone tipping a messenger boy) to abstract embodiments of the music and back to real life with just a shift of posture or tilt of the head.  The dancers are both telling the story of the music and embodying the music (the ballet features a group of friends visiting Elgar and his wife on the afternoon his close friend Jaeger received a telegram saying that Hans Richter would conduct the premiere of "Enigma Variations" which was a musical portrait of those friends).

The dancers must be real people. After the premiere of the ballet Elgar's daughter told Ashton "I don't understand how you did it -- they were exactly like that", and Ashton choreographed the work for some of the most outstanding dancers, both character and classical, the Royal Ballet ever produced.  (The Sarasota Ballet's program lists those original dancers, a fine tip of the hat from the present to the past.)  I was fortunate to see many of the original dancers, and the Sarasota Ballet's production is rich, profound, and moving, and most important, vibrant and vivid.  

Ricardo Graziano had an impressive and weighty dignity as Elgar in the Friday and Saturday evening performances.  The role has little actual dancing and he was able to dominate the action by standing and watching.  His stunned reaction to the news in the telegram showed an emotion too profound for joy, as if, after those years of neglect, he was afraid to celebrate.  Jamie Carter, in the Saturday matinee, was less successful, a bit wooden and retiring, as his he hadn't yet connected the gestures to the emotions.

Holland, with Graziano, was a natural, detailed, and moving Lady Elgar, warm yet vulnerable as she tried to support her husband, her eyes watching and reaching out to him.  She made the simple act of walking slowly up the stairs alone as the young lovers danced below (a charming Ellen Overstreet with an ardent Jamie Carter) a heartbreaking picture of isolation.  Amy Wood, in the matinee, was lighter and less nuanced, giving a more youthful take on one of the most poignant portraits of an adult in the ballet repertoire.

Wood was much more successful as Lady Mary Lygon, who, since she was on a sea voyage at the time "Enigma" was composed, floats on in a mist to the eerie, haunting music.  Wood's stately beauty and immaculate bourees gave the variation a magical quality.  Daniel Pratt was a dignified, formal, but never stiff, Jaeger, moving effortlessly between the action and the music, especially in the Nimrod variation, in which the composer put their friendship (and their conversations about Beethoven) to music.  The three dancers, Holland, Graziano, and Pratt, let the music flow through them, linking arms, looking at the horizon, and walking slowly forward, a simple but potent blend of movement, feeling, and music which the dancers' radiant conviction made extraordinarily moving.

"Diamonds", the last act of Balanchine's ever-popular "Jewels", had a simple but effective set (not credited), with white swags and discrete chandeliers framing an icy blue background, so much more effective than the often cheesy glitz of other "Diamonds" I have seen, and Karinska's costumes glowed against the blue as the corps wove through Balanchine's geometric formations.  The work, though, is somewhat disjointed, as the corps celebrates in those intricate and formal patterns, especially in the glorious finale, a Polonaise what would look right at home in Act III of "The Sleeping Beauty", while the heart of the ballet, the somber, mysterious pas de deux, remains a mystery that is not only unresolved, it is ignored -- why do these two wary, cautious, downcast dancers pop up in the last movement jumping for joy?  But it is certainly possible to revel in Balanchine's craftsmanship without being moved by it.

The pas de deux, though, casts one of Balanchine's most potent spells, as the two dancers approach each other and in one seemingly long breath, dance their unresolved yearning with an undercurrent of some mysterious sadness.  Sarasota Ballet offered two distinctive casts, Danielle Brown with Graziano on Friday and Saturday afternoon, and Ellen Overstreet with guest star Marcelo Gomes, in his debut in the role, on Saturday night. Brown danced the role as if she were a distillation of Odette, reaching for her partner while knowing that some powerful force would keep them apart.  She had a few issues with Balanchine's off center balances on Friday night, but maintained her composure.  There were no problems on Saturday and her lush extensions and elegant, daring dancing and air of being propelled by the music combined with her haunted melancholy (with no hint of extraneous melodrama) made this an extraordinarily moving, almost tragic, performance.  Graziano was a noble and elegant consort, dancing with a smooth lyricism and understated power that was beautifully musical but never flashy.  His turns a la second in the finale were especially fine, as he built up speed without losing control.

Overstreet gave the role a smokey mystery and she danced with her eyes apparently closed, as if she were a dream, a vision, or a ghost, almost disappearing as she kept her face turned away.  This made sense, since no live ballerina, no matter how strong a spell she may have been under, would have been able to resist Gomes' noble, generous approach as he walked on the stage hand to heart looking for the unattainable.  This was partnering in excelsis and the audience quite appropriately cheered them both.  She did seem to flag a bit during the finale, but "Diamonds" is really about the pas de deux and that was an emotional triumph.

So too, was the entire weekend, but Graziano was especially heroic, dancing three completely different and demanding roles on Saturday.  He was an elegantly brusque whirlwind as Elgar's friend Troyte, a pristine classical partner in "Diamonds" at the matinee and a dominating Elgar in the evening. The dedication, understanding -- and stamina -- required seemed to sum up the Sarasota Ballet's performances, and it was a true privilege to watch them.

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