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The Sarasota Ballet presents a diverse triple bill in its second program of the season.

By now Sarasota Ballet audiences are familiar with Director Iain Webb’s predilection for well-balanced triple bills that offer something pretty, something thought-provoking and a feel-good finale to send the crowd home jolly. That was the formula — albeit on steroids — for the second program of the season, “Symphonic Tales,” which opened Friday night for a two-day run at the Sarasota Opera House. If you couldn’t find anything to strike your fancy in a presentation so diverse, ballet is clearly not your bailiwick.

The program included George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” classical Russian ballet at its most pure and polymorphic; the company premiere of Balanchine’s “Western Symphony,” a caricature of America’s Western frontier days drawn straight from a John Wayne movie; and, in vivid contrast, “Las Hermanas,” Kenneth MacMillan’s loose rendering of Frederico Garcia-Lorca’s play “The House of Bernardo Alba.”

Given the reactions around me during the second of two intermissions, I wondered if I was alone in my preference for MacMillan’s dramatic (and frankly, depressing) study of a tyrannical mother in mourning for her late husband (Victoria Hulland, several months into her first pregnancy), her five daughters, and a suitor (guest artist Marcelo Gomes) meant for the eldest daughter (Danielle Brown), but who surreptitiously takes up with the youngest (Ellen Overstreet).

One thing is certain: You either like MacMillan or you don’t. If you’re into tutus and classicism, his intimate character studies of real people, often at their worst, moving realistically, may be a downer. On the other hand, you may admire, as I do, his uncanny ability to capture the essence of human frailty and veniality in movement that is authentic rather than contrived and to leave an enduring stamp on your conscience.

The ballet, last performed in Sarasota in 2008, is exceedingly dark in every way, from the gloomy if grandiose set (by Nicholas Giorgladis) of a house interior cloaked in stagnant shadow, to the somber lighting by Aaron Muhl. As the oldest sister, who is a catch for the fortune she is due to inherit rather than for her plain looks, Brown is the essence of a tortured soul. Her frought exchange with the charismatically alluring but casually cruel Gomes is a disconcerting composite of eroticism and rejection.

When Overstreet, the rebellious youngest sister, in a white frock that defies her mother’s black dress code, gets her turn with Gomes, it’s an entirely different story and about as close to sex on stage as you’re likely to find. Probably needless to say, this all ends in a powerfully bad way that is not likely to lift your spirits nor leave you with much that’s uplifting, save admiration for the dancers’ acting ability. Like I said, MacMillan isn’t for everyone.

But even if you closed your eyes in discomfort, you had to admire the Sarasota Orchestra’s delivery of the minimalist score by Frank Martin. Under the direction of American Ballet Theatre conductor Ormsby Wilkins, the music was exquisitely timed to foster the drama while serving the dancers’ needs. I can’t say enough about how much it added to the impact.

For traditionalists, “Theme and Variations,” the opening piece on the program, supplied all the usual bells and whistles — a sparkly set of massive drapes and chandeliers (Peter Farmer), traditional tutus and tunics in barely blue, white and silver (originally by Karinska), an intoxicating Tchaikovsky score and layered steps so basic even a beginning ballet student would recognize them from class.

Opening with the lead couple (Kate Honea and Ricardo Rhodes) executing a series of tendus at different angles, it segues into a series of 12 variations on the original theme performed by 12 female corps de ballet members as solos, duets, quartets and ensembles. They’re later joined by 12 male partners as the patterns, though not the vocabulary, grow increasingly complex. It all culminates with 26 dancers lined up for a final polonaise, a snapshot of Russian imperialism at its most grandiose.


Balanchine’s native roots are on full display here, as well as his unmatched ability to deconstruct and reconstruct the elements of the music visually. But the challenge in performing something so pure and unadulterated is that every tiny bobble or skewed line is glaringly evident. While the dancers were up to the technical challenges of the piece, it lacked a polished precision and a confident comfort.

As for “Western Symphony,” it was a bit like watching an old Western musical film — “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” came to mind — which is not surprising considering it evolved from Balanchine’s fascination with cowboy movies and the ebullient spirit of his adopted home. (His attire d’habitude was a yoked, plaid Western shirt with pearled snaps and a bolo tie.) To a medley of Americana tunes (arranged by Hersey Kay), from “Red River Valley” to “Good Night Ladies,” a frontier town populated by stereotypical cowboys and dance hall girls comes to life, with choreography drawn from square dances that is heavy on swagger for the men and provocativeness for the ladies.

Each of three movements features a different tempo and a different couple and the standouts for me were Katelyn May and Ricki Bertoni as a charmingly innocent courting couple in the middle adagio.

Predictably, this rousing finale, which ends with 32 dancers endlessly turning as the curtain falls, sent the audience home on an upbeat note. But it was the haunting images from “Las Hermanas” that remained with me, as well as the mystical power of dance to wordlessly capture humanity’s complex nature.

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