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Dance Review: The challenge of ‘Transcending’ expectations

For Sarasota Ballet, a long-awaited premiere, a re-orchestrated revival, an exotic pas de deux, and a bit of Scottish fun

Over the past two years — one of which he spent recovering from a significant injury — Sarasota Ballet principal dancer Ricardo Graziano hasn’t tapped his creative muse much. Though he has held the title of resident choreographer for the past five years, he’s contributed only two brief pieces d’occasion since 2016, both for last year’s gala — one a bit of fun and fluff called “The Jolly Overture,” the other an abbreviated pas de deux in which dancers Weslley Carvalho and Amy Wood played second fiddle to opera singer Susan Graham. His last full one-act (“Sonata in Four Movements”) was a classical piece that was well-crafted but not especially memorable.

So anticipation was high for the world premiere of Graziano’s “Amorosa,” a contemporary piece for five couples, set to sumptuous extracts from Vivaldi’s cello concertos, and featuring principal Danielle Brown (also back from a severe injury) and the company’s resident guest, former American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes. It came sandwiched in the middle of a program called “Transcending Movement” that also included David Bintley’s “Scottish Dances” (last performed in 2008) and two works by Frederick Ashton, one of which was painstakingly recreated expressly for this company premiere.

As someone who has admired much of Graziano’s work in the past, I counted myself among those in a state of eager anticipation for this long-awaited reveal. But alas, high expectations have a way of turning into preconceived resentments. I wanted to find my heart in my throat, as I did with the choreographer’s “Symphony of Sorrows,” or swept away by the ethereal beauty of his “In a State of Weightlessness.” Maybe that’s why I was ultimately disappointed by a piece that is lovely to look at, but lacked both the emotional punch and the uniquely unpredictable vocabulary of those previous works.

Don’t get me wrong, “Amorosa” is visually striking, with the women in scarlet bustiers and hoop skirts and the men in black tights and frock coats disappearing into and appearing out of the upstage darkness (lighting by Aaron Muhl), and a characteristically catchy ending designed to leave you breathless. It’s well-crafted too, with a nice mix of ensembles, pas de deux and an all-male segment with lots of swooping arms and circling heads.

But I found its choreography strikingly similar to some of Graziano’s previous work, especially “Weightlessness,” with the akimbo arms, flexed feet and chopping hands; lunges in plie like two-dimensional hieroglyphics; and relentless partnering. It was all very well-executed by the dancers and, perhaps if you’d never seen his other work, impressive, but I wanted something fresh.

And while I well know the ballet tradition is for men to do the heavy lifting, there was another thing that bothered me: From the moment the women enter the stage — carried forward from the darkness in straight, vertical poses and plopped down on their feet like store mannequins — they are constantly being moved, manipulated and molded by the men. Even in the less frequent moments when their feet are actually flat on the ground, their scooting, sliding and shifting is initiated by their partners. They seem to have no independence whatsoever; then again, maybe that was the intent.

I was also a bit crestfallen with my first look at the newest company member, Australia’s Richard House, who finally gives the troupe a partner tall enough for the long and lyrical Wood. There again, perhaps my years of wishing for a true danseur noble at the Sarasota Ballet sabotaged me; House performed well, but with an air of hesitancy and uncertainty. Perhaps a little more time with the ranks will give him a confidence to match his execution.

If it was swagger and charisma I was looking for, I found it in Gomes, performing the lead in Ashton’s “Varii Capricci,” a clever piece that had its debut in 1983 during The Royal Ballet’s tour to New York. Originally choreographed for Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell — one of the Royal’s most esteemed and beloved duos — it is Ashton at his bitchy and satirical best, as he parodies both that revered partnership and classical ballet itself.

Though he was barely distinguishable from the crowd in Graziano’s piece, here Gomes showed his old charisma, prowess and spark as a cocky punk with greased back hair, making a strutting entrance in sunglasses, white trousers and flashy spats. Victoria Hulland, as a worldly woman on the make, was his equal in both vanity and allure. They were surrounded by four other buoyant couples, bounding to a lively score by Sir William Walton, the fifth movement of which the Sarasota Ballet painstakingly re-orchestrated and recorded not only for future performances, but for use by other companies as well.

The program also included Ashton’s “Meditation from Thais,” a pas de deux with an exotic air, danced with strength and grace, to music from the Massenet opera, by Graziano and a veiled Katelyn May; and Bintley’s witty snapshot of Scottish behavior, from a charming gambol through the countryside by two innocent lovers (Ellen Overstreet and Carvalho) to the antics of a pair of inebriated boy pals (Ivan Duarte and Filippo Valmorbida).

“Transcending” is a tough title to live up to, and I’m not sure this evening met that high bar on all counts. But that’s the opinion of a critic; judging from the audience’s fevered enthusiasm, I was certainly in the minority.

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