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Sarasota Ballet’s ‘Poetry and Liberty’ program bookends Frederick Ashton’s ‘Apparitions’ and George Balanchine’s ‘Stars and Stripes’

The buildup to The Sarasota Ballet’s revival of Frederick Ashton’s “Apparitions” has been more than two years in the making. Originally scheduled for the 2016-17 season, it was postponed more than once after a series of setbacks, beginning with the belated discovery that the production the company had purchased from the London Festival Ballet consisted of mostly empty boxes containing only two backdrop cloths and almost none of the lavish costumes originally designed by Cecil Beaton and created by the famed Karinska.

The biggest hurdle, of course, was to recreate a ballet that had not been seen on any stage, anywhere, for more than three decades, the documentation of which existed only in dance notation and the snippet of black and white film that had inspired Sarasota Ballet director Iain Webb to revive it in the first place. Created in 1936 by a 32-year-old Ashton for the dancer who would become his muse, Margot Fonteyn (then 16); brought back for Ashton’s 70th birthday in 1974; and last seen in that London Festival Ballet production of 1987, the year before Ashton’s death, it had been considered, like many of the choreographer’s early works, “lost.”

But when it comes to preserving ballet history — Ashton’s in particular — Webb can charitably be called obsessed; the obstacles only added fuel to his fire. Undaunted, he called on a cadre of colleagues from his native England to, with painstaking historical research, recreate its sumptuous sets and costuming and tapped Ashton repetiteur Grant Coyle to resurrect the choreography. A measure of the significance of this accomplishment was that within the audience for the premiere at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall Friday night was Tony Dyson, the chair of the Ashton Foundation; a cluster of Brits who’d contributed to the production; and a handful of out of town critics.

I’d prefer to see it a few more times before rendering judgment, but my reaction upon a first viewing is that there may be a valid reason why “Apparitions” fell out of the repertoire. For all its visual splendors and the dramatic Gothic storyline about a tormented poet (Marcelo Gomes) chasing a vision of “L’amour supreme” (Victoria Hulland), it is choreographically less interesting and emotionally less engaging than much of Ashton’s later work.

Seeing black and white photos from the ballet’s premiere — with Robert Helpmann (a better thespian than dancer most would argue) as the poet, wild-eyed and frenetic, and Fonteyn, siren-ish and sinister — I’d imagined something more exotic and phantasmagorical. But the vocabulary is basic, if challengingly arranged, ballet steps, put together in a traditional format of repeating phrases, and much of the ensemble’s movement is simply aimed at walking the storyline forward. Gomes and Hulland are both consummate artists and technicians, but hard as they tried to inhabit their characters and establish the necessary compulsive connection, I simply never felt it in my gut.

Set to the romantic music of Franz Liszt (played by the Sarasota Orchestra under guest conductor Ormsby Wilkins), the ballet opens with the poet in his study, frustrated by a lack of inspiration. Three shadowy figures appear in the arched windows of the stunning backdrop — a dandified hussar (Richard House), a menacing monk (Jamie Carter) and the “Woman in the Ball Dress” (Hulland), who will haunt the poet for the remainder of the ballet.

Fueled by laudanum, he chases her through a ballroom filled with “ladies of fashion” in voluminous pastel dresses that flare out to resemble blooming flowers (the weight of which appeared to be rather daunting for the dancers); a “snow-clad plain,” where “belfry spirits” in feathered headdresses (think Phyllis Diller’s hair) taunt him; and a vividly lit (by Aaron Muhl) scarlet cave, where he joins the orgiastic revels of a cultish crew in red robes. The epilogue brings the whole thing to a macabre close, as the poet awakes, not unexpectedly kills himself, and is raised aloft by a funeral cortege of monkish figures in purple.

After all that sturm und drang, “Stars and Stripes,” George Balanchine’s love letter to his adopted country, choreographed to the rousing marches of John Philip Sousa, seemed almost gaudy. This burst of brazen energy and optimism, with an oversized flag as the finale backdrop, provided an opportunity — all too rare these days — to remember what being proud of our country feels like.

A spunky Elizabeth Sykes led the pink tutu’ed regiment in the “first campaign” with effervescence and polish, while Katelyn May punched beyond her height in the second (as the corps behind her experienced a few moments of discombobulation). The buoyant Ivan Duarte barely touched down in the strong all-male third movement, and Kate Honea and Ricardo Rhodes, reprising roles they debuted in 2016, were dependable if not exactly inspirational in the grand pas as “Liberty Bell” and her “El Capitan.”

The two halves of the program, which Webb dubbed “Poetry and Liberty,” were intentionally disparate and dissonant, the first darkly dramatic and dated, the other, like America itself, splashy and zestfully youthful; it’s a pretty fair bet audience members were drawn more to one or the other. As for me, even though “Apparitions” didn’t live up to my preconceptions substantively, I’m truly grateful someone made the enormous commitment of money, time and effort, to salvage it, and I look forward to taking a second look.

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