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A flurry of technique, a tug at the heartstrings and a comedy of (intentional) errors in triple bill

When Frederick Ashton came out of retirement in 1980 to create a ballet honoring the 80th birthday of his old friend, the Queen Mother (Queen Elizabeth), and also to provide a vehicle for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s last guest appearance with the Royal Ballet — the Russian superstar insisted he would only appear if Ashton were the choreographer — he admitted that he “pulled out all the plugs.”

The result was “Rhapsody,” the mix of Russian bombast and British elegance that opened the Sarasota Ballet’s “Masters of Dance” triple bill at the Sarasota Opera House, and was followed by Christopher Wheeldon’s “There Where She Loved” and the company premiere of Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert.”

If Baryshnikov was disappointed — “I was trying to get away from all those steps,” he later complained — the same cannot be said for those watching Ashton’s final oeuvre. (The choreographer died in 1988.) Though prior to this company premiere, the ballet had been revived only three times over nearly four decades, it has been reliably received as a dazzling confirmation of Ashton’s genius and its dancers’ abilities and Friday night’s opening performance was no exception.

The Baryshnikov role calls for a dancer with the speed, strength and stamina to keep up with Ashton’s barrage of precise steps to Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” here played sumptuously by the Sarasota Orchestra under the baton of Royal Ballet principal guest conductor Barry Wordsworth, with the flying fingers of Cameron Grant of the New York City Ballet Orchestra at the piano. But he must also meet the choreographer’s typical emphasis on musicality, a fluid upper body and clean lines. With uber-talented, tall-enough male dancers still the Sarasota Ballet’s Achilles’ heel, the company imported Mathias Dingman, a principal with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, to take on the challenge.

Though it was hard to dismiss the vision of what a young Baryshnikov might have done with this role so clearly made with his charisma in mind, the American-born dancer acquitted himself admirably, particularly in the segments that required nimble footwork and accelerated athletic leaps. (The adagio pas de deux to Rachmaninov’s familiar 18thvariation — that’s the theme from “Somewhere in Time” for movie fans — was also lovely.) He was well-matched by Sarasota Ballet principal Katelyn May, who, in her second season, has assumed the mantle of go-to girl when fleetness matched by fluidity is called for.

They were nicely balanced by an ensemble of six men and six women, including three men new this year (Yuri Marques, Ivan Spitale and Lenin Valladares) and two women (Paige Young and Anna Pellegrino) who are still apprentices. Though their greenness showed in spots — a lack of verisimilitude and a show of nerves — they were game in tackling the ballet’s considerable demands and just as lean and mean as everyone else on stage. (Is it my imagination or did everyone go on an unnecessary diet over the summer?)

After all that flamboyance, Wheeldon’s lovely, lyrical “There Where She Loves,” which the company last performed in 2010, was a welcome transition. To music by Frederick Chopin and Kurt Weill, sung with heartbreaking purity by sopranos Michelle Giglio and Stella Zambalis (again accompanied by Grant at the keyboard), the ballet consists of seven movements exploring love and relationships, from the “love ’em and leave ’em” interplay of “Surabaya Johnny” (Ricardo Rhodes with Kate Honea, Danielle Brown and Ellen Overstreet) to the painful poignancy of the final “Je Ne T’aime Pas (I Do Not Love You)” (Amy Wood and Ricardo Graziano). It was also wonderful to see Christine Windsor back at her pliable best after having her first child, quadrupally partnered by some of my favorite men in the company, Ricardo Rhodes, Jamie Carter, Ricki Bertoni and Weslley Carvalho.

Any Wheeldon piece is an opportunity for awe at the choreographer’s uncanny ability to create time and again such unforgettable images and seamless partnering that it seems almost preordained. Here, he superbly shifts the tone of each section while repeating previous phrases in different contexts and to contrasting music. I can appreciate as much as anyone the technical prowess of a piece like “Rhapsody,” but I’ll admit to preferring a work like Wheeldon’s that’s more likely to move me deeply and linger longer.

Director Iain Webb loves a comic closer, and the company premiere of Jerome Robbin’s “The Concert” was certainly that. In fact, it veered dangerously close to slapstick; only Robbin’s ineffable instinct for and insight into all that is human saves it from silly frivolity. Set at a piano recital — Grant plays on stage throughout — it features a quirky cast of characters whose over-the-top antics make fun of ballet, pompous art lovers and their own foibles and insecurities.

Victoria Hulland plays a ditzy blonde ballerina in love with the piano and herself; Honea is a stern, uptight one-percenter leading her simpering (yet secretly vengeful) mate, Bertoni, by the nose; and Graziano and Carvalho are a couple of music-loving lackeys in pale blue unitards with incongruous white collars, ties and newsboy caps.

There’s the “Mistake Waltz” (shades of childhood ballet recitals with dancers out of sync and out of place), a parody pas de deux; a parade of umbrellas when it appears not to be raining; and a strange sequence when everyone turns into a winged creature (chased after, with a giant net, by the pianist). It can’t compete with the choreographic genius of Robbins in, say “West Side Story,” but it’s certainly a fun lark.

As Sarasota Ballet triple bills often do, this one covered all the bases — a flurry of technical brilliance, a tug at the heartstrings and a good belly laugh. That’s not only good programming, it’s a tribute to this company’s ability to take on both the physical and emotional demands of such a diverse repertoire and, for the most part, to pull them off with admirable success.

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