The Sarasota Ballet’s 29th season gets off to an impressive start with a tribute to the work of its resident choreographer.
Sarasota Ballet director Iain Webb has long been admired for his prowess in programming well-balanced and audience-pleasing triple bills that are diverse yet cohesive. For the opening of the 2019-20 season, his job was simplified by choosing a retrospective of the work of the company’s gifted resident choreographer (since 2014) and principal dancer, Ricardo Graziano.
Webb didn’t even have to struggle with sequencing, placing the three Graziano one-acts in the chronological order in which they were choreographed. The program began with his first piece for the company from 2011, “Shostakovich Suite,” continued with “En Las Calles de Murcia” from the spring of 2015 and concluded with the critically acclaimed “In a State of Weightlessness,” commissioned for the ballet’s first residency at the famed Jacob’s Pillow dance venue in the summer of 2015.
While pinning the success of a season opener solely on a 32-year-old choreographer little known outside Sarasota might seem risky, not every 32-year-old choreographer is a Graziano. The variety, vision and — dare I say it? — virtuosity of the Brazilian native’s inspirations made for the kind of satisfying three-course visual and emotional feast Webb strives to regularly present.
Graziano and I arrived in Sarasota at the same time, which has given me the chance to intimately track his creative blossoming. I’d seen each of these ballets at least once previously, but the revisiting provided new insights into his development and a greater appreciation for his ability. It also presented the opportunity to admire new and up-and-coming dancers and to note the growing consistency and maturity of the company itself.
“Shostakovich Suite,” a classical work reminiscent of the late George Balanchine’s grandiose 19th century ballets, bears the marks both of an impressive capability and a degree of youthful over-ambition. An octet of scenes set to flamboyant extracts from composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2″ and “Ballet Suite No.2,” it features 24 dancers in stunning Bill Fenner-designed costumes and a dizzying barrage of steps and virtuosic splashes.
For once I wished I’d been sitting in the balcony rather than the orchestra, for the most impressive part of this dazzling display — given that Graziano was just 24 at its premiere — is the remarkable intricacy, complexity and variety of patterning of the dancers’ movement. A bird’s eye view, like the overhead shots of the June Taylor dancers on television long ago, would have been fascinating.
While the sum total of this energetic piece threatened to overwhelm the tight constraints of the relatively small stage of the ballet’s home venue, it provided a superb vehicle for showcasing the debut of the newest principal, Luke Schaufuss, the third generation of a dance dynasty. who most recently danced with the Scottish Ballet.
Schaufuss, the son and grandson of internationally renowned dancers with the Danish Ballet, is the dashing, relatively tall and more mature male dancer the company has long lacked, with the technical chops to back up his boyish good looks. Though by appearances, a bit ungrounded and winded by the excitement of his debut, he made a charismatic partner for the ever-more lovely and lyrical Katelyn May and planted a seed of anticipation for future appearances.
“En Las Calles de Murcia,” Graziano’s fifth piece for the company, is an altogether different work in approach, look and vocabulary. To 18th century guitar melodies by Santiago de Murcia ( Murcia is a town in southeastern Spain) it draws from both flamenco and Spanish folk dance and reflects the influence of contemporary choreographer Nacho Duato but also a maturing original voice.
In front of a stunning twilight skyscape backdrop by Jon Goodwin, darkly but effectively lit by Aaron Muhl, six couples, each dressed in a different color and with bare feet, are featured alone and interacting, with flexed feet, corps contractions and unctuous upper body flexibility throughout.
Though the couple in brown — Lauren Ostrander and Ivan Spitale — both joined the company last year, this was a first opportunity to appreciate their potential and charisma. Their natural and unforced exuberance was a joy to see and hopefully a presaging of more featured roles to come. The beautiful feet and quiet, but alluring debut of the company’s newest soloist, Marijana Dominis (partnered by new corps member Mihai Costache), was another unforeseen pleasure.
I’ve now watched Graziano’s “In a State of Weightlessness” at least four or five times and it just gets better with every viewing. This exploration of suspension, lightness and ethereality was so mesmerizing, it seemed to go by in a heartbeat. To an addictive score by ballet’s favorite contemporary composer, Philip Glass, it is made up of a sequence of pas de deux for five couples, each one blending into the next as one couple exits and another enters from the opposite side.
With the men, in black, disappearing into the shadowy lighting — leaving the impression that the women, in nude leotards bathed in golden side and overhead lighting (again, by Muhl) are suspended in air without support — it evidences Graziano’s gift for devising extremely challenging partnering that seamlessly transitions and is fluidly organic.
Showcasing the extreme flexibility and lyricism of the top female dancers, “Weightlessness” stands at the pinnacle of the eight one-acts Graziano has created. Though his work has yet to be performed by any other company, it’s likely to be only a matter of time before the Sarasota Ballet will no longer have exclusivity over his work. Thus this retrospective was a well-deserved tribute to an inspired dance maker and local audience favorite, as well as a splendid start to a promising season.