It’s the Sarasota’s Ballet’s 30th anniversary year and, under normal circumstances, the season would have kicked off with enough fanfare and festivity to imbue the opening night performance with an air of electricity and euphoria.
Instead the company’s “Digital Program #1” showed up in my email inbox with an anticlimactic ping, signifying my package of a half dozen short works by Sir Frederick Ashton had arrived – not to be viewed in heels and a new dress from my familiar orchestra seat at the Asolo’s Mertz theater, but at home and alone, barefoot and disheveled.
I’m all for increasing ballet’s audience and eliminating its veneer of elitism, and the $35 ticket price for each of the company’s three fall digital programs will hopefully do just that. But dance on film can’t ever be expected to compete with live performance and, despite this very impressive first-go at producing in an unfamiliar format, I suspect I wasn’t alone in longing to be back in the theater.
Still, I was happy to see some dance again – any dance – after last season was cut short once theaters closed in March. But my heart was breaking for the dancers, most of whom are losing a year of an already too-short stage career to the pandemic. Thanks to the generosity of Sarasota Ballet supporters, the company has been able to keep them all under contract, but only a little more than a dozen performed in this program of pas de deux, small ensembles and excerpts from longer ballets specifically chosen to reduce viral danger to the dancers and staff during rehearsals.
All of the pieces were staples from the company’s broad Ashton repertoire, which director Iain Webb has strategically used for more than a decade to put the Sarasota troupe on the map.
There were movements from “Les Patineurs” – the ice-skating themed ballet that earned the company its first national recognition after performances in Washington, D.C. and New York City – and from the beloved and comic “Façade,” a tribute to the popular dances of the early 20th century.
There was an anthropomorphic divertissement, “La Chatte Metamorphosee en femme” (with Kate Honea as the feline) and some classicism for the traditionalists: Aurora’s “vision solo” from Act II of “Sleeping Beauty” (Marijana Dominis) and the moving balcony pas de deux from “Romeo and Juliet” (Ricardo Graziano and Ellen Overstreet).
And there were two of Ashton’s more memorable “mood” pieces: the mystical “Meditation from Thais” (Ricardo Rhodes and Katelyn May), which traces its origins to a 4th century Egyptian saint; and the hypnotic “Monotones II” (Graziano, Overstreet and Rhodes), inspired by astral bodies and composer Erik Satie’s familiar trio of piano compositions, “Trois Gymnopedies.”
As befits an organization that, under Webb, exudes class and seeks perfection, the video (by Bill Wagy, Andres Paz and Meybis Chavarria) was excellently shot and minimally edited (by Chavarria), insuring a full experience and no distractions. Closeups were used sparingly and effectively, in moments when it benefited to see the dancers’ faces, but for the most part, movements, lines and musicality were the sole focus. My only complaint was a few occasions when the lighting – appropriate for an in-theater performance – came across as too dark and obfuscatory on video.
A slightly stilted Webb introduced each piece and despite having been shot in an empty theater, each work was followed by a curtain call and recorded audience applause. Titles that scrolled on the screen provided artists’ names but wisely, the email package provided links to a performance program and the company’s full-season book for more sustained perusal. It also included a “connectivity” video that schooled tech-challenged audience members on how to view the performance via their television screens (a brilliant move, considering the ballet’s usual demographics).
Overall, the dancing was close to perfection, which, on video anyway, is both a plus and a minus. While the virtuosity, technical skill and fine-tuning was impressive, it often left me with the impression I’ve had in the past watching a ballet competition in which the students are so well rehearsed they’ve sucked the lifeblood right out of the choreography.
Dancing is steps, of course, but without an emotional connection – to an audience, to a partner, to a grander vision – it can come across as rote. For that reason, the excerpts from the large cast ballets like “Les Patineurs” and “Façade” seemed a little canned, while the pieces that featured intimate interactions – like the “Romeo and Juliet” pas de deux and the transcendent union of “Thais” – were more engaging.
The most successful piece was also the most austere. “Monotones II” – with its three dancers in white unitards bathed in an ethereal light and the rest of the stage entirely blacked out, giving the impression they were floating in space – was mesmerizing. So entranced was I by its rich yet simple vocabulary and the dancers long and elegant lines, I stopped the video and rewatched it twice.
The digital ticket also included a “bonus” hour of excerpts from a socially distanced rehearsal (weirdly provided without the sound of stager Margaret Barbieri’s comments, but only the musical score); an interview with head of wardrobe Jerry Wolf; and a recorded segment with the dancers questioning the renowned former Royal Ballet dancer Sir Anthony Dowell (who had coached “Thais” via Zoom).
But as far as I’m concerned, the real bonus – and the only thing video has over a live performance – is the ability to watch your favorites again and again. The ballet is allowing five days of unfettered viewing for the price of single digital ticket. That’s a bargain you won’t often find in Sarasota.