The Sarasota Ballet under the astute and stylish direction of Iain Webb, has become America’s very own repository of Sir Frederick Ashton’s vast oeuvre and has returned to its New York home base, The Joyce Theater, gifting local balletomanes with two more Ashton works plus a new work by Jessica Lang.
Birthday Offering, Ashton’s fabled 1956 pièce d’occasion celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and its transformation into the Royal Ballet, had the benefit of the company’s abundance of great ballerinas, a cadre led by the renowned Margot Fonteyn. Each of these seven ballerinas was given a solo in Birthday Offering highlighting her special qualities.
Set to a lush score by Alexander Glazunov, including selections from Raymonda, the work is constructed as a series of variations bookended by full ensemble sections and a pas de deux (originally Fonteyn and her cavalier, Michael Somes, here gallantly and stylishly performed by Macarena Giménez and Ricardo Graziano).
Dressed in the extravagantly colorful formal costumes of André Levasseur (who also provided the staid set of steps, columns and drapery) the cast danced in formal patterns around the stage leading to a slow Adage in which six of the couples echoed the lead couple.
Emelia Perkins danced Elaine Fifield’s perky solo followed by Danielle Brown conquering Rowena Jackson’s swift-footed choreography. Svetlana Beriosova, who was a tall dancer was given steps that showed off her grandeur; her solo ably danced by Sarasota dancer, Gabriella Schultze. Nadia Nerina’s steps were tailored for her great strength. Her solo was beautifully presented by Anna Pellegrino. Violeta Elvin’s sprightliness was gleefully echoed by Dominique Jenkins and Beryl Grey’s swiftness by Marijana Dominis.
The very classical choreography quotes phrases from other ballets like Sleeping Beauty and Paquita, put through the special Ashton grid. The ballet was staged by Royal Ballet veteran Margaret Barbieri who, with Grant Coyle, staged the second Ashton ballet.
The second Ashton ballet was Varii Capricci, his clever take on Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Biches from 1924. Her ballet was a tongue-in-cheek comment on the sexually liberated, chic young people of France. Ashton set Varii to a witty score by Sir William Walton.
La Capricciosa (a delightfully languid Danielle Brown, arrayed in Ossie Clark’s diaphanous white dress) is wooed by a gigolo, Lo Straniero (a hilarious, oily Ricardo Rhodes) whose intentions were clearly not honorable.
These two were surrounded by a giddy ensemble that gamboled about watching them romantically self-destruct.
Varii Capricci is light-hearted and lightweight, but impeccably presented.
I haven’t enjoyed Jessica Lang’s work, but her Shades of Spring (a sappy title for a complex work), set to excerpts from Joseph Haydn’s jewel-like piano trios, has made me a fan.
A mirrored ramp designed by Lang and Roxane Revon was the centerpiece of the set. It served as a gathering and resting place for the cast. Revon also provided moody, watery nature images projected onto the back screen. The women wore loose hanging tutus and torso-revealing tops the men were in light blue tights and loose shirts, all designed by Jillian Lewis.
With just seven dancers, Lang created a little community of people who constantly interacted. A duet for Arcadian Broad and Yuki Nonaka had some gay, romantic overtones. A trio of Dominis, Rhodes and Richard House became a frisky tug of war with the woman as the centerpiece. One woman sat at the edge of the mirrored wedge gazing out into the wings while the other dancers piled up on the mirror and left her alone. Lang kept the mood fairly light with darkness intruding at odd moments as the music dictated using an easy mix of ballet, modern dance and gestures.
This evening with the Sarasota Ballet had pleasant surprises getting reacquainted with an old friend and rethinking the work of a new one.
The Sarasota Ballet (through August 21, 2022)
The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-242-0800 or visit http://www.Joyce.org
Running time: two hours including two intermissions