A few months ago we saw the sensational Miami troupe featuring the works of George Balanchine. Now we have just had a fascinating week-long season by the Sarasota Ballet troupe, directed by Iain Webb, at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea, in a program called A Knight of the British Ballet focusing on the brilliant work of Sir Frederick Ashton. Ashton was for decades synonymous with The Royal Ballet. His ballets were the artistic backbone of that troupe. It’s odd—yet wonderful—that Florida has become a stronghold for the repertories of two of the twentieth century’s most important choreographers.
The six Ashton works were divided evenly between straight-forward balletic and gimmicky light entertainments.
Strictly classical was “Valses Noble et Sentimentales” (1947), staged by Mr. Webb and Margaret Barbieri to the Ravel score. It’s clearly a predecessor to the far more complex “La Valse” (also to Ravel) which Ashton choreographed in 1958. Both share swift, sweeping movement themes and both have whispers of subtle darkness under the charmingly glossy waltz surface.
Three large screens, designed by longtime Ashton confederate, Sophie Fedorovitch provided the backdrop for the five couples, led by Victoria Hulland and Ricardo Rhodes, dressed in Fedorovitch’s formal red velvet for the men and what can only be called puffy pink period prom dresses for the women. The couples do-si-do and intertwined in soft-edged twirls and low lifts, with the lead couple swooping in and out of the chorus. The effect was lovely and musical, although this production was short on the ballet’s eerier qualities mostly due to the over-eager dancing.
“A Walk to the Paradise Garden,” (1972), staged by Ms. Barbieri, to the interlude between Scenes 5 and 6 in Frederick Delius’ opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet, is basically a luscious, romantic duet interrupted by the appearance of a semi-naked figure of Death who ends their idyll. Rhodes and Ryoko Sadoshima, in folksy period garments, are first discovered lying together on the floor from which they slowly rise into intimate turns, lifts and stylized embraces until Jacob Hughes, showing off an impressive physique, enfolded them in his voluminous turquoise cape, symbolically doing them in. Ms. Sadoshima was lovely and Mr. Hughes was impressively dour. Unfortunately, Mr. Rhodes’ partnering was insecure and his acting unconvincingly vague.
“Sinfonietta/2nd Movement,” (1967), staged by Lynn Wallis, to an uneasily undistinguished score by Sir Malcolm Williamson, seemed to riff on several famous ballets, all of which Ashton knew well. There’s a direct reference to Balanchine’s “Unanswered Question” in which a young lady is queasily held aloft by a few men for the entire length of the dance and to the Petipa’s “Rose Adagio” from The Sleeping Beauty in which a young woman travels down a line of men (suitors) who partner her in lifts and pirouettes. The sleekly costumed Ellen Overstreet was the female raised by four men (David Tlaiye, Jamie Carter, Daniel Rodriguez and Daniel Pratt) and then partnered by Ricardo Graziano as she touched ground. Unfortunately, Ashton’s choreography never quite reaches the sinister mood of the Balanchine nor the celebratory feel of the Petipa. However, it’s skillfully assembled, as are all Ashton’s ballets, full of his incredible musicality and attention to partnering nuances, including such details as how the dancers gaze at and away from each other.
On the lighter side were three oddities, beginning with “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” (1977), staged by Ms. Barbieri, a mini-take on Alice in Wonderland, to well-known bouncy music by Percy Grainger. Helped by costumes (uncredited) straight out of that book’s original illustrations, the title characters, played winningly by Sam O’Brien (who actually looks British) and Kyle Hiyoshi, sit with Alice (a lovely Kate Honea) on three boxes kicking, rotating and partnering each other. A second section featured a soft shoe dance between T and T who humorously bounced their bellies against each other. It was very short and pleasant.
“Jazz Calendar/Friday’s Child”(1968) was Ashton’s futile attempt to show he could go along with the artistic trends of the times, the late sixties, an attempt that failed, but rather cutely. Danielle Brown and Edward Gonzalez, in Derek Jarman’s half red/half blue costumes, slithered about the stage to Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s faux-jazz score, their dual colors adding pizzazz to their very stretchy poses and routines. They ended lying head-to-head as the lights faded, making a sleek red and blue horizontal sculpture.
The final ballet, and the oldest, was “Façade” (1931) to William Walton’s bouncy, period pastiche score, staged by Ms. Barbieri. In seven short sections, Ashton makes fun of ethnic and musical hall dance clichés, depending far more on the acting chops of the performers rather than their techniques. The cartoony set and witty costumes by John Armstrong were perfect.
“Façade” opened with a cheery Scottish hornpipe trio danced by Ms. Sadoshima, Rachel Costin and Alex Harrison, followed by a bit with a Milkmaid (Samantha Benoit, her braids wired to stand at attention) and her farm attendants who performed all sorts of cow milking mime. A Polka (danced by Nicole Padilla), a twenties style, two-couple Foxtrot, complete with gigolos and a comic Valse proceeded painlessly followed by the two highlights of the ballet: a soft shoe shtick performed by two slick vaudevillians, Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Hiyoshi, and a demented Tango/Pasodoble performed by Ms. Honea and Mr. Graziano. The latter could have been more madcap, but was funny as a very well observed pastiche of Latin dance. The Sarasota dancers didn’t quite get the period styles, but communicated with verve.
Some of the company’s men aren’t up to the technical demands of Ashton’s choreography, particularly the swift, smooth partnering requiring constant, fluid direction changes. Too often awkwardness and excessive effort were all too obvious. The women are more technically secure and exude warmth along with their smooth technique.
The Sarasota Ballet did the New York dance world a big favor bringing us these rarely seen Ashton works.
Sarasota Ballet: A Knight of the British Ballet (August 8-13, 2016)
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