For the last three decades, the Sarasota Ballet has labored to revive and popularize works by the Royal Ballet choreographer Frederick Ashton (1904–88), who developed and refined English-style classical ballet in over one hundred creations including Symphonic Variations (1946), Cinderella (1948), and Marguerite and Armand (1963). After attending a performance in 2008, the New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay proclaimed that this small Gulf Coast troupe “has suddenly become America’s foremost exponent of Ashton ballets,” a label that has stuck for nearly fifteen years, and for good reason: today, the company continues to perform more works by the English choreographer than any other company in the country.
But it is also gaining traction as a platform for prominent living choreographers, largely thanks to Iain Webb, the artistic director since 2007 and a former Royal Ballet soloist who has forged strong ties with artists around the world, but especially with those from his home country. Last spring, the company premiered A Comedy of Errors, a crisply designed, full-length story ballet choreographed by David Bintley, the former artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, with all-new music by the Australian composer Matthew Hindson. While that production has yet to tour New York, the Sarasota Ballet came to present another new piece in the meantime—Shades of Spring, a cerebral work by the American choreographer Jessica Lang—and two lighthearted Ashton ballets in a triple bill that concluded The Joyce Theater’s summer season.
The first, Birthday Offering, premiered in 1956 for the Royal Ballet’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration. With romantic orchestral music by Glazunov, Birthday is a showpiece for seven ballerinas accompanied by as many men who, after an initial group dance, stand dutifully at the back of the stage while the women perform solos created for England’s leading ballerinas of the 1950s. The set consists of a cerulean backdrop, tall golden lamps, and sweeping white drapes; the female dancers wear garish, heavy-skirted gowns, jewelled headpieces, and chunky earrings. Though the cozy proportions of the theater enabled audience members to admire every rhinestone and cheeky smirk, the stage at times felt crowded and the dancing more cautious than carefree.
The radiant female lead Macarena Giménez, who alternates nights with Danielle Brown in the role first danced by Margot Fonteyn, gave a transporting performance accented with beautiful technical feats, from Sleeping Beauty–like balances in attitude to rapid mid-air beats. While the others remained somewhat earthbound, Giménez, who recently joined the company as a principal from Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, glided through complicated jumping sequences with softly held arms that responded sensitively to phrases in the music. Maintaining a blissful smile, a serene upper body, and neat footwork throughout her solos and duets with Ricardo Graziano, she also injected the plotless piece with intrigue, for instance, by pausing with her chin and arms lifted yearningly towards the sky, or by swooning gently into Graziano’s arms before diving into an elegant penché.
In contrast to its guardedness in Birthday Offering, the company appeared revitalized in the next, very different piece. Shades of Spring is the first creation for the Sarasota Ballet by Jessica Lang, a choreographer best known to New York audiences for her collaborations with American Ballet Theatre, including last season’s flashy ZigZag set to the songs of Tony Bennett. Shades is a subtler and far more intriguing piece, featuring seven dancers and selections from Haydn’s piano trios. Split into seven short sections, the work features a projected backdrop designed by the artist Roxane Revon that displays close-range photos of seedlings and blossoms. At the top left of the stage, there is a short ramp that is sometimes treated by the dancers as a continuation of the stage floor, but also, puzzlingly, as a yoga mat, bed, or chair. Inspired by “plant roots and the natural world,” Lang has created a serene yet complex piece that will undoubtedly reward multiple viewings.
Wearing streamlined, rehearsal-room-inspired clothing designed by Jillian Lewis—leotards, practice tutus, legwarmers, in muted browns, peaches, and greens—the dancers fall into sun salutations and hamstring stretches between classical adagio steps and graceful two-on-one partnering. Complicated sequences often culminated in moments of stillness in which a group of dancers paused to form an irregular, inverted V and kept their balance in unusual ways, for example, by touching wrists or holding another dancer’s calf muscle. Marijana Dominis, in particular, danced with wonderful fluidity while a short middle section featured the powerful dancers Arcadian Broad and Yuki Nonaka performing explosive, even reckless jumps; the piece finished with an unexpected dash of humor when the pair collapsed to the ground and rolled off the stage.
Varii Capricci, the final work, was last performed in New York when the Royal Ballet premiered it on tour at the Metropolitan Opera in 1983. Created near the end of Ashton’s career (he died just five years later) to cheer up the composer William Walton, who provided the music, the piece was abandoned soon after its first showing until the Sarasota Ballet revived it in 2019. The piece begins with an idle aristocrat (Danielle Brown) stretched out languorously on a lawn chair, martini in hand, and surrounded by four handsome couples. A mysterious gigolo in shades, danced with a cool mischievousness by Ricardo Rhodes, rouses her from her poolside perch for several pas de deux before abandoning the scene, only to reappear at the last moment. Brown is a gifted dramatic dancer who conveyed a haughty lady of leisure with the slightest movement of her shoulders and wrists, which teased and indulged her suitor yet coyly revealed her dismay when he took off. Elegance, humor, and superb acting: this is what the Sarasota Ballet does best.