Sarasota Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

August 14 and 18 evening, 2018
Program A: Monotones, Symphony of Sorrows, There Where She Loved
Program B: There Where She Loved, Monotones, La Chatte, Les Patineurs (pas de trois), Méditation from Thaïs, The Two Pigeons (final pas de deux)

— by Jerry Hochman

Sarasota Ballet returned to the Joyce Theater on Tuesday with two programs spread over seven performances. As was the case during its visit two years ago, the company dancers included in the Joyce performances (a subset of the entire company) look very good and the pieces provided a broad range for them to show just how good they are, but the components of the two programs were not well chosen and unnecessarily limited the engagement’s impact.

Under the leadership of Artistic Director Iain Webb, the company has in recent years emerged from relative regional obscurity essentially by capitalizing on Webb’s connections with the Royal Ballet, where he was a principal dancer, and with Sir Frederick Ashton, in whose ballets Webb performed many leading roles. The company received rave reviews for its ambitious Ashton Festival in 2014, bringing to life many Ashton ballets that had been hidden, or rarely performed, for decades. While in my estimation, based on their Joyce program two years ago, some of those pieces were better off clouded in memory, the company merits considerable praise for the resuscitation and the accomplishment.

This year, however, Sarasota Ballet has broadened its offerings by including ballets by choreographers other than Ashton. But the effort seems half-hearted. Essentially, Sarasota presented one program consisting of Ashton’s Monotones (I and II) and Christopher Wheeldon’s There Where She Loved, plus either Symphony of Sorrows by Ricardo Graziano, which was included on Program A, or a quartet of Ashton short pieces in Program B. Because of the variety provided by the Ashton quartet, and the superior order of presentation, Program B was far more successful than Program A, which came across as relatively one-dimensional and not a little tedious.

Because so much of the engagement was the same from one program to the other, I’ll address the pieces generally in order of their significance to me. The highlight of both programs was the final dance on the final program: the pas de deux from The Two Pigeons.

The Two Pigeons pas de deux

When I heard that Sarasota Ballet had obtained the rights to The Two Pigeons, I was envious, and disappointed that American Ballet Theatre had not. I saw The Two Pigeons when the Birmingham Royal Baller brought it to New York in 2004, and in my subsequent review raved about its simple virtues, its unhidden heart, and those two pigeons. The real ones. Over the years I’ve made no secret that I find much of Ashton’s work, by contemporary standards, to be too fussy and prissy and pristine. But not The Two Pigeons. I had hoped that Sarasota Ballet would bring it to Manhattan – and maybe they will at some point, but the Joyce venue can’t accommodate it. The lovely final pas de deux is a satisfactory substitute – for now – and it marked my first exposure to any part of the ballet in 14 years. It did not disappoint.

Much more important is that the occasion brought Sarasota Ballet’s guest principal artist Marcelo Gomes, however briefly, back to New York. This isn’t the forum in which to discuss Gomes’s absence from ABT this past season; I’ll do that on a subsequent occasion. Suffice it to say that Gomes’s artistic competence, and the affection that audiences and fellow cast-members have for him, remain as strong as ever.

Gomes doesn’t have much to do in this pas de deux in terms of individual dancing – but that’s not what he’s there for. What Gomes brings to this role, as he does with every other role he dances, is a sense of humanity. His characters are real, instantly recognizable, and totally believable. Here Gomes was the prodigal boy who leaves to explore the world, and returns older, wiser, and humbled. Not so much Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son as Matt (The Boy) in the legendary off-Broadway musical, The Fantasticks.

Sarasota’s program note is not particularly illuminating about the story told by The Two Pigeons, so the following is based on the Birmingham program note from 14 years ago. The ballet is inspired by an extract from The Fables of the 17th Century French fabulist (writer of fables) Jean de la Fontaine. In all, la Fontaine wrote some 239 fables, most derived from ancient classical (e.g., Aesop) and multi-cultural sources. Ashton’s is the last of several prior versions to the 1886 score by Andre Messager, which was modified by Sir John Lanchbery for Ashton’s re-conception with music derived from other Messager compositions.

In the story as it is told in the ballet, there are these two young lovers. One, “The Young Man,” decides to leave his love and explore the world. After succumbing to the outside world’s seduction, represented by an encounter with a Gypsy woman (just like The Fantasticks) and being nearly destroyed by it, he returns to his love (“The Young Girl”). Both are now wiser for the experience, and the love they have for each other is stronger than before. When I saw the complete ballet 14 years ago almost to the day, as the ballet ended I could hear the final refrain from Try To Remember.

Ashton’s ballet, with Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable as the young lovers, premiered at Covent Garden in 1961 … on Valentine’s Day. And the ballet itself is a Valentine. This is an achingly lovely pas de deux, with no distracting histrionics. It’s just the two lovers, beautifully understated choreography, an open-backed chair … and those two pigeons.

Ashton lards the full ballet with anthropomorphic pigeon movement, evident in the excerpt that Sarasota Ballet presented, but it’s not ‘Pigeon Lake’ – here it all works. And to a large extent it works because of Gomes (who, while still with ABT, danced the full length ballet as a guest artist with Sarasota in 2017). Hulland’s portrayal of the Young Girl was more than adequate and her execution was beyond reproach, but her characterization was, appropriately, less complex. She’s pined for him to be sure, but when the pas de deux begins, hadn’t endured the same life experiences during their separation. With Gomes, however, as soon as he stepped on stage (with a pigeon on his shoulder, and to loud audience applause), you knew he’d been emotionally drained in prior unseen scenes. Without adding anything to the role beyond its essential soul, he brought the character to life. And his consummate partnering (it may look simple, but that’s a consequence of Ashton’s deceptively simple-looking choreography) was a reminder of how extraordinary a partner he is.

I’ve written previously that Gomes often brings a characteristic “Gomesism” to his roles. That, appropriately, was not present here – he played it straight. Almost. At Saturday evening’s performance, the second pigeon (both appeared to be white doves) decided to ad lib. [I’m told that the bird kept to the script in Saturday’s matinee performance.] Instead of flying from the stage floor to the top of the chair to join the other pigeon while the lovers were framed within the chair’s open back, this time he (or maybe she) flew up, exchanged nipping pleasantries with the other pigeon (briefly knocking her off her perch), and settled on the chair “seat” – exactly where the lovers’ heads were to appear in their final romantic pose. On the surface, Gomes and Hulland seemed unperturbed. But I know Gomes (I’m not as familiar with Hulland), and his unscripted smile (which turned into a broad grin during the curtain calls) was a giveaway. It may not have been a Gomesism – he didn’t plan it – but he was laughing his head off.

Then again, maybe he did plan it.

La Chatte (metamorphee en femme)

I’ve seen La Chatte previously (it was revived by New York Theatre Ballet a short 18 months ago) and enjoyed it – within limits. My feeling after seeing Saturday’s presentation is the same, notwithstanding a sterling performance by Kate Honea.

The piece purportedly is Ashton’s take on the original 1837 dance choreographed by Jean Coralli, which Ashton reimagined for Merle Park to perform at a 1985 Viennese gala in honor of Fanny Elssler using music from Jacques Offenbach’s 1858 one act comic opera of the same name (the music for Coralli’s piece having been lost). Ashton’s conceit here, beyond having a woman act like a cat (anthropomorphism apparently having been a “thing”), is to have the cat-like woman turn into a woman-like cat. Or vice versa. Dressed in a white gown (fur, of course), sporting painted-on cat whiskers and languishing on a divan, Honea preens, purrs, scratches the air, the audience, and the divan, and otherwise acts thoroughly cat-like until she sees an oversized (mechanical) mouse. Unlike the NYTB performance (by Elena Zahlmann), Honea here doesn’t really morph into a scared woman – although she does leap onto the divan. Rather, she goes into attack mode, sharpening her claws in anticipation, but also muddying the message. But it doesn’t much matter. It’s cute; it’s quaint; and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. An Ashton amuse-bouche.

Les Patineurs pas de trois

As I’ve probably made abundantly clear by now, Les Patineurs was the first ballet on the first ballet program I ever saw. I didn’t really know what I was seeing beyond ballet dancers moving like ice skaters (pigeons…cats…ice skaters; it must have been a thing), and it turned out to be, to me, the weakest of the ballets on that incredible ABT program (The Moor’s Pavane with Sallie Wilson as Emilia, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with a recently-defected Natalia Makarova, and Rodeo with Christine Sarry were the other pieces). But I will always remember it fondly because it introduced me to a particularly compelling young soloist named Marianna Tcherkassky. And as it was 14 years since I saw any part of The Two Pigeons prior to Saturday night, it had been … a very very long time since I’d seen any part of Les Patineurs.

As I recall, the individual component dances in Les Patineurs were perfect for what they were – snippets of ice skating ‘scenes’, nothing less, but nothing more. This pas de trois is very much in keeping with my recollection of the whole. Fun, exuberant, the sense of bodies having a good time moving through frigid air, but nothing that leaves a lasting memory. Asia Bull, Samantha Benoit, and Ivan Duarte were the enthusiastic skaters.

Méditation from Thaïs

Ashton crafted the Méditation from Thaïs from the intermezzo piano/orchestral piece that Jules Massenet inserted between scenes in Act II of his opera Thaïs. Created for Dame Antoinette Sibley and Sir Anthony Dowell for a 1971 gala performance, the piece is regarded as one of Ashton’s masterworks. To me, beautiful as the pas de deux undoubtedly is, it falls too easily into the stereotype Romantic ballet vision scene pas de deux.

In the opera, the male lead, a monk name Athanael, attempts to persuade Thais, a concubine and disciple of Venus, to leave her life of luxury and follow him to a life of spiritual purity in the desert. The Méditation takes place while Thais ponders Athanael’s offer, which she ultimately accepts. Go figure.

Aside from a general faithfulness to broad characterization (a feral but somewhat antiseptic-looking suitor and the veiled dream-like object of his passion), Ashton’s pas de deux doesn’t follow the opera’s story: instead of Thais following Athanael into the desert, here it’s he who follows his vision offstage (think the similar ending to the pas de deux in Act II of La Bayadere, except the movement is into the stage left wings instead of the stage right wings). Indeed much of this pas de deux brings to mind pas de deux from both La Bayadere (except it’s more overtly passionate) and Le Corsaire (without that pas de deux’s overwhelming physicality). Katelyn May and Ricardo Rhodes did superb work making Ashton’s simmering passion palpable.

Monotones I and II

Program A opened with Ashton’s Monotones I and II, and it was the middle piece in Program B. As an opener, it was a little too ascetic. It was much better placed in Program B, where one could more easily appreciate its movement purity.

Both Monotones pieces are familiar examples of the Ashton canon, and have been performed in New York on many occasions – most recently by ABT. So I’ll keep my comments to a minimum.

Although I found it to be an unusually compelling work of dance art when I first saw the Joffrey Ballet perform it in the 1970s, of late both Monotones dances seem more dated. It’s still exquisite movement, but its overall cosmic sense of emotionless bodies moving through space and time now, in large part, appears as an academic study of the physics of  movement. And to me it loses something on the smaller Joyce stage. There’s more intimacy, of course, but I’d prefer to see celestial objects from a distance, without having occasional trajectory wobble spoil the atmospheric perfection.

Monotones II, the earlier piece, remains the stronger of the two, and Hulland, Ricardo Graziano, and Rhodes executed it brilliantly. Monotones I, with Ryoko Sadoshima, Benoit, and Thomas Giugovaz, showed more rough spots (it was executed better on Saturday than on Tuesday), but Benoit’s execution was flawless on both occasions. While other Sarasota Ballet ballerinas exude fluidity and sensuality, Benoit is the perky ballerina next door.

Symphony of Sorrows

Based on what I could discern, the opening night audience’s response to Graziano’s Symphony of Sorrows was relatively subdued. That’s understandable, given its subject. But I can’t fault a choreographer for doing exactly what he says he’s going to do. Symphony of Sorrows is not without flaws, but Graziano, the company’s Resident Choreographer as well as a principal dancer, stages it compellingly, albeit with limited choreographic imagination.

To the third movement of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, Graziano here illustrates sorrow, and does so unusually and captivatingly, with the five couples (usually, but not always, dancing as pairs) weaving into and out of memory (a darkened area upstage) to express their overwhelming sorrow about … something. Part of the dance’s problem is that Graziano doesn’t make clear what the sorrow is about. The program note indicates loss of a loved one, but that doesn’t really tell the audience anything: it’s obvious that this is far more than angst over a doomed relationship or a negative review. As I watched, I decided that the only such loss that Graziano could be addressing was the loss of a child (the nuclear relationship is intact, so it’s not the death of a spouse, and the death of an older relative – parent, grandparent – wouldn’t usually evoke the same level of grief). But unlike Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies (and isn’t it long overdue for ABT to revive several pieces from its extensive Tudor repertoire?), here there’s no ultimate resignation and acceptance. The grief is all consuming, and never ending.

But as lush and impassioned as Graziano’s images are, the piece is deficient in two respects: there are distinctions between the choreography for each of the pairs, but the distinctions aren’t sufficiently … distinctive. To a viewer, the solos vary in degree, but not in substance.

More significantly, in Symphony of Sorrows it’s only the women who are the ones suffering, at least overtly; the men, though sad, are there mainly to attempt to provide solace to their partners, and what solace is provided seems to me to be sexual: there are far too many instances of the women splayed spread-eagled across their partner as a result of the partners’ manipulation (not because of passion on the women’s part), invitations to forget their sorrows that the women cannot accept. A duet infused with appropriate sexual imagery is not problematic to me, but in this context it was. A little of the sensitivity that Graziano so ably displayed in his performance in the final component of Wheeldon’s suite of dances would have been welcome here.

There Where She Loved

Christopher Wheeldon’s come a long way since 2000, when he choreographed There Where She Loved for the Royal Ballet, and it’s tempting to be critical of this piece because it includes so many examples of what have since become “typical” Wheeldon partnering (and emotional) combinations. But when it premiered, There Where She Loved must have been a revelation. And although it makes for a lousy closing piece (in Program A), it’s a very good opener (Program B), so much so that the change in programming position completely altered my response to the ballet.

The piece is a suite of seven dances that Wheeldon assembled from German (and presumably Polish) lieder by Kurt Weill and Frederic Chopin. That fact alone would make There Where She Loved distinctive, but Wheeldon has crafted an interesting set of dances that generally relate to relationships (the need for them, the lack of them, the disdain for them) but that are as different from each other as … Weill is from Chopin.

But its virtues are also its flaws. The dances are distinctive, but that makes the piece as a whole less coherent. Wheeldon attempts to address this by providing a sense of overall symmetry and balance, but the result still comes across as a series of disconnects tied together by the fact that the variety of emotions exists in the real world. One dance – “Zyczenie” – in which a lone woman (Christine Windsor) is shared, sort of, by four male suitors (Jamie Carter, Daniel Pratt, Wesley Carvalho, and Rhodes) is balanced later by the same cast in a similar, but different, context (“Hannas Lied”); one dance (“Surabaya Johnny”) in which one man (Rhodes – who had a marvelous series of performances) has serial relationships with three women (Honea, May, and Ellen Overstreet) before rejecting each of them, is balanced by another (“Hulank”) in which Rhodes’s character has serial relationships with four women (the other three plus Benoit) who come and go and ultimately leave him with no one. My favorite dances were the upper and the downer: “Wiosna,” in which Benoit and Duarte express the unbridled joy of a youthful relationship that seems as fresh as Spring, and the dance’s final component, Je ne t’aime pas, in which Wheeldon impeccably visualizes a relationship that either ends, or never was, with Amy Wood and Graziano both displaying unwavering despair and incurable heartbreak – although Graziano’s image of emptiness is likely the one I will be least likely to forget.

Finally, credit must  be given to New York City Ballet Orchestra’s Cameron Grant, who has become a performing “star” with the company by his ubiquitous presence on solo piano, who provided the  accompaniment to Monotones I and II, There Where She Loved, and La Chatte; and Michelle Giglio and Stella Zambalis for the vocals in the Wheeldon piece. And although Webb is the company’s Artistic Director, his wife Margaret Barbieri, the company’s Assistant Director and also a former Royal Ballet principal dancer, staged, or restaged most of the pieces on the program, and deserves as much credit as her husband for the programs’ successes.

Again, though, as fine as these dances, and the performances, generally were, Sarasota Ballet would have been better served by programs with greater variety (including two programs that really are two distinct programs). Hopefully New York audiences will be treated to that (and to the full length The Two Pigeons) when Sarasota Ballet returns – which I suspect it will as soon as arrangements can be made. New York has an interesting relationship with Florida-based ballet companies. It’s akin to an adoption. Seeing either Sarasota Ballet or Miami City Ballet is like seeing a home company: they speak the same language we do.