The Sarasota Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

August 16, 2022
Birthday Offering, Shades of Spring (world premiere), Varii Capricci

Jerry Hochman

Under the leadership of Director Iain Webb, The Sarasota Ballet has made a name for itself by presenting, and very capably executing, lost or rarely performed dances created by Sir Frederick Ashton. The company returned to the Joyce Theater Tuesday night for a week-long run. Although the Ashton dances that opened and closed the program, Birthday Offering and Variii Capricci, are indeed rarely presented and were well-executed, the most interesting piece on the program was not one created by Ashton. Shades of Spring, a world premiere ballet choreographed by Jessica Lang, was the evening’s revelation – as was the quality of the Sarasota Ballet dancers I saw, including one exceptionally promising young ballerina, Marijana Dominis.

I’ll consider the dances in program order.

Birthday Offering was choreographed in 1956 on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II granting Sadler’s Wells a Royal Charter that same year, which prompted its name change to The Royal Ballet. [Sadler’s Wells was originally founded in 1931 by Ninette de Valois as the Vic-Wells Ballet, named after the two London theaters in which it initially performed – the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells.] It’s very much what it was intended to be: a celebration of the company that de Valois founded and a pièce d’occasion that must have worked well on both levels when the dance premiered in 1956. Now, although no less majestic in its presentation, it looks a little starchy, a little dated, and very predictable.

Macarena Giménez and Ricardo Graziano
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Birthday Offering”
Photo by Steven Pisano

What Ashton created with Birthday Offering is as much a glorification of The Royal’s Russian Ballet heritage as it is of The Royal itself. The dance’s vision and structure, and its somewhat pompous atmosphere, takes its direction as much from its set and costumes (by French designer André Levasseur, who also designed costumes for an early incarnation of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations for American Ballet Theatre) and its music (a selection of excerpts from pieces composed by Alexander Glazunov, primarily Ruses d’amour and The Seasons, arranged and orchestrated by Robert Irving, who would later become New York City Ballet’s Music Director), as it does from Ashton’s choreography. The set could have been taken from Siegfried’s castle courtyard in Swan Lake, with the open-air space flanked by pillars, with a couple of nearly stage-spanning steps between them leading up and out to the vast beyond. The costumes are basically the same for each gender, distinguishable one from the other by colored trim, except for the lead couple, whose costumes are similar but far more elaborate and gilded. It’s all very posh, and very Petipa.

The Sarasota Ballet in a prior performance of
Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Birthday Offering”
Photo by Frank Atura

The dance consists of an introductory segment for the seven pairs of dancers, variations for each of the seven ballerinas (while the danseurs watch proudly but statue-like while evenly spread across the portico), a collective mazurka for the danseurs, a pas de deux for the lead couple, and a rousing conclusion.

The nucleus of the dance is the seven solo ballerina variations. In the evening’s program, the variations are listed with the name of a ballerina and nothing more: Elaine Fifield, Rowena Jackson, Svetlana Beriosova, Nadia Nerina, Violetta Elvin, Beryl Grey, and Margot Fonteyn. I had assumed that these solo variations were choreographed by Ashton to reflect and highlight the qualities of seven of the company’s most famous ballerinas over the course of its 25-year history, but which were actually performed by others. This isn’t exactly accurate. Rather, similar to Jules Perrot’s 1845 Pas de Quatre, the seven variations were independently choreographed for and originally performed by the seven ballerinas named for each solo listed in the program. Regardless, though distinctive, fun to watch, and wickedly difficult to execute well (like the fairy variations in The Sleeping Beauty), they come across here – together with the dance’s other component parts – as amuse-bouches for which there’s no main course.

Each of the Sarasota ballerinas (performing in the same order as above: Emelia Perkins, Danielle Brown, Gabriella Schultze, Anna Pellegrino, Dominique Jenkins, Dominis, and Macarena Giménez) danced their assigned variations well; those I considered particularly noteworthy  were Perkins’s (Fifield) introduction, which featuring repeated and dizzying pirouette changes in direction; Schultze’s (Beriosova) lovely little variation; Jenkins’s (Elvin) very difficult-looking series of combinations; and Dominis’s (Grey) sparkling technical exhibition.

To me, in their pas de deux the two leads (in the roles originally played by Fonteyn and, I think, Michael Somes) weren’t particularly interesting. This may have been the inevitable result of a demonstration of technique rather than emotion, or of understandable nerves (opening piece; opening night), or both, but it looked very much by the numbers here, with Giménez acting the unmistakable prima ballerina (which is what the role called for) and Graziano, her cavalier, looking regal and wooden (although he was an excellent partner). They both executed impeccably, with obvious technical ability and considerable finesse. Nevertheless, the pas came across a bit too plastic and self-congratulatory for my taste, although to at least some extent that’s in keeping with the nature of the ballet.

Macarena Giménez and Ricardo Graziano
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Birthday Offering”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Birthday Offering must have been joyously received at its 1956 premiere, but to my eye its contemporary value is far more as an admirably-crafted moving snapshot of a particular period rather than something that moves the audience’s heart or soul.

Over the course of her choreographing career to date, Jessica Lang has created over 100 ballets. I’ve seen a small fraction of them. In the past, I’ve been lukewarm to much of her choreography (although I enjoyed Let Me Sing Forevermore for ABT, a predecessor of sorts to Lang’s ZigZag), considering them to be satisfactory, but not much more than that. But Shades of Spring is far superior to those others that I’ve seen, and far more than “satisfactory.”

Choreographed to a curated score of seven excerpts from late 18th Century Austrian composer Joseph Haydn’s Piano Trios, the piece, not surprisingly, is divided into seven segments, which are untitled. That’s unfortunate since segment titles might have helped discern some meaning – but I recognize that this might have had a limiting effect as well. It’s a hybrid ballet – that is, it has something of a ballet sensibility but it doesn’t look like a ballet. At first I thought it was a commentary on ballet vs contemporary dance, since the costuming starts out with a ballerina in a tutu and changes to less classical-looking attire when the two other ladies join, but I abandoned that thought when I noticed that the classically-attired ballerina (Dominis) was wearing leg warmers. I then thought it was something of a condensation of forms, but quickly abandoned that too. What I landed on, rightly or wrongly, is that Lang’s overall sense here is of unusual dances at an unusual gathering.

(l-r) Ricardo Rhodes, Marijana Dominis, Richard House,
and Arcadian Broad in Jessica Lang’s “Shades of Spring”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Unlike the stiffly immaculate Birthday Offering, Shades of Spring may appear to some viewers as unkempt. It’s not. It’s eclectic: a jumble that’s held together by that common overall sensibility as well as by its Tharpian sudden, unexpected, and unconventional movement changes (not surprising, since Lange was once a member of Twyla Tharp’s company). It’s also held together by the set (by Lang and Roxane Revon), the art and projection design (by Revon), and the simple but distinctive contemporary ballet / practice clothes (costuming by Jillian Lewis). The projection is a series of multi-colored designs that have a liquid, flowing quality that at times appear to be abstract forms of flora reflected in the water of a gentle lake. And then there’s this relatively inconspicuous little incline upstage audience left spanning maybe a quarter of the stage (most of the time it blends in with the projections) that adds visual texture and an occasional seating / reclining area.

It’s tempting to overthink Shades of Spring. [Overthinking is a malady from which I’ve long suffered, as those who’ve read my reviews can attest.] Aside from whether there’s any particular intent to this piece, there’s its title. The word “shades” can bring to mind gradations in color in the dance’s set, gradations of orthodoxy in the dancers’ costumes, and gradations of stylistic emphasis in Lang’s choreography. That’s the easy thought. But “shades” can also mean shadows; apparitions of sorts (as in La Bayadere). Indeed, although it relates events in “real time” rather than fading memories and its tone is “Spring” as opposed to “Autumn,” as I watched it I thought of Sir Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading, with Shades of Spring being a sort of contemporary-looking prequel.  My recommendation is to just sit back and watch it, which I eventually allowed myself to do.

Emelia Perkins in Jessica Lang’s “Shades of Spring”
Photo by Steven Pisano

The dance begins with that ballerina in white tutu, white top, and those white leg warmers emerging audience-right, soon joined on stage (or perhaps they were there from the outset, but I was watching Dominis) by two men (Ricardo Rhodes and Richard House), who at first appear to be posing (maybe like fauns in the afternoon sun). The posing ends, the three interact in various combinations, and they’re eventually joined by the other four dancers (Perkins, Lauren Ostrander, Arcadian Broad, and Yuki Nonaka).

(l-r) Richard House and Ricardo Rhodes
in Jessica Lang’s “Shades of Spring”
Photo by Steven Pisano

What happens afterward is virtually indescribable. Dominis is set up, for whatever reason, as the piece’s distinctive ballerina, but this doesn’t mean that she’s ostracized (although there is a vague sense of her thinking of herself as in some way “separate”) or that her appearance is in any way ridiculed. The others interact with her – occasionally lifting her in initially awkward-looking but ultimately deliciously exciting upward or outward thrusts. Describing anything further in detail would diminish the sense of interactive energy that the dance conveys. Suffice it to say that there are the obligatory contemporary male / male and female / female couplings, but nothing in particular is made of it. And there’s a very brief segment that features Broad and Nonaka dancing dueling “born to be wild” bravura outtakes that don’t appear to fit with everything else, but somehow do because nothing is meant to fit together neatly. It’s all natural and ephemeral, with everyone (and the audience) having a good time.

The only part of Shades of Spring that I had critical difficulty with was its abrupt, inconclusive-looking ending. But maybe that was Lang’s point – this springtime activity doesn’t end as much as it continues in the mind if not in fact.

Ashton created Varii Capricci in April, 1983 as part of a “Britain Salutes New York” Festival at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. According to the program note, the Met had insisted that Ashton create a new piece for the occasion, and Valse Capricci was the somewhat surprising result. I recall nothing of it, and doubt that I saw it then – or at any time prior to this Sarasota Ballet engagement. As it turns out, few people did. Following its brief Met run, and except for a solitary appearance with the company three months after its premiere, Varii Capricci was not maintained in the Royal Ballet repertory. Sarasota Ballet resuscitated it in 2019, with a projection approximating artist David Hockney’s original set, and with what the program describes as improved costuming for the corps.

The Sarasota Ballet in a prior performance of
Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Varii Capricci”
Photo by Frank Atura

As laudable as Sarasota Ballet’s revival of it is, to me Valse Capricci remains very much a piece d’occasion. Unlike Birthday Offering, however, it’s more of curiosity than a period piece, and lacks the earlier ballet’s patina of lasting significance.

Ashton created the piece to a score by his friend, celebrated composer William Walton, who crafted the eponymously-titled composition over a period of time (1972-1983), completing and revising it at Ashton’s request shortly before Walton’s death. I can’t comment on its applicability to the music, but the title, which roughly translated means “various whims,” aptly describes the ballet on at least two levels: the whims of the two lead characters, and the whims of the choreographer in creating a ballet at The Met’s demand that encapsulates European visions of American superficiality – especially the Americans most likely to spend oodles of money to attend an Ashton world premiere created just for them.

Varii Capricci comes across as an effort to capture pseudo-sophisticated Americans at pseudo-sophisticated leisure in a pseudo-sophisticated beach-villa type environment. With its isolated palm trees outlined against the late afternoon / evening sky being the only set design, its apparent venue is Miami Beach, but it could also be the Hamptons – with artificial palms to match a Gatsby-ish lifestyle. [Based on the program note, Hockney’s original set included a swimming pool, but if it was present in the projected reincarnation, I missed it.] It’s also a parody on multiple levels: including of American entitled society to be sure, but it is also a self-parody that bears little resemblance to the stereotypical control and propriety that permeates Ashton’s choreography and that for a time was synonymous with English Ballet. Here, a month in the country where everything that happens is important and has consequences mutates into an evening pool party where nothing that happens is important and everything is inconsequential.

Ricardo Rhodes (center), and (background r-l) Anna Pellegrino,
Arcadian Broad, Danielle Brown, Evan Gorbell, Paige Young
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Varii Caapricci”
Photo Steven Pisano

This doesn’t mean that the choreography is somehow slipshod. Although I’m not enamored of much of Ashton’s work, generally finding it, with several significant exceptions, to be too fussy, too busy, too silly; too modern to be classic and too old-fashioned to be modern (a description I wrote of Ashton’s Sylvia more than a decade ago), Varii Capricci is as well-crafted as other Ashton ballets that I’ve seen.

Varii Capricci contains a story of sorts – one that’s as superficial as the ballet’s overall ambiance: a wealthy American woman (the woman could be from any country, I suppose, since her nationality isn’t identified, but being anything other than an American would undermine the ballet’s raison d’etre) throws a posh pool party at her expansive villa and has a fleeting fling with a gigolo and then brushes it off like a wayward crumb. The male and female leads are given character names: Lo Straniero and La Capricciosa. Although the former is described in the program as a gigolo, “lo straniero” translates as “the stranger”; “la capricciosa” translates as “arbitrary or whimsical” (among other common synonyms), which is what was clearly communicated. At its premiere, Anthony Dowell danced Lo Straniero, and Antoinette Sibley was La Capricciosa (imagine the premiere audience’s shock at seeing Dowell as a gigolo and Sibley as a wealthy pseudo-sophisticated American); here the roles were danced by, respectively, Rhodes and Brown, each a company Principal.

I didn’t sense the “gigolo” in Rhodes’s portrayal – or a “stranger” for that matter. Rather, to me he was clearly a womanizer – which may be just another word for “gigolo,” though I attach to the latter a more negative connotation. Be that as it may, to my eye Rhodes’s character was a somewhat lovable leech who, having made one conquest, seamlessly moves on to the next. Brown’s appearance and performance brought to mind Nina Foch’s character (Milo Roberts) in “An American in Paris,” except here Brown’s La Capricciosa doesn’t mind being used and discarded – it goes with the territory. I won’t soon forget Brown’s laughing off the event as if it were the cost of doing business.

Danielle Brown and Ricardo Rhodes
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Varii Capricci”
Photo by Steven Pisano

More significantly, Brown and Rhodes executed Ashton’s somewhat quirky choreography here (silken smooth, at times with angular positioning that adds a contemporary touch) with the requisite elan. And unless I’m mistaken, the choreography for La Capricciosa included the legendary “Fred step,” which perfectly fit the piece’s choreographic ambiance. The sixteen-dancer (eight / eight) supporting corps added to the formal pool-party atmosphere, and all executed quite well.

As well-crafted as it is, Varii Capricci might have benefited by some added choreographic jazz, but Walton’s somewhat highfalutin score wouldn’t have supported that.

All in all, Sarasota Ballet should be credited for rescuing Varii Capricci from obscurity and for its excellent presentation of it. That being said, dances usually (though admittedly not always) become obscure for a reason. But for the well-executed performance of it here, Varii Capricci is one of them.

Marijana Dominis in a prior performance
of Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Birthday Offering”
Photo by Frank Atura

Of equal or greater significance to the ballets themselves is the apparent evolution of the company’s dancers, which seems at a higher level now than what I recall from prior Joyce engagements (guest artists like Marcelo Gomes excepted). In addition to Brown and Rhodes, this program displayed a company-wide vibrancy that’s refreshing, including (but not limited to) newly-promoted Soloists who joined the company relatively recently, like Broad and Nonaka; Perkins (who became a member of the corps in 2020), a ballerina-next-door type who was impressive in both Birthday Offering and Shades of Spring; and especially Dominis, who joined the company in 2019 and was promoted to Principal this year. She’s quite a find. Dominis can handle a broad range of roles, evident in her performances here as well as the descriptive bio provided in the evening’s program. More significantly, she draws eyes. For someone so young and relatively inexperienced (from the brief bio blurb on the Sarasota Ballet web site, she previously danced with the Finnish Ballet), she stands out for the quality of her execution and her stage presence. She draws eyes. Based on what I saw in this program, her potential seems limitless.

I look forward to seeing Sarasota Ballet when it returns. In the meantime, the company will present this program at The Joyce through Sunday.