It can’t be easy to run a dance company during a pandemic, but The Sarasota Ballet has somehow managed to pull it off. It has kept the dancers together and has provided steady work while larger troupes have been forced to furlough their dancers for long periods. The Sarasota dancers have been taking class and rehearsing – following strict protocols – since September. And although they haven’t yet been able to perform before a live audience during what should have been a celebratory 30th anniversary season, they have embarked on an ambitious series of virtual programs.
The current installment, Program 3, was released Friday and is available through Tuesday. Like the two that preceded it, it consists mostly of short works and excerpts, performed by a small number of dancers. Like much of the company’s repertory, it is heavily weighted toward British ballets; in fact, all but one of the choreographers, the Illinois-born Dominic Walsh, were born in the UK.
Sarasota Ballet is known for sensitive performances of Frederick Ashton’s ballets, and though there were no pieces by Ashton on the program, the Ashtonian spirit is certainly alive in the pas de quatre from Peter Wright’s 1976 “Summertide.” It is evident in the sculptural formations created by the four dancers and in the delicate but intricate partnering, often for three or four dancers at a time. The whole piece, set to the shimmering second movement of Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Concerto, seems to glow, with the dancers, led by Ellen Overstreet and Ricardo Rhodes, moving like angelic creatures against a pastel-and-gold background.
Dominic Walsh’s 2011 solo “Clair de Lune” provides the program’s sole contemporary flourish. And though it’s not a terribly interesting piece, its pantomime-like effects gave Ivan Spitale (who joined in 2018) an opportunity to exercise his considerable actorly qualities: an expressive face, intelligent eyes and the ability to mold and isolate movement, now like a puppet, now like a bird in flight. Spitale returns as the male mermaid in the funny and odd “Merman Solo” from Matthew Bourne’s 1989 “The Infernal Galop.” This early work by Bourne, who later went on to create the well-known all-male “Swan Lake,” abounds in clever ideas. With great wit and style, Spitale flops about the stage, undulating arms and shoulders, flexing his feet as if they were fins, for the pleasure of three jolly sailors.
There are three pas de deux, the first of which was Wright’s “The Mirror Walkers” (1963), a rather static piece that insufficiently harnesses the sweep of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No.1. “The American,” an early work by Christopher Wheeldon from 2001, reveals that choreographer’s facility for creating shapes that seamlessly morph into new shapes, enhanced by his pliant use of the spine.
The most distinguished of all is the central pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s 1966 “Concerto.” It is an enormously challenging work, though it may not seem it. The challenge lies in the utter purity of the movement. The dancers, and especially the woman (Overstreet), float through clean, open shapes, sustained by the cosmically slow andante from Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. The duet begins like a ballet class, with the woman using her partner almost as a barre. Gradually, the partnering builds into floating lifts with the woman’s body open and extended in space. Overstreet is an expressive dancer; I especially appreciate the way she uses her upper body and eyes to communicate feeling and connection. Richard House, her partner, is supportive and present. Still, there is a slight tension in the partnering here. The trust and ease that comes with multiple performances hasn’t quite been achieved.
The most substantial work on the program, in terms of length, was Peter Darrell’s 1971 one-act “Othello,” first performed here in 2010. Kudos to Darrell for fitting all the main plot points into 20 minutes of dancing. But the declamatory and somewhat platitudinous choreography doesn’t give the dancers, led here by a forceful Ricardo Graziano (in the role of the treacherous Iago), room to grow. The characters aren’t much more than two-dimensional cutouts, which is a shame, because it’s clear that the company has some fine actor-dancers.
Nevertheless, the fact that Sarasota Ballet has put together another satisfying program of well-chosen and well-danced works during this challenging period is a feat in itself. The filming, by Meybis Chavarria, Bill Wagy and Andres Paz, is un-fussy and clean, and places the attention where it should be, on the dancing. Personally, I could do without the canned applause. The company can safely leave that to the viewers watching at home.
Marina Harss, a freelance dance writer and critic based in New York and Sarasota, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and The New Yorker.
The Sarasota Ballet
Digital Program 3. Reviewed Jan. 1. Available online through Jan. 5. Sarasotaballet.org