When the film Billy Elliott was released, some of Iain Webb’s relatives were convinced his family had made a killing by selling Webb’s story to the producers.
Like the young dancer in the movie, Webb grew up in a modest, working-class home in Northern England during difficult economic times. His fireman father and his older brother were distressed by Webb’s desire to study ballet, thinking it wasn’t a manly vocation.
But Webb was determined to pursue his dream, even after his rejection by England’s Royal Ballet School. “They told me I had no talent, but three years later, I was in the company,” says Webb, who went on to dance the works of Britain’s most renowned choreographers during a two-decade career. “Being told I can’t do something has always fueled my ambition.”
Webb needed that drive and confidence when he accepted perhaps his biggest challenge in 2007, turning the respectable but stagnating Sarasota Ballet into a more artistically ambitious company with a national reputation. That was the mandate when Webb was hired to succeed artistic director Robert de Warren, who retired after 13 years. Though the board acknowledged the company’s steady progress under the 77-year-old De Warren, ticket sales had started to decline, and the company was relying on a narrow base of donors.
“It was time for a change,” says Sydney Goldstein, who was board president when plans for the transition began. “The company needed an infusion of energy, some new leadership.” (Not everyone agreed. A couple of board members resigned because they felt that De Warren had been pushed into retirement.)
At first glance, the 50-year-old Webb didn’t seem like an obvious choice to follow the suave, outgoing De Warren, who could regale members of the Sarasota social circuit with stories of famous friends like Rudolf Nureyev and the Empress of Iran. A diminutive man with a Robin Hood goatee, Webb doesn’t have a plummy Masterpiece Theatre accent. He’s a plain-spoken Yorkshireman, and a rather shy one, at that.
“I know I don’t fit the concept of what some people think a proper artistic director should be,” he says. “I don’t wear coats and ties. [Instead, he favors fashion-forward Gucci jackets and leather pants.] I like to be comfortable. I don’t much care for speakin’ in front of people, of having the focus on me. And I never put myself on a pedestal.”
Webb had never led a ballet company, either, though he had been assistant director of Japan’s K-Ballet. And unlike De Warren and Sarasota Ballet’s first artistic director, Eddy Toussaint, he wasn’t a choreographer. But none of that would hurt Webb’s chances.
“He clearly had the best background of all the candidates, and he spoke with clarity and conviction about his vision for the company,” says board member Goldstein, a member of the search committee. “He told us he was going to bring us works by the best choreographers in the ballet world, and he has. Although I don’t think we realized then just how well connected he was to everyone who is important in the ballet world, living and dead.”
One of Webb’s mentors at the Royal Ballet was the legendary choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, whose infrequently produced The Two Pigeons became the centerpiece of Webb’s first season. When the season was announced, “The office got calls from dance critics around the country who thought there had been some mistake,” Webb recalls, smiling. “They said, ‘You do know that performing an Ashton ballet is rather difficult, don’t you?’ I think some members of the board were in a panic for a while.”
But that ballet, a love triangle with complicated choreography full of Ashton’s unconventional twists and bends, was such a hit that it was reprised the following year, along with Ashton’s Les Patineurs. In a glowing review for The New York Times, dance critic Alastair Macaulay said that Sarasota Ballet had “suddenly become America’s foremost exponent of Ashton ballets.”
Webb also programmed pieces by other renowned British choreographers with whom he had worked, including Kenneth MacMillan, Antony Tudor and Dame Ninette Valois, whose The Rake’s Progress had not been performed since 1946. “I felt it was an overlooked masterpiece, and it thrilled me to be able to program hidden gems like that,” Webb says.
He also mixed in cutting-edge works by some of contemporary dance’s most provocative choreographers, including superstar Matthew Bourne. Webb had served as rehearsal director for Bourne’s all-male version of Swan Lake, which was the toast of London and New York a few years ago. (The production made a triumphant return to Broadway last month.) Thanks to their friendship, Sarasota Ballet is the only company besides Bourne’s own troupe to get the rights to his ballets.
Local audiences have responded with the enthusiasm of rock-concert crowds to the company’s performances,
with attendance rising every year. And the dancers are just as excited.
“We’re doing things that only the biggest companies in the world get to do,” says principal dancer Danielle Rae Brown. “And every year it gets better and better. “ Another principal, Kate Honea, agrees: “Iain has such big aspirations, and that’s great, because I like to dream big, think big. He’s really encouraged me, pushed me to advance through the ranks.”
Dancer Octavio Martin admits he was nervous when Webb came aboard. De Warren had hired Martin two years earlier, after Martin and his wife had defected from Cuba, where he had danced for 12 years with the National Ballet of Cuba. Thrilled to start a new life in Sarasota, Martin was worried he might not be the kind of dancer Webb wanted. But Webb was encouraging from the start and promoted him to principal the next season.
“When he told me I would be a principal, I almost cried,” Martin says. “I’ve had the chance to do so many great roles in the last three years, in so many styles. And this season, I’m doing [George Balanchine’s] The Prodigal Son. Oh, my God. Iain is always pushing me forward, building my confidence. And when you’re not 17 years old anymore, that means a lot.”
Webb says he wanted to give everyone in the company a chance rather than simply clean house.
“And I must say, they responded so well,” he says. “By the end of the first season, we’d advanced to the point I thought it would take us three years to reach.” The company now truly bears his stamp, with only four dancers remaining from the De Warren era.
Webb’s down-to-earth nature endears him to his dancers. “He is open and honest with us, which is great,” says Brown, who was hired by Webb in his first season. “Rehearsals are the best times with him. He’s so good at explaining things, focusing on details. You really want to work hard for him.”
Not that Webb can’t be intimidating. Several dancers mentioned The Death Clap. That’s the staccato sound
Webb makes when something happens that displeases him so much he needs everybody’s immediate attention.
“It’s just one loud clap,” Brown says. “It’s happened only a few times, and when you hear it, you know there must be a good reason, because Iain rarely gets upset.”
Webb is fiercely protective of his dancers, and he bristles at perceived slights. Though Sarasota Herald-Tribune dance critic Richard Storm has been largely complimentary, Webb fumed at a couple of his negative comments, particularly one that panned a new work created by a company member.
“I was devastated, because it was off-base, and I don’t think people realize the effect that can have on a dancer,” says Webb. “When someone says something bad about a dancer, it really hurts me. It bothers me for ages.” And he’s willing to strike back, describing Storm’s review as “the Helen Keller school of dance criticism.” (Storm had no comment, except to compliment Webb on the witty line.)
Webb’s wife, Margaret Barbieri, is his closest confidant, and the one who helps keep him centered. She also deserves a great deal of credit for his success in Sarasota. As a principal with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet for 25 years, Barbieri danced most of the great classical roles and worked closely with Ashton, MacMillan, Antony Tudor and Dame de Valois. Now she spends part of each season in Sarasota, helping to stage the company’s productions and passing on her storehouse of knowledge to dancers who clearly adore her.
“I get as much satisfaction out of teaching and coaching, seeing these ballets come alive, as I did from dancing,” Barbieri said by phone from the couple’s home outside London. “These dancers have such a willingness to learn and work and work. To see the excitement in their faces is truly a joy.”
Barbieri says she and Webb complement each other personally and professionally. “He was always excited by my success, and I’m thrilled to support him in what he has achieved,” she says. “We work well together. We naturally don’t agree on everything, but we respect each other’s opinions. We are both workaholics, which may not be a good thing. But we are disciplined, and we’re determined to achieve as near perfection as we can.”
Webb and Barbieri met when she was a Sadler’s Wells principal and he was a new member of the corps. “I was besotted with her from the moment I saw her, but in those days, you weren’t supposed to speak to the principals,” Webb says. They began spending time together covertly. But one night while Webb was riding in her car, Barbieri, who was leery of getting serious with a fellow dancer, told Webb the relationship couldn’t go anywhere. He was so devastated that he got out of the car.
“Luckily, he wasn’t far from a tube station, so he didn’t have to walk too far,” Barbieri recalls, laughing. She got over her reluctance, and the couple married in 1982.
The couple has a son, Jason, who is considering a career in arts administration.
“What attracted me to Iain first and foremost was his passion and love of dance,” Barbieri says. “I had seen so many people come into the Royal Ballet and get jaded, but he never did. It’s still so inspiring to hear all the ideas he has, to see where he wants to take this company.”
Being away from his wife and son for months at a time, “certainly isn’t easy,” says Webb, who spent time with his family in London this summer. His home in Sarasota is a three-bedroom rented house in University Park that is often filled with visiting choreographers and other guests. “I put them up to save the company money,” Webb says. “It’s often so crowded that I’m sleeping on the couch.”
Saving the company money became imperative last season, when a financial crisis loomed. Though box-office revenue had increased under Webb, the company was saddled with debt and struggling to attract donors in the teeth of a recession. With rumors flying that the ballet was barely making payroll, Webb coaxed attorney Michael Shelton, who had helped revive the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, to come aboard, first as a consultant and then as managing director. Shelton cut the administrative staff to a handful and slashed other expenses big and small. The artistic budget was spared, though Webb used his contacts to get royalties and costume-rental fees reduced or waived.
The company finished last season with a balanced budget, Shelton says, and he expects the $400,000 in long-term debt will be retired within a year. “Now the company is being run like a business,” he says bluntly, adding that the development and grants programs are operating more efficiently than ever before. Some of the disaffected board members who left when De Warren retired are considering coming back, according to development director Michael Scott. And new supporters impressed with Webb’s programming are coming on board. However, the ballet may now find itself competing for donors with the Carreño Dance Festival, a new venture that is a partnership between De Warren and American Ballet Theatre principal Jose Manuel Carreño.
Still, ballet leaders feel they have plenty to celebrate in this 20th anniversary season, which began in October and will again feature works by British masters like Ashton, as well as evenings devoted to Balanchine and Twyla Tharp.
“A lot of people have told me they’d never come to Sarasota Ballet performances before, but now what they’re seeing here is like what they see in New York,” says Hillary Steele, the new board president.
Webb has two more years on his contract, but he says he’d like to stay beyond that, “until the majority of people don’t want me here anymore. I want to keep presenting these historical gems, and the new works that are a little bit off the wall. I still have so much I want to do.”
An amateur psychologist might wonder if some of Webb’s drive comes from a subconscious desire to gain his father’s approval. The elder Webb, who died 15 years ago, moved the family from their small town to the city of York so Webb could take ballet lessons. “But my father could never admit to his friends that I was a dancer,” Webb says. “I know he was proud of me on some level, but he could never say it. He saw me dance, but never complimented me. He was very much a Northern Yorkshire man, who kept everything bottled in.”
Webb says he doesn’t waste time chasing ghosts, though. “I’ve come to terms with all of that,” he says. “But I have always viewed myself as the underdog, and that continues to motivate me.”
And in Sarasota, the underdog has triumphed. “We’ve really turned a corner under Iain,” board member Goldstein says. “He’s delivered on the promise he showed when he was hired. People all over America know about the Sarasota Ballet now.”
The photography of the Sarasota Ballet is by fine art photographer Nicholas A. Price, from a recent project focusing on dance.