The announcement of the Sarasota Ballet’s season typically arouses excitement for area balletomanes, and in that respect the recent reveal of the 2017-18 line-up is no different from any other.
What does make it different is the news, hard on the heels of the season announcement, that the company is downsizing—not renewing contracts for an approximate one-third of the 51 dancers who made up the company last season. It’s disappointing news not only for the dancers (some of whom learned of their unemployment too late to secure positions with other companies for next season), but for fans who’ve enjoyed watching such a full complement of performers on works like Balanchine’s Jewels.
Director Iain Webb says in explanation that, “For 10 seasons, we have focused on building the artistic base of the company, increasing the number and caliber of dancers as well as bringing new and highly respected ballets into our repertoire. Now we must focus on the long-term future of the Sarasota Ballet and build from this solid artistic base…We decided to reorganize and adjust the operational plan of the company, refocusing on our small administrative team and rightsizing the number of professional dancers we employ each season, bringing us in line with other American companies of our budget size. We have an astounding product, but keeping such a small staff to maintain it would be irresponsible.”
Webb has also said that having fewer dancers in the company—especially male leads—will not affect the ballet’s ability to perform, as he can use his contacts in the wider ballet world to hire guest artists when needed. (It remains to be seen what guests might be featured in the coming season.) And contract negotiations with the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), which Sarasota Ballet dancers voted to join three months ago, are still ongoing, so a final roster of dancers is not yet available.
But the season will proceed with seven programs, including 12 ballets by some celebrated choreographers and composers. “Our audiences will see the same artistic excellence they have seen each year,” promises Webb. “Alongside ballets by George Balanchine, Antony Tudor and Sir Frederick Ashton, the Sarasota Ballet will become the first American company to perform David Bintley’s prophetic ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café, and will commission for the first time a world premiere by Marcelo Gomes, star of American Ballet Theatre.”
Among the season’s ballets: company premieres of Ashton’s The Dream, Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, Paul Taylor’s Airs, and Tudor’s Leaves are Fading.
Revivals include Ashton’s Illuminations and Marguerite and Armand, resident choreographer Ricardo Graziano’s Valsinhas, Matthew Hart’s colorful John Ringling’s Circus Nutcracker for the holidays, Robert North’s Troy Game and Will Tuckett’s acclaimed production of the classic children’s tale The Secret Garden.
That production, in fact, opens the season, with performances Oct. 27-29 at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts. It’s followed by a “Metropolitan,” New York-themed evening that features Illuminations, Theme and Variations (to music by Tchaikovsky) and the aforementioned world premiere by Gomes, who has guested as a dancer here but who is now gaining respect as a choreographer as well. Those performances will be Dec. 1 and 2 at the Sarasota Opera House.
Hart’s version of The Nutcracker, spun around a connection to Sarasota’s John and Mable Ringling, returns after a successful past production, with shows Dec. 15 and 16 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
The fourth program of the season, Jan. 26-29 at the FSU Center, features Taylor’s Airs (to the music of Handel); Graziano’s Valsinhas, which will be performed with a gender split cast (either all male or all female, depending on the evening); and North’s Troy Game, originally created for a male cast but now also allowing for gender split dancers.
The Sarasota Ballet has, for the past few seasons, presented companies from elsewhere, as with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Dance Theatre of Harlem. That practice continues this year with the arrival of Ballet Hispanico, Feb. 23-25 at the FSU Center, serving up a blend of classical, Latin and contemporary dance.
“Dreams of Nature” power the spring performances March 2 and 3 at the Van Wezel, featuring Ashton’s masterpiece The Dream, originally created as part of a celebration of the quarter centenary of Shakespeare’s birth; and 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café, choreographed by Birmingham Royal Ballet director David Bintley, which presents a colorful host of animals seeking shelter from a storm at the café (all of the animals portrayed are endangered species). You could think of it as a modern-day Noah’s Ark story.
The season will close with a program highlighting “Great Masters of Dance” as Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand once more takes the stage, joined by Tudor’s Leaves are Fading, set to music by Dvorak. Those performances take place April 27 and 28 at the Sarasota Opera House.
Full season subscriptions are now on sale; four-ballet packages are available June 12. For information, call (941) 359-0099 or visit sarasotaballet.org.