Arts Capital - November 2010

By Charlie Huisking November 1, 2010


Pas De Duel?

The new Carreño Dance Festival sounds like a great addition to Sarasota’s busy cultural calendar. But is it bad news for the Sarasota Ballet?

Publicly, ballet officials have wished the new venture well. But I hear they were taken aback and irritated when their former artistic director, Robert de Warren, informed them a couple of days before his press conference that he was creating the festival.

Named for renowned American Ballet Theatre principal Jose Manuel Carreño, who will teach and perform, the festival will bring promising young dancers from around the country to Sarasota for three weeks in August. De Warren says the festival won’t compete with Sarasota Ballet, since most of the events occur in the ballet’s off-season. But two performances with Carreño and other guest artists will be on Dec. 21-22, in the middle of the season. And the new organization will need to raise about $200,000 annually. That isn’t a huge amount in wealthy Sarasota, but Sarasota Ballet insiders are concerned De Warren will be tapping their donors at a time when the ballet has finally achieved financial stability.

Relations between the ballet and De Warren have been complicated since he retired three years ago, and there is no love lost between De Warren and his successor, Iain Webb. Some De Warren fans feel he was pushed out, and that Webb hasn’t shown him proper respect. Webb’s advocates, on the other hand, say Webb has gone out of his way to get along with De Warren, while De Warren has been unsupportive and pouty.

De Warren says his only motives in creating the festival were to help young dancers and enhance Sarasota’s cultural reputation. And he notes he fulfilled a three-year non-compete agreement that he signed when he retired. "One has to move on," he says.

I hope that lovers of dance won’t choose sides, and will support both this intriguing festival and the year-round excellence of the ballet with equal enthusiasm.

If You Ask Me

How hard could it be to come up with a theme for an arts festival? Painfully, excruciatingly, frustratingly hard, apparently.

After months of sometimes circular and unproductive discussion, a committee appointed by Sarasota County has finally settled on the idea of "The Festival of the First," a visual and performing arts festival devoted to new works. The theme is loose enough to allow for both world premieres and works that have simply never been staged in Sarasota before. To be funded in part with $825,000 in tourist tax money, the festival is tentatively scheduled for 2012.

Arts groups have expressed enthusiasm about the concept, which was first proposed by Bruce Rodgers, the executive director of the Hermitage Artist Retreat. But some feel that Sarasota missed an opportunity to produce something more dramatic, such as the digital festival proposed by the consulting firm that the county retained.

Some arts leaders did seem wary and even dismissive when the digital concept was brought up at a meeting a few months ago. But in their defense, the concept was presented without much explanation or context. In part, that’s because this county-designed process was so bureaucratic.

The festival committee members (who included arts and tourism representatives and some interested citizens with no affiliation) weren’t even asked to speak about the digital idea that day. Instead, the dozens of arts officials in attendance were left to discuss proposals they didn’t understand, as county officials read questions from a checklist and wrote on flip charts with their magic markers. It looked like one of those gruesome staff meetings on The Office.

The "Festival of the First" detractors fear that tourists won’t come in great numbers simply to see local arts groups perform, even if they are doing new works. And attracting new tourists is, after all, the point of this one-time allocation.

But if the festival proves intriguing enough, it could have appeal beyond our borders. Sarasota Ballet’s Iain Webb is already talking about inviting acclaimed choreographer Matthew Bourne here to create a new dance piece, for example.

We simply need to find a latter-day Chick Austin (the Ringling Museum’s visionary first curator) to run this festival. And please, no more flip charts.

Does Crime Pay?

Critics weren’t exactly offering clemency when the musical Bonnie & Clyde opened in 2009 at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. The show "Makes Crime Boring," read the headline over the Orange County Register review, which called it "slight and predictable." And the Los Angeles Times said it lacked artistic vision.

Since Bonnie & Clyde opens the Asolo Repertory Theatre season this month in what’s described as a pre-Broadway run, I had to ask artistic director Michael Edwards if those critics were off base.

"Well, of course they were; critics always are," a chuckling Edwards replied. But he also said that the musical, by composer Frank Wildhorn (whose Broadway credits include Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel), has been revamped, with some "extraordinary" new material added.

To be fair, even those La Jolla reviews had some kind words. The Times said the diversity of Wildhorn’s score was "undeniably impressive," and the Register said there were "hints of a deeper and more satisfying musical" in this story of the famed Depression-era bank robbers.

Its themes of celebrity and economic desperation make it a "terrific and timely production for the era we’re living in," Edwards says.


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