Arts Capital - July 2011

By Charlie Huisking Photography by Frank Atura July 1, 2011

Sarasota’s 2010-11 arts season opened in thrilling fashion in October with a performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Ringling International Arts Festival. The excitement and drama—some of it offstage—never stopped in a year in which several organizations reached new levels of excellence. As the season winds down for the summer, let’s look back at some of the highlights.

RIAF, ROUND TWO Baryshnikov may not be as limber as he once was, but his modern-dance performance (with co-star David Neumann) at the Ringling International Festival was exhilarating, funny and poignant. A partnership between the Ringling Museum and the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the festival has quickly become one of Sarasota’s most buzz-worthy events. With several performances occurring simultaneously at various venues, it was fun to get feedback from audience members who wanted to share their excitement about the show they’d just seen. 

I was most excited about The Brothers, an adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov performed by the ambitious young actors from Moscow’s Theater Art Studio. Within minutes, you were so enchanted you forgot you were watching a play in Russian with English subtitles.

STEPPING FORWARD The Sarasota Ballet celebrated its 20th anniversary season by making dramatic strides under artistic director Iain Webb. The depth and the versatility of the company were on display most impressively during an all-Balanchine program in April. A different kind of highlight occurred at the 20th anniversary gala, when founder and former dancer Jean Weidner, looking Grace Kelly-glamorous in a long gown, danced a few steps in the opening piece. In a major coup, it was announced that several Sarasota Ballet dancers will join the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in performing Balanchine’s Diamonds at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., next fall.

ASOLO HIGH POINTS Crime paid this season for the Asolo Rep, which drew big crowds for Bonnie and Clyde, the new musical by Frank Wildhorn that may eventually go to Broadway. But my favorite Asolo production was Twelve Angry Men, the classic drama that Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati infused with new energy. The production earned rave reviews locally and from the esteemed critic for the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout. How nice it was to see Asolo newcomers share the stage with gifted veterans like David Howard, Doug Jones and John Arnold.

Audiences had mixed reactions to La Bête, the comedy about high and low art that was presented in rhyming couplets. But I thought Danny Scheie’s performance as a foppish, egocentric playwright was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Spectacular production values and fine acting made Las Meninas another standout. Congratulations to producing artistic director Michael Edwards for continuing to take the Asolo to new heights.

CONTROVERSY OF THE YEAR Bad feelings between Sarasota Ballet and its former artistic director, Robert de Warren, became painfully public when De Warren announced he was creating the Carreño Dance Festival in Sarasota to train the next generation of young performers. His partner in the project is former American Ballet Theatre star Jose Manuel Carreño. The news shocked leaders of the Sarasota Ballet, which had only recently pulled out of a financial crisis. They were concerned that De Warren’s festival would compete for funds from a narrow pool of dance lovers. Some accused De Warren of wanting to undermine Sarasota Ballet, which had ushered him into retirement three years ago. De Warren denied any ulterior motive, saying he simply wanted to add to Sarasota’s cultural richness. And he pointed out he had fulfilled the terms of a three-year no-compete clause. But he made his feelings about Sarasota Ballet clear, saying he’d never attend one of its performances again.

HIGH TIME The search took longer than expected, but Ringling Museum officials are confident they found the right new leader.

Steven High, CEO of Savannah’s Telfair Museums, was introduced in March as the Ringling’s executive director. On June 1, he officially succeeded Marshall Rousseau, interim director since John Wetenhall resigned in 2009.

High was not one of a handful of finalists identified by a Ringling search committee late last year. In fact, he was so content in Savannah he didn’t even apply. But after some board members recommended extending the search, High was invited for an interview.

“His name kept coming up during our deliberations,” said Cliff Walters, the head of the search committee. “People would tell us we need someone like Steven High. So we finally approached him.”

High’s background as an art scholar and a curator as well as a museum leader appealed to the officials at Ringling and Florida State University, which operates the museum. Another strength was that Telfair, like the Ringling, is a museum complex made up of several different elements.

MYSTERY OF THE YEAR Conductor Leif Bjaland’s “resignation” from the Sarasota Orchestra earlier this year is still causing speculation. Bjaland isn’t talking, but most arts insiders I talk to think the orchestra board decided it was time for a change.

Some board members apparently felt Bjaland had sided with the musicians during the labor strife a several years ago. But I never heard him make a public comment during the negotiations.

Bjaland’s talent was on full display during his final concerts of the season. In April, he conducted a thrilling performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. In May, he narrated and conducted his final Journeys to Genius concert. He created these multi-media concerts in part to attract new audiences. They were wildly successful, and the final one, devoted to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, was perhaps the best.

I’m sure that Bjaland will find a new position worthy of his talents. I hope the orchestra can find a successor as gifted as he was.

HONORABLE MENTION More highlights include Florida Studio Theatre’s powerful production of David Mamet’s Race, and the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre’s Avenue Q, a production that some felt was better than the Broadway version…The collaboration of the year has to be Key Chorale’s performance with Circus Sarasota under the big top. The chorale’s artistic director, Joseph Caulkins, really got into the spirit, channeling his inner ringmaster.

What a thrill it was to hear from a living composer, 93-year-old Robert Ward, who addressed an adoring audience at the Sarasota Opera House before a production of his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Crucible…The Opera House was filled again in April when actor Christopher Plummer, a guest of the Sarasota Film Festival, regaled the audience with anecdotes from his remarkable career.

All in all, it was a very good year.

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