London Calling

The Sarasota Ballet Returns From Its First London Tour in Triumph

The company performed works by Sir Frederick Ashton with and for The Royal Ballet.

By Kay Kipling July 2, 2024

The Sarasota Ballet performing Ashton's "Dante Sonata" at London's Linbury Theatre.

The leaders and dancers of The Sarasota Ballet have mostly returned home from their first-ever international performances in London last month, but a Zoom interview with several of them this week demonstrated they haven’t yet come down from the high of showing sold-out audiences at the Royal Opera House just what they can do.

Artistic director Iain Webb, assistant director Margaret Barbieri, and a company of nearly 40 dancers took their bows on the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre stage to kick off an international, five-year celebration of choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, with several dancers also performing with Royal Ballet stars on the Covent Garden mainstage. The Sarasota Ballet has made a name for itself as a prime exemplar of Ashton’s work, both here at home and elsewhere, and the invitation to herald his choreography came at the invitation of Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare.

While the offer was an honor, says Webb, it was also a challenge, not just artistically but financially. “Initially, I started working on a very small scale of how many dances we could do, and how many dancers we could take,” he says. "But then Joe [ballet executive director Joseph Volpe] said, ‘Is that really representing the Sarasota Ballet and what you want?’ So we spoke to the board, who couldn’t believe this opportunity, and set the goal to raise the money” to transport the dancers and stage the performances abroad.

“We knew we had to be very careful,” says Webb, “because we still have to carry out our normal season. But the board and our donors saw this as a chance we couldn’t turn down, to perform in London, the home of Sir Fred.” That's what Webb calls the late Ashton, whose pieces Webb’s wife, Barbieri, often performed as a prima ballerina in London, working closely with the master. All three grew to be special friends over the years.

The Sarasota Ballet's Le Chatte Metamorphosee en Femme.

Barbieri says two things really resonated with her during the tour. “We were very nervous, but at the end of the first performance, the audience was on their feet, so excited,” she recalls. “The dancers were incredible, and our audience was fantastic. There was also a moment out front, in the main house, when they were rehearsing for The Walk to the Paradise Garden ballet that, for me, was the first time sitting out front on the other side of the footlights. It was a slightly surreal feeling—‘What am I doing here?’ I was always on that stage.”

For principal dancer Ricardo Rhodes, there was likewise a question of "What am I doing here?"—although moreso because “it felt like a dream and I didn’t want it to end," he explains. "You can’t put it into words; it was a rush of emotions.” After performing two dozen Ashton ballets for Sarasota audiences, it was also “nice to talk with these celebrity ballet dancers about what your favorites are and to reignite your passion for the work in a place that has so much rich history.”

The Sarasota Ballet's Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

For first soloist Daniel Pratt, the highlight “was seeing my colleagues—Rickey [Rhodes], Jennifer [Hackworth], Macarena [Gimenez] and Ricardo [Graziano]. They went out and danced as if they were doing their regular jobs, not letting the pressure or the occasion get to them.” Like Rhodes, he also felt the thrill of meeting Royal Ballet dancers at the pinnacle of their careers, finding them “friendly and inspiring.”

In all, dancers of the ballet company put on seven performances, featuring smaller pieces like Ashton’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Friday’s Child from Jazz Calendar, and larger ensemble works such as Sinfonietta and Dante Sonata.

The reviews were enthusiastic. From The Guardian: “The whole programme, danced with grace and care, is a history lesson and a delight.” From Bachtrack: “The entire cast was superlative.” From Alastair Macaulay on Slippedisc: “Little Sarasota Ballet, taking three ballets in which British companies lost faith decades ago, show how alive Ashton can still be.”

Indeed, Webb says, keeping Ashton’s work vital is crucial to why The Sarasota Ballet performs it. “Doing Sir Fred’s ballets became the structure, the foundation, to go on to other things” early on in his tenure here, he says. “It’s very delicate work. Quite often when you’re reviving a ballet, there’s no heart, no pulse behind the works. You have to commit 100 percent. The dancers did us proud.”

Artistic director Iain Webb receiving the De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement.

So intent on the company’s performances was Webb that he actually found it “a nightmare” to receive the prestigious De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement, part of the National Dance Awards given by the Dance Section of the Critics Circle. He hastens to add that he’s “very proud and grateful,” but in the pressure of the moment, he was also “a bit flummoxed by it. At first I said I couldn’t go, because I was in the middle of doing shows, but they said I had to be there in person,” he says. So he quickly took a taxi to get to and from the awards without lingering for celebratory drinks after.

It's natural to wonder if the company may head abroad for performances again, but for the moment, while still basking in London memories, the ballet is also readying the hometown 2024-25 season, which begins in October and will include—of course—works by Ashton, most notably the company premiere of his Romeo and Juliet. But other choreographers are represented, too, such as collaborators Jessica Lang, Edwaard Liang and Gemma Bond and notable dance figures like Sir David Bintley, George Balanchine and Paul Taylor. For the complete season schedule (and more on the historic London tour), visit

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