Does anybody know how much toe shoes for a ballet company cost, or why Sarasota absolutely needs to be a major dance town along with everything else we do? One answer came at the end of November at the opening night of the Sarasota Ballet. It was magical. Truly. Anybody who doubts that ballet here could be this good can relax and go online right now for season tickets. It was just like Lincoln Center.
On opening night Iain Webb, the ballet’s new artistic director, brought us Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante and Sir Frederick Ashton’s rarely seen ballet, The Two Pigeons. Iain and his wife, Margaret Barbieri, former principal dancer of the Royal Ballet touring company who worked with Ashton and danced Two Pigeons, brilliantly staged it.
“Two Pigeons is a love story,” Iain said when I visited the studio to watch rehearsals for the Allegro earlier in the week. He kept talking about the gypsies in Two Pigeons and what happens to the young lovers when the gypsies come on the scene. I’d never seen the ballet before, so I had no idea what he was talking about. But he was more than justified in his enthusiasm. There were only three performances of the Pigeons this year, so we all have to scream and carry on until we get it back again and again—maybe every year, like The Nutcracker. Sex and romance and humor and danger and shimmying on point knocked out the crowd.
One friend said ballet is fun, but the need for it is more fundamental than that. Movement is a universal form of expression, a language without words, an outlet for emotions that anyone can do. Joe Pilates would say that movement is the core of the human spirit.
Joysanne Sidimus, the great Balanchine authority and repetiteur, was in the final days of rehearsing Allegro Brillante when I visited. Ballets have to be done exactly the way the choreographer intended. Balanchine ballets, for example, can only be produced with stagers who have the original productions in their memory. Joysanne was repeating exactly what she had danced herself, and it was wonderful to watch her pass it on.
“Nothing there. Nothing, nothing,” she said, stopping a pas de deux for the second time. “Can you bend back a little more? I know that’s uncomfortable.”
Several younger dancers were copying the movements in the back of the studio. Does anyone here remember having a tush that small or being able to lift a leg higher than the front doorstep? Ballet exec director Ann Logan leaned over and explained what was going on. “Iain wants as many apprentices as possible to learn the parts,” she whispered. “It’s part of the training.”
“Look at Sane, Alison,” Joysanne told Alison Dubsky, the principal, who was dancing with Saneyuki Kawashima. “If you don’t look at him, there’s nothing holding this together. Yes. Now, more here. More. You’re gift wrapping.”
The session was ending. The gift wrap was the final lift, and what a gift it was. Up Alison went, high off that slippery floor, and I pretended not to be scared to death. Ann looked at me. “Everything’s going to be great,” I said.
So there we were in Van Wezel on opening night a few days later. The crowd at the gala dinner was a who’s who of arts benefactors—Ulla Searing, Morton and Carol Siegler, the Zabelles and the Goldsteins—so many you couldn’t talk to them all. Lisa Walsh and Emily Walsh Parry put the fabulous party together, and they know how to do a party. It was a preview of the whole change coming to the Sarasota Ballet, Ann Logan told me, a refocus with some young trendsetters taking charge.
“What are those gray swags hanging from the ceiling?” I asked Rebecca Baxter, who was there with the camera.
“It’s a birdcage, dummy,” Rebecca told me, pointing to a number of birdcages hanging from above.
“Oh, I get it,” I said. Then we both caught sight of Jean Weidner, founder of the ballet 17 years ago. We rushed over to ask important ballet questions like, “Where did you get your dress? Designing Women?”
“Yes, the designer is somebody very expensive, but I forgot who,” Jean said.
Longtime ballet supporter Hillary Steele was wearing a gown she’d bought at Nordstrom’s in Miami. Jewel Ash was wearing a Joan McGee with lots of pleats. “But it doesn’t make anybody look fat,” she said. She and Beverly Peterman told me how in past years they used to go backstage and feed the dancers between performances. For the ballet crowd, the involvement is deep. “It’s like family,” Terry Romine told me.
That evening Terry was ecstatic. “This is a big night for the ballet,” he said. “Expectations are high, but I saw a rehearsal and loved it. I’ve joined the ballet board, you know.” Then he admitted he might have to join a 12-step program to stop joining any more boards. Susan Romine was decked in feathers to look like a pigeon, and Eva Slane was wearing a gorgeous purple dress that matched the Van Wezel.
Wanda Rayle Libby, who just married Harold Libby on a cruise ship between Hong Kong and Beijing, wanted to talk about the five safaris they had just been on. “You should have seen the leopards chasing each other,” she said.
Myrna and David Band were there, relieved that all of their sons are finally married. Gloria Moss, who used to be a dancer, told me about her Bill Hamilton gown. “He only designs for Saks and me,” she said. Ann Logan and ballet board president Chris Pfahler were both wearing St. John. It was a big night for them, too.
At dinner I sat with Rob Patten and Babette Bach. Babette is an expert on all kinds of legal issues for old people, so I immediately took her card. Also at our table was Dr. Keith March, who flew in from Indianapolis in his tuxedo to see his daughter, Chelsea March, who is a Sarasota Ballet trainee—maybe one of the beauties I saw in the studio. The Sarasota Ballet has a bunch of programs, including a ballet school and a summer program with an international faculty that trains British ballet style and tradition. Marvin and Betty Danto spearheaded Dance—The Next Generation, the program for at-risk youth that can lead to two-year scholarships at Manatee Community College and USF, as well as opportunities for students to perform locally and even join classes at the Sarasota Ballet School.
Iain Webb is the third artistic director of the Sarasota Ballet, following Robert de Warren and Eddy Toussaint. “He was our first choice,” Chris Pfahler said. “We’re so glad he chose Sarasota.”
The next night at the Mistletoe Ball everybody was still talking about it. “Those were real pigeons,” Ann Logan told me. “We flew them in from California with their trainer. Don’t forget to say that.”
Oh, and those ballet shoes come in at $50,000, up from $16,000 last year. Apparently they wear out pretty fast.