Sarasota Ballet breaks gender stereotypes by using a split-gender cast for two of the three ballets in its latest production.
Sarasota Ballet dancers are putting away their pointe shoes — just for now.
They won’t be needed in “Moving Identities,” the contemporary triple bill commencing the ballet’s 2018 winter season. Program 4 consists of the company premiere of Paul Taylor’s “Airs,” Ricardo Graziano’s “Valsinhas” and Robert North’s “Troy Game.”
And there’s a twist. Two of these ballets, “Troy Game” and “Valsinhas,” are split-gender casts.
“With regard to the political climate, it’s so current,” says Julian Moss, who staged “Troy Game” for the company. “We’re talking gender in the sense that there are no barriers. It’s a pretty radical idea, actually.”
To understand the power of this bold artistic decision, it’s important to get a sense for the history of these pieces.
MOCKERY OF MAN
Like many ballet dancers, choreographer Robert North has classical roots.
North started his career by studying classical ballet in 1965 at the Royal Ballet School in London. After developing a strong foundation, he moved toward modern ballet and studied at London School of Contemporary Dance before becoming a founding member of London Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1967.
It was when he traveled to Brazil with LCDT in 1973 and found himself entranced with the music of the street musicians that he felt inspired to create “Troy Game,” a contemporary piece for an all-male cast.
“He wanted to make a piece for the men that was a little bit about fighting, and then it gradually became him making fun of men,” Moss says. “It’s a little poke at men being jocks and puffing their chests out.”
But “Troy Game” is no longer a man’s game.
Sarasota Ballet will perform the piece with two casts, one all-female and one all-male, during two different time slots.
There are no principals, dancer Samantha Benoit says. Nobody is dancing a more difficult or important role. Instead, everyone is on the same level in a unit of eight dancers performing a feat of physicality that requires an immense amount of stamina.
Benoit is one of the eight women in the company who will make up the female cast, and she’s ready for the challenge.
“It’s completely new and foreign and we’re feeling muscles we didn’t know we had,” she says. “The women are going to be right there with the guys.”
When staging the piece for the company, Moss didn’t change any of the steps for the women. He says he didn’t want to “give in,” so the women are expected to flip and lift and support one another just as the men do.
Fellow company member Logan Learned says the reason this is a challenge is because classical ballet requires little to no partnering for female dancers just by the nature of the dance genre. Men are thus more accustomed to what grips to use and how to shift their weight to stay balanced.
“There is a little bit of a learning curve for girls,” he says.
“But not that much,” Benoit adds.
CONTINUING THE THEME
Resident Choreographer Ricardo Graziano’s “Valsinhas” was first performed in 2013 as part of the production of “Theatre of Dreams.” He choreographed it for an all-male cast because he wanted to give men the chance to step away from a partnering role and take center stage.
But as soon as some of the female dancers watched a rehearsal, they wanted to learn it, too.
Graziano went to Director Iain Webb, and the two decided it would be a fun, atypical approach to have an all-female cast as well as an all-male one.
Graziano says the success of the split-gender cast method in “Valsinhas,” which was a first for the company, inspired Webb to do the same with “Troy Game.”
And just as in North’s piece, the dancers in Graziano’s work do the same exact steps, regardless of their gender.
“Sometimes it does look like two different ballets because they have totally different energies,” Graziano says.
Although he considers all of the dancers talented, he’s noticed that the men and women often excel in different aspects of the performance. The women are exceptional at dancing in step with one another as a cohesive unit, whereas the men don’t have the same timing but they bring a unique punch and energy, he says.
He loves watching the two groups rehearse the piece on the same day because he sees each group making note of the other’s strengths and applying it to their own take on the piece.
Like the other ballets in the performance, “Valsinhas” doesn’t tell a story, but it has its own feel.
“It’s a playful, joyous piece — I just wanted the dancers to get onstage and enjoy themselves,” he says.
The piece is set to 25 movements of Franz Schubert’s “Valses sentimentales,” a series of waltzes for piano. It’s played live onstage during the performance, adding a unique connection between the dancers and the music.
“When I choreograph something, it’s almost like the song tells me what to do,” he says. “I got that playful feel from the music and the steps started coming.”
A RETURN TO REALITY
Sarasota Ballet is, at its core, a classical ballet company. So, putting on a production of three contemporary works and no classical pieces is a departure from what audiences are used to.
Learned is excited to show Sarasota a new side of the company. He thinks ballet regulars will be surprised but pleased with what they see.
“I think all three of these pieces have a quality that draws the audience in,” he says. “All three pieces relate to the audience in a different way.”
Moss points out that Sarasotans who always come to ballet productions are used to seeing the company in a certain light.
“Moving Identities” will defy most of those perceptions — especially for the women in the company, he says
“These dancers who are very familiar suddenly become unfamiliar,” Moss says. “It challenges the audience to see the dancers in another way, and it challenges the dancers to present themselves in another way.”
The styles of modern and contemporary ballet — the former of which is considered the immediate successor of 20th century ballet and the latter what’s being choreographed presently — are vastly different from classical ballet. These movements are largely side to side rather than the up and down, more static movements of classical.
Take classical ballet’s the “Nutcracker” for instance. The Sugar Plum Fairy isn’t remembered for latitudinal movement. Instead, she’s remembered for how high and gracefully she lifts her legs and for the impressive number of pirouettes she can execute.
Essentially, classical ballet is known for not reflecting reality because its movements don’t reflect how humans move daily.
“That’s why the ballet world has this ethereal, magical, otherworldly quality to it,” Moss says.
In “Moving Identities,” Learned and Benoit say they must be more grounded, both literally with floorwork as well as with deeper pliés, meaning they’re always closer to the floor.
“As soon as we go from side to side, it’s a world in which we’re all familiar,” Moss says. “This is the world of the supermarket (cart).”
Benoit says this is refreshing as a dancer who’s used to constantly playing a character. In “Moving Identities,” she can relax a bit.
“It’s good to be human sometimes,” she says.