The company is celebrating three of the 20th century’s most renowned choreographers in its season closer "Great Masters of Dance."
Good ideas always seem to strike in the most unexpected moments. But to call Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Marguerite and Armand” simply a good idea wouldn’t do it justice, so let’s back up.
The year was 1963, and British master dancer and choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton knew he wanted to choreograph a work that told the same tragic story of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Lady of the Camellias” (which inspired the famed opera “La Traviata”). He didn’t know what that ballet would look like, however, until he happened upon Franz Liszt’s “B minor Piano Sonata” with the turn of a radio dial.
“The ballet just came to him,” says Principal Dance Notator for The Royal Ballet Grant Coyle. “It came to life when he heard this music.”
“Marguerite and Armand” is one of four famous ballets that will be a part of the Sarasota Ballet’s final program of the year, “Great Masters of Dance.” The season closer will celebrate some of the most acclaimed work of three of the most famous choreographers of the 20th century. And to do so, the company needed to bring in two of the ballet world’s most respected men.
Coyle, who staged “Marguerite and Armand” for Sarasota Ballet in 2015 when the company became the first in the U.S. to perform the piece, is back to lead the dancers in the ballet again.
Fellow Brit, Principal Guest Conductor of The Royal Ballet Barry Wordsworth, will lead the Sarasota Orchestra in accompanying this program, which includes many firsts for the seasoned conductor.
Wordsworth has conducted “Marguerite and Armand” several times, but he’s only conducted George Balanchine’s “Tarantella” once, and he’s never done Antony Tudor’s “The Leaves Are Fading” or Balanchine’s “Bugaku.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s unfamiliar with them.
“The wonderful thing is the unbelievable musicality of all three choreographers,” Wordsworth says. “They show their musicality in different ways, but the link between what you see and what you hear is effortless.”
Wordsworth notes that two of the choreographers — Tudor and Balanchine — were musicians themselves, and that understanding of ballet’s greatest partner is evident when watching the dancers move in time to the musicians beneath them in the pit.
“I suppose all classical ballet is some sort of partnership between movement and music,” he says. “When you actually feel the dancers phrasing with the orchestra … That’s what makes classical ballet a really rewarding thing to do as a conductor.”
Coyle believes music is only one of three key elements, along with choreography and design, that makes the ballet a master work.
The piece was choreographed for the most famous ballet couple of the period, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. They delivered such unforgettable performances that the ballet toured the world and became a staple for the pair— so much so that many individuals believed it should be retired when the two dancers did.
Today, Sarasota Ballet remains the only American company granted permission to perform the piece, which follows a Parisian courtesan recalling her last love as she dies of tuberculosis.
“Ballets survive by being done, and they have to be done by different generations and different dancers,” Coyle says. “Every dancer I’ve worked with brings their own sort of character to it.”
There aren’t many ballets today that feature strong storylines, Coyle says, so performing “Marguerite and Armand” is a great opportunity for dancers to become characters and fully delve in, learning everything they can to tell the story authentically.
Contrastingly, Balanchine’s “Tarantella” is an agile, virtuosic showcase of young love that follows more of a theme than a story, both men say. It was added to the program to further commemorate the 35th anniversary of Balanchine’s passing and celebrate Principal Dancer Logan Learned’s 10 years with Sarasota Ballet. Learned will retire at the end of this season.
“Tarantella is just fun,” Wordsworth says. “There’s a sort of mise en scène, obviously a couple who is really found of each other dancing together, but beyond that it’s just sheer joie de vivre.”
Balanchine’s “Bugaku” isn’t a story ballet either, but it does depict a real Japanese wedding ritual set to gagaku, music often heard in Japanese imperial court — using all Western instruments.
Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi was commissioned to write the music for the piece, which is notable, Wordsworth says, because he was born into and steeped in traditional Japanese music but managed to write for Western orchestras with ease.
“What interests me is that fusion,” he says. “And the shape of the music is precisely in partnership with the score.”
Coyle says Tudor’s “The Leaves Are Fading” is more about mood than storyline. It follows a loose, somewhat abstract narrative of a young couple experiencing an autumnal love.
What all of the pieces have in common besides their great musicality, Wordsworth says, is the way they uphold the Sarasota Ballet’s tradition of following the heritage of The Royal Ballet and its repertoire.
“That’s why it’s wonderful for us to come here (from England) and do ballets that mean a great deal to us and through this company, perform them for audiences who might not actually get to see this style of work,” he says.
A Final Farewell
Logan Learned seems to always have a smile on his face — even in the emotionally tumultuous weeks before retirement.
The principal dancer for Sarasota Ballet announced March 29 that he’ll be retiring from dance at the end of this season, so “Great Masters of Dance” will be the final program of his ballet career.
Upon receiving the news, Director Iain Webb added George Balanchine’s “Tarantella” to the show to celebrate the dancer’s 10 years with Sarasota Ballet. Learned will be partnered with Kate Honea for the ballet, which will be performed April 27 and 28.
This will be Learned’s third time dancing “Tarantella” in Sarasota, the first of which was in 2011 and the second at the end of the 2016-2017 season.
“Whenever you get to do a piece that you’ve done before, you want to make it better,” he says. “You can hone in on details you might have missed the first time.”
Learned says this time around, he’s confident in his knowledge of the steps and the musicality of the piece. So, instead of focusing on technicality like he did previously, he wants to allow for the freedom to capture a moment with the audience.
The dancer joined Sarasota Ballet at the start of the 2008–2009 season and climbed the ladder to principal dancer in four years. During his time with the company he’s starred or held featured roles in dozens of ballets, including Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Les Patineurs,” David Bintley’s “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café” and Matthew Hart’s “John Ringling’s Circus Nutcracker.”
After his departure from the company, Learned plans to pursue a college degree in his hometown of San Francisco.
Learned describes the final piece he’ll perform as a lighthearted competition between dance partners that requires a great deal of energy. “Tarantella” is also extremely joyous, he says, which is a sentiment that many of his roles have had in common in the past decade — and is particularly important for his final performances.
“Everyone wants to leave on a happy note,” he says. “I feel like that’s the best way I can leave, not just for myself but for the audience.”
His manually set clock is ticking down, says Learned, 32, and that’s starting to set in. Like most who started intensive training at the age of 7 and began a professional ballet career at 21, the idea of taking a sharp turn in life plans makes him somewhat scared. There’s always a ticking clock on the lifespan of a ballet career, he says, but setting it yourself increases that awareness and makes his last few weeks with the company bittersweet.
Although he has moments of shock and nervousness, Learned says he is more often reminded it was the right time to make this decision. He’s not leaving because of an inability to perform at the high level that he’s set for himself, he says, so he feels more calm about ending at the top of his game, on his own terms.
This is particularly meaningful after Learned’s road to the Sarasota Ballet. He left school thinking he would be lucky if he got a job, he says, and throughout his training he would watch videos of The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre performing pieces he loved but never thought he would be chosen to perform due to his 5-foot, 5-inch height, which is slightly shorter than the average male ballet dancer.
“You can work as hard as you want, but if you don’t find a place that sees your worth and gives you the opportunity to grow and do those roles, you can work until you’re blue in the face,” he says. “I was incredibly lucky to have found this place.”
And his colleagues were happy to have him.
“He’s been an incredible part of this company — he’s helped build it,” says Design and Communication Manager Jason Ettore. “He’s been an important part of turning this ballet from a regional company into a company that’s recognized all around the world.”
Learned says he wouldn’t be where he is today if it weren’t for the responsive, supportive Sarasota audience. He was able to touch their hearts and speak to them in a way he didn’t know was possible, he says, and that’s the greatest compliment an artist can get.
“It’s humbling to think that this awkward little goober from California was able to do that for the people here, and that’s something that I’m honored to be a part of.