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Sarasota Ballet: 'Diamond' Exchange

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 9, 2011
Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano dance the pas de deux from "Diamonds" at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Frank Atura.
Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano dance the pas de deux from "Diamonds" at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Frank Atura.
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Last season, when Sarasota Ballet Director Iain Webb told his dancers that they would be traveling to Washington, D.C., to perform George Balanchine’s “Diamonds” with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, he purposely downplayed the partnership.

He didn’t want to put too much pressure on the company. Or, perhaps he didn’t want to put too much pressure on himself.

Of course, downplayed or not, the dancers (and especially Webb) understood the significance of the collaboration.

Balanchine created “Diamonds” in 1967 specifically for Farrell. The former New York City Ballet principal was perhaps Balanchine’s greatest muse.

Adding further weight to the project was the fact that Farrell’s company, which is based out of the Kennedy Center, would be celebrating its 10th anniversary season this year.

To quote Webb, the opportunity was “brilliant.”

On the night of Oct. 13, when Sarasota Ballet dancers Danielle Brown, Ricardo Graziano, Kate Honea and Victoria Hulland were scheduled to perform their solos, Webb was sitting in the audience at the Eisenhower Theater.

Sitting directly behind him was Alastair Macaulay, the dance critic from The New York Times.

“I didn’t want to look over my shoulder,” Webb says. “They were all there … critics from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. I recognized a lot of them.”

Scattered among the crowd were dozens of Sarasota dance fans who had traveled to see the show.

When the curtain fell on the finale polonaise — a rousing processional of 34 dancers in dazzling costumes moving in a flurry of patterns — Webb’s wife, Margaret Barbieri, Sarasota Ballet’s assistant artistic director, had tears in her eyes.

“I couldn’t have wished for it to go any better,” Webb says. “There were so many amazing moments I don’t know where to begin.”

To help fill in those amazing moments, we asked Brown, Graziano, Honea, Hulland and corps de ballet dancer Emily Dixon to share their experiences.

Victoria Hulland on the significance of dancing ‘Diamonds’
“Diamonds” is very elegant. It’s the third part of a larger ballet called ‘Jewels.’ I found it to be so elegant. It has a Russian quality to it. When I saw it on stage for the first time with the white-and-gold costumes and the lighting, all I could think of was pure elegance. It was such an honor to learn it from Suzanne Farrell. It was created on her, so I felt like everything she said was coming directly from the source. At the same time, she was clear about telling us that we were free to be ourselves. Just because it was set on her, didn’t mean she didn’t want to see our personalities come through.”

Danielle Brown on being praised in The Wall Street Journal
“The one day when I saw Kate and Tori doing their demi solos with the two dancers from Suzanne’s company, I noticed they were so bright and energetic, while the other dancers were more serious. It’s not that (Farrell’s company) didn’t dance well. It’s that our dancers were smiling more. You could tell they were enjoying themselves, and I think that came across on stage. It’s something Iain and Maggie definitely encourage, ‘Smile bigger.’ It’s ingrained in all of us. It’s funny because I’m always being told to smile more. I guess you don’t see it as much on my face. “Diamonds” isn’t the most smiley piece, so it was hard to find the right balance and portray the right character. When I saw that I was mentioned in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, I was so surprised. My mom ordered both papers. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, our little girl is in a big paper.’”

Ricardo Graziano on dancing a long, slow pas de deux
“Divertimento No. 15” was my first classical Balanchine ballet. I loved it because I love moving all over the stage and jumping and dancing fast. When it comes to “Diamonds,” it’s a whole different story, of course. It’s a slower ballet with a longer pas de deux — about 10 minutes. It’s a challenge to be on stage for 10 minutes and keep the audience connected. You don’t want them to get bored and fall asleep! Danielle and I work well together. We understand each other, which is what you need when you’re dancing a pas de deux. Chemistry is important … and teamwork. You must speak the same language. There’s no me or you. Just us.”

Emily Dixon on what she learned from working with Farrell
“Suzanne has a completely different teaching method than what we’re used to. She taught me to really engage my mind in class, instead of just going through the motions and relying on everything I’m used to. You have to be able to pick things up quickly. To be able to execute the kind of steps she teaches with different combinations and patterns so early in the morning was a stretch for me. It was a long day for us. We’d have class at 11 a.m. and a show at 7:30 p.m., which meant we’d get home close to midnight. Personally, my adrenaline crashes after each show, so each day I’d have to wake myself back up again. With Suzanne’s classes being complicated and quick, your body better be up and ready to go every morning. I commend Suzanne’s dancers for this. They were doing five other ballets plus “Diamonds,” and they were still on top of their game. Their work ethic was something we all admired.”

Kate Honea on dancing at the Kennedy Center
“In Sarasota, we have our dance fans. Our audience knows us and appreciates us. Going some place new and performing with a different company, you don’t know how you’re going to blend. You wonder, ‘Am I going to stand out? Am I going to make this different?’ For me, being with the company for such a long time, it was even more special. We’ve performed in Houston before with Dominic Walsh’s company, but this was different. It was the first opportunity we had to tour at this level. When we were in D.C. rehearsing, the anticipation kept building and building. Usually I’m very nervous before an opening, but by the time it came around, I was ready. The nerves took a backseat and excitement set in. During the finale, there was even more excitement. The orchestra was playing, and I was looking out at the audience at The Kennedy Center and I was thinking, ‘This is the kind of moment dancers live for.’ It was definitely a moment to behold.”

Sarasota Ballet will perform The Great Masters at 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 18, at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The program includes George Balanchine’s “Diamonds” with The Suzanne Farrell Company and Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Two Pigeons.” A special performance is scheduled for 8 p.m. Nov. 19, at Ruth Eckerd Hall, in Clearwater. For tickets, call 359-0099, or visit


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