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Art Imitating Life: Sarasota Ballet

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  • | 4:00 a.m. April 3, 2013
Corps de ballet member Sam O’Brien and principal dancer Danielle Brown rehearse a group dance in the second act for the upcoming performance of “La Fille mal Gardée.”
Corps de ballet member Sam O’Brien and principal dancer Danielle Brown rehearse a group dance in the second act for the upcoming performance of “La Fille mal Gardée.”
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A buoyant and sunny-sounding orchestral score blares over large speakers, and a male dancer bearing a flute prop leaps and pirouettes to the center of the high-ceilinged studio. Thirty other Sarasota Ballet dancers eventually join him, but after a minute of dancing, their movements become spastic and their faces worried.

Assistant Director Margaret Barbieri, who is setting the ballet, waves her hands and the music stops. “That was the fast one,” she says of the wrong version of the recording. The dancers look relieved, and the whole room chuckles.

When they perform this full-length ballet, “La Fille mal Gardée,” April 18 and 19, it will be with a live orchestra consisting of Sarasota Orchestra musicians, whom American Ballet Theater’s conductor, Ormsby Wilkins, will conduct. Wilkins not only worked under the composer of the adapted score, John Lanchbery, but says he’s conducted the ballet at least 100 times — he’s sure he has the correct, danceable tempo down. It will be the Sarasota premiere of the classic ballet.

The Royal Ballet performed the world premiere of Sir Frederick Ashton’s choreography in 1960. Ashton based his original version on the 1789 story: Lise is a peasant girl in love with farm boy Colas, but her mother, the Widow Simone, wants her to marry the plantation owner’s son, Alain.

“I love ‘La Fille’ — it’s a great ballet to watch,” principal dancer Ricardo Graziano, who’s dancing the lead role of Colas, says. “There’s happiness, sadness, love, comedy, and it’s different; it’s with normal people and not a swan queen or princess.”

In fact, in its 1789 debut, it was one of the first ballets about “real” people and not royalty or mythical creatures.

The two lead roles are physically demanding roles and require much stamina and strength of technique. For instance, in the first scene, there is a pas de deux (or duet) and variation (solo); in the second scene there is a pas de deux and variation; and in the third scene there are two pas de deux.

“When you break it down like that, it’s a lot of work,” Ricardo Rhodes, principal dancer also dancing Colas, says.

Kate Honea (Lise), Victoria Hulland (Lise) and Graziano (Colas) nod their heads in agreement. In comparison, the leads only danced one pas de deux in the other full-length ballet this season, Sarasota Ballet’s own “The Nutcracker.”

There are many firsts in this ballet.

“The use of props is one of the most unique things,” Honea says. “Even, say, for ‘The Nutcracker,’ you always hold the Nutcracker doll, but this is actually using the props while you’re dancing.”

And the dancers find the use of props, such as long ribbons or butter churners, leads to a higher probability of error. Although they aren’t expecting to make mistakes, they are always anticipating what to do if one should occur.

One such prop is a live pony that carts the dancers on stage. To problem solve, one dancer will follow the horse with a dustpan to quickly clean up any accidents.

“We’ve heard stories from Iain (Webb) about how it would poop every time he had to dance, so he always thought someone was playing a joke by feeding the horse before the show,” Honea laughs.

In another scenario that’s easier to anticipate, there’s one scene in which the dancers must throw a ribbon to each other, wrap it around the other dancer and create a cat’s cradle pattern by using specific arm grabs, crossing patterns and knots.

“I’ve seen some mini-disasters,” says Wilkins, who typically watches the ballet from his conductor seat. “I’ve seen the whole thing come out like an abstract painting rather than a cat’s cradle, but I don’t anticipate that will happen (at Sarasota Ballet).”

Wilkins’ connection to Sarasota Ballet is through Director Iain Webb and Assistant Director Margaret Barbieri — he conducted at Wells Royal Ballet in England at the same time they were dancing with the company.

Webb and Barbieri both danced “La Fille” under Ashton’s direction at the Royal Ballet. And the Sarasota premiere will be almost a distinct copy of the original production.

The set and costumes come from Birmingham Royal Ballet, which first performed it in 1962 as a replication of the original performance. The sets were shipped about a month ago, and Michael Brown, freelance costume consultant for Birmingham Royal Ballet, will arrive April 5, to fit each dancer in his or her costume.

Brown ensures the decades-old costumes are thoroughly cleaned and replaces, repaints and dyes costumes as needed to keep them looking like Osbert Lancaster originally designed them in 1960.

“If you’ve been with the Royal Ballet like I have for 35 years, you grew up with (this) production,” Brown says. “You treasure these productions.”

Similar to Brown and the dancers, many people in the ballet world consider “La Fille” to be a classic — and everyone at Sarasota Ballet is glad to add it to the company’s repertoire.

“It’s definitely going to be the best production we do all season,” Graziano says, “even better than ‘The Nutcracker.’”

If you go
‘La Fille mal Gardée’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, April 18 and 2 and 8 p.m. Friday, April 19
Where: Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail
Cost: $10 to $90
Info: Call 359-0099


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