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Leaping Off the Page

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  • | 11:00 p.m. February 17, 2015
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As a 17-year-old ballet student at the Rambert School of Ballet in London, Iain Webb was at an important crossroads in his life. The ambitious dance pupil from Yorkshire in northern England had moved to the bustling metropolis of London to pursue his passion of dancing. However, he had succumbed to an injury during rehearsal. The young man had torn ligaments and tendons going down his legs while overextending in the splits position.

He was depressed. He struggled while contemplating if he had a future as a dancer or if his body could handle it. During this time, some of Webb’s friends invited him to their house for a tea party to celebrate the purchase of a picture. Webb thought it was odd that his friends were having a celebration for such a mundane event, but he acquiesced and attended.

The picture turned out to be a lithograph of the romantic ballet divertissement the Pas de Quatre, which is a graceful formation with four ballerinas. Staring at the lithograph, the injured ballet dancer became transfixed and inspired. There was no question about it — he was going to be in love with ballet for the rest of his life.

Webb, the director of the Sarasota Ballet, recovered from that injury and enjoyed a substantial career as a ballet dancer. As he danced in ballets all over the world, his obsession with books, histories and artifacts of ballet’s past grew.

“My dream when I started collecting these books was that I’d win the lottery and buy the Mercury Theatre and turn it into a dance museum,” says Webb.

Webb started his collection out of curiosity; he wanted to learn more about the school where he was dancing at the time. The 16-year-old Webb skipped lunches to save money to buy his first two books: a copy of “Dances at the Mercury” and “Quicksilver,” an autobiography of his dance school’s founder, Marie Rambert. The budding dance historian purchased books whenever he could afford them and wherever he found them. Webb ravaged secondhand bookstores, antique stores and print shops while on tour.

“There was a shop in London called Dance Books Limited,” says Webb. “There’d be new publications, secondhand books, and photographs, and the owners and employees became some of my closest friends. I always thought I’d stop performing and take over the bookshop.”

Webb retreats into his library containing more than 1,800 books on dance every night. Located adjacent to the living room, the library is filled with a rich wooden warmth with bookcases filling almost every available wall space. Framed lithographs, including Webb’s own copy of “Pas de Quatre,” concert posters that stretch back decades and even one of three death masks of groundbreaking early-20th century Russian dancer and choreographer Mikhail Fokine adorn the library’s walls.

The books, arranged by topic and nationality, create an intricate spectrum of color.

Some books are crisp and plain, purchased during Webb’s youth and accumulated from countless secondhand bookstores. Others are more recent and decorated with images of crystalline ballerinas or resolute male dancers. And more still feature the faces and names of iconic choreographers and dancers from throughout history.

“You always have to do world premieres and new work to keep the art form alive,” says Webb, “but I think the foil of that is that we have the support and understanding from the community to allow me each year to bring one or two pieces of history back to life again.”

This season is no different with the upcoming program “Balanchine, Ashton & Nureyev” Feb. 27 and 28 that displays some of 20th century ballet’s most refined and elegant pieces, including George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Jazz Calendar” (a Sarasota premiere) and Rudolf Nureyev’s “Raymonda Act III.”

And closing this year’s season in May is a history lesson beamed directly from Webb’s library. Titled “The Ballets Russes” after the influential early 20th century Parisian ballet company, the performance is a tribute to that famed company.

The company in question was composed of some of the most influential dancers, choreographers, designers, artists and composers, such as the aforementioned Fokine and Balanchine and included Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Léonide Massine, Alexandre Benois, Pablo Picasso, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss, just to name a few.

It was a cohort of dynamic creativity under the direction of Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The Ballets Russes created the language of modern dance and ballet. And Webb and the Sarasota Ballet will honor those dancing pioneers with productions of Fokine’s “Les Sylphides” and “Petrushka” along with Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun.”

Sleeping on one of the higher shelves in Webb’s library lives a massive tome that is a rare reproduction of photos from that cherished epoch, including a photo series that depicts the entirety of Nijinsky’s original choreography and movements of his dance fable. As a research tool, Webb’s lifetime ballet bibliomania assumes not only a great utility for the Sarasota Ballet but also becomes an instrument of great import for the entire art form.

“Ballets get lost all the time because people suddenly think that it’s dated,” says Webb, “and I would say nine times out of 10 it really angers me.”

For his part, Webb interjects his own curiosity and dancer’s drive into reviving works that he has rarely seen or just wants to see himself onstage. He researched and cultivated works such as Ashton’s “Les Rendezvous” and “Illuminations” and Antony Tudor’s “Gala Performance” due to his interest and need to preserve and revive these works.

“It was quite a strain to get it all done,” says Webb, speaking on the Sarasota Ballet’s revival of “Les Rendezvous.”

“As we speak, that set is actually in England,” he says. “The Royal Ballet School is going to be using it for its show in July because we have that particular version no one has anymore, and in theory that could have been lost.”

With no central ballet or choreography revival organization, it’s up to each independent company to pick and choose what works to revive.

Fortunately for Sarasota and for the balletic arts, Webb is constantly searching for the next great revival through his vast array of books filled with notes, sketches and stories of the history of ballets past.

“People often ask me how do I program the ballets and piece them all together for a season,” says Webb. “There’s no formula, and there isn’t a book on how to program a season. It comes from looking at a book with a picture and I think that would be a really great piece for the company, and it’s not really being seen. It came from here, and it just came to me.”

‘Balanchine, Ashton & Nureyev’
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 and 28; 2 p.m. Feb. 28
Where: Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail
Tickets: $20 to $105

‘Graziano & Taylor’
When: 7:30 p.m. March 27, 28, 29 and 30; 2 p.m. March 28 and 29
Where: FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail
Tickets: $35 to $105

‘The Ballets Russes’
When: 7:30 p.m. May 1 and 2; 2 p.m. May 2
Where: Sarasota Opera, 61 N. Pineapple Ave.
Tickets: $35 to $100

For more information, call 359-0099 or visit


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