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'Poetry and Liberty' shows Sarasota Ballet as emblem of the brave and true

With returning répétiteur and principals, Sarasota Ballet looks forward to ‘Stars and Stripes.’

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  • | 6:00 a.m. February 27, 2019
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Liberty — it’s a concept this country was founded upon, yet isn’t commonly tackled in artistic projects today.

In fact, to get a famed historical representation through dance, we much look back to the 1958 premiere of George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes.” The famed classical ballet choreographer was born and raised in Russia, but he created this ballet as a tribute to the country he immigrated to in 1933 to start the School of American Ballet.

Sarasota Ballet is taking on this iconic piece of patriotic dance — in celebration of Director Iain Webb’s newly acquired American citizenship — for its latest program, “Poetry and Liberty,” which will also feature the company premiere of Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Apparitions.”

“This ballet is fun — it’s really entertaining,” says répétiteur Sandra Jennings, who staged (taught and rehearsed) “Stars and Stripes” for the company. “The dancers can have a good time and be like Broadway and sell it. It’s classical ballet but has a jazzy flair, and it’s Sousa’s music, which is all marches, so as dancers it inspires you. It gets under your skin.”

Jennings works for the The Balanchine Trust, the organization that preserves, protects and grants licensing to perform Balanchine’s works. Balanchine himself invited her to join the New York City Ballet in 1974, where she spent nine years immersed in his work.

Jennings has been staging works with Sarasota Ballet since Iain Webb came on as director in 2007, but she hasn’t staged this piece with the group since 2016, which was for a gala performance.

Kate Honea and Ricardo Rhodes played the lead roles of Liberty Bell and El Capitan at that gala, but due to an injury, Honea was not able to dance the full ballet. She’s looking forward to getting the chance to finish what she started this time around.

“I’m really thrilled and excited to repeat it — especially with Ricky. Our partnership is really strong and we have fun together,” Honea says. “My character has this kind of French flair and freedom and fun about her … but I also love the tricky, energetic steps. It’s a challenge, as Balanchine always is.”

Jennings agrees, adding that Balanchine’s works need to be performed and revisited several times before a dancer can typically feel confident and familiar with the work.

Ricky says the work is also especially challenging stamina-wise, despite, as Jennings pointed out, how in shape these dancers are. As he’s pushed through, he’s realized one way this piece is unlike many of the others the company performs.

“Stars and Stripes” is not focused on telling a story. There are characters, but they’re not fleshed out and there’s no full-fledged plot. It’s a celebration of the U.S. with a jubilant, confident tone.

The patriotic ending to
The patriotic ending to "Stars and Stripes" featurings the unveiling of an American flag as tall as the stage. Photo by Frank Atura

“I feel like I can be more who I really am,” Rhodes says of the ballet. “You don’t have to put on an act, it’s more of your (own) charisma and it’s fun because you can be in your own skin … I feel at home.”

Honea agrees, adding that the uplifting patriotic sentiment the ballet is trying to get across is something that naturally lives within all Americans, and even the company dancers who are not from the U.S. originally can take pride in celebrating their current home.

This ballet usually takes about two weeks to stage, especially because the large cast is made up of 27 women and 14 men, but Jennings put it together in three days.

Jennings, who has known the Webb family for more than two decades, says she enjoys working with Sarasota Ballet because it’s a diverse group of dancers who are supported by good teachers and a leadership team that cares about them.

Her mother was also Rhodes’ and other company member Victoria Hulland’s dance instructor when they were younger, so the organization has a particularly special place in her heart.

Asked what she enjoys most about her experience coming back, Jennings immediately gushes about the dancers who have blossomed since she last saw them two years ago. Coming back and seeing that improvement is heart-warming and makes their connection even stronger, she says.

“Every time I come I don’t want to leave,” she says of her time in Sarasota. “It feels like a family for me and I never have enough time.”