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Sarasota Ballet brings Balanchine to life

The company's third program of 2023-24 features "Theme and Variations," the first of three ballets by George "Mr. B" Balanchine this season.


Jennifer Hackbarth and Ricardo Rhodes star in the Sarasota Ballet's production of George Balanchine's "Theme and Variations."
Jennifer Hackbarth and Ricardo Rhodes star in the Sarasota Ballet's production of George Balanchine's "Theme and Variations."
Image courtesy of Matthew Holler
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Watching a rehearsal is seeing ballet stripped down to its essentials.

Missing are the beautiful costumes, the makeup and the supple movements that the audience sees on stage, not to mention live music.

Instead, there are worn T-shirts, leg warmers with holes and endless repetition of dance steps to the count of 1 through 8. 

In the case of a ballet that has been staged before, technology helps re-create the original choreography. Athletic teams and their coaches watch films of their opponents as they prepare to compete. 

Dancers and choreographers view recordings of previous productions of a specific ballet to get ready for their performance.

That’s what’s been happening in a studio at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts on North Tamiami Trail. Philip Neal has been coaching the Sarasota Ballet’s principal dancers for their upcoming performance of “Theme and Variations.” The ballet was choreographed by George Balanchine in 1947 to the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 3.

Neal is well-acquainted with Balanchine’s repertoire. The former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet is what is called a repetiteur for both the George Balanchine Trust and the Jerome Robbins Rights Trust.

That’s a fancy French word that means Neal is authorized to teach and rehearse in the absence of the original choreographer. That’s a good thing, because Balanchine, the founder of the New York City Ballet and its artistic director for 35 years, is no longer with us.

Jan. 22, 2024 would have been his 100th birthday, and the ballet world is celebrating in a big way.

At the Sarasota Ballet, “Theme and Variations” is the first of three Balanchine productions that will be staged this season. In Program 3, “Moments of Meaning,” Balanchine shares the bill with Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” 

But Balanchine will steal the show in April with the Sarasota Ballet’s Program 6, “Portraits and Expressions,” featuring “Emeralds” and “Who Cares?” Stay tuned, the centenary tributes to “Mr. B” (his nickname and the title of Jennifer Homans’ recent bestseller) are just getting started.

As the holidays approach, let’s not forget that Balanchine’s 1954 production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” is a Christmas tradition, both in Sarasota and elsewhere.

During a recent rehearsal with principal dancers Jessica Assef, Jennifer Hackbarth, Maximiliano Iglesias and Ricardo Rhodes, Neal offered praise and delivered constructive criticism in a humorous fashion: “Gentlemen extend so it doesn’t look like the can-can or my dog scratching his leg.”

He offered tips from Balanchine as he consulted a laptop streaming a performance of “Theme and Variations.” One notable Mr. B quote: “If I don’t hear it, I know it’s good,” meaning dancers shouldn’t land too heavily on their feet.

Asked what Balanchine would have thought of the Sarasota Ballet’s performance of “Theme and Variations,” Orlando-based Neal noted that the Russian-born choreographer was generous in allowing American dance companies to perform his ballets.

“I believe he would have been delighted to see a company such as Sarasota Ballet perform ‘Theme and Variations’ with such integrity and aplomb,” Neal said in an email. 

“The fact that these dancers can adapt adroitly to the styles of Balanchine is a testament to their talent and the leadership at Sarasota Ballet.”

That leadership includes Director Iain Webb and his wife, Margaret Barbieri, the company’s assistant director. The couple has been at the helm of the company since 2007. 

Under their direction, the Sarasota Ballet has introduced 170 new ballets and short dances through the 2023-24 season, including works by Balanchine and Tharp as well as Sir Frederick Ashton, Johan Kobborg, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Paul Taylor, Christopher Wheeldon and Sir Peter Wright.

During a post-rehearsal interview, Assef and Hackbarth were in agreement that they are lucky to be dancing at a company with such a broad repertoire as the Sarasota Ballet. 

“There are not many companies where you have Balanchine and Twyla Tharp on the same program,” Assef said.

Hackbarth said while she learned a great from the classical emphasis in Dresden, Germany, where her previous dance company was based, she enjoys the “freedom” of the Sarasota Ballet’s artistic direction.

 

author

Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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