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Sarasota Ballet stages 'La Sylphide'

Macarena Gimenez and Luke Schaufuss star in the Scottish-themed romance.

The Sarasota Ballet will perform "La Sylphide," about a Scotsman torn between his love for his betrothed and his attraction to an ethereal creature.
The Sarasota Ballet will perform "La Sylphide," about a Scotsman torn between his love for his betrothed and his attraction to an ethereal creature.
Courtesy photo
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Get your kilts out and get ready for a Highland fling among the palms as the Sarasota Ballet stages the Scottish-themed “La Sylphide” from March 24-25.

Macarena Gimenez and Luke Schaufuss star in Johan Kobborg’s production of the classic Danish ballet about a Scottish man torn between his betrothed and an ethereal creature.

Considered a “crown jewel” of Danish ballet, the production has a storied history that the Sarasota Ballet faces pressure to live up to. It’s not just metaphorical big (toe)shoes to fill, it’s also a physical chair.

“The chair that Luke (Schaufuss) sits in is the same one that Baryshnikov and Erik Bruhn sat in,” says Jason W. Ettore, general manager of the Sarasota Ballet.

Unless you’re a balletomane, which Ettore and most Sarasota Ballet patrons assuredly are, it’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of passing down a production through the years, particularly before the spread of affordable film and digital technology.

To give the challenge some context, Ettore notes that if a director unearthed Shakespeare’s original “As You Like It” and decided to stage the play today, and the Bard came back to life for the show, he probably wouldn’t have too many objections.

Plays, musical compositions and screenplays provide lots of clues for modern-day artists to draw upon when they stage a classic. Not so with ballet, Ettore points out.

Many enduring ballet productions owe their longevity to the long life and influence of choreographers, such as the New York City Ballet’s iconic artistic director George Balanchine, he says.

"La Sylphide" made its Copenhagen premiere in 1836, making it one of the world's oldest ballets. Its rich history has been preserved by the Sarasota Ballet.
Courtesy photo

In the case of “La Sylphide,” a community of Danish and English dancers and choreographers who found their way to Sarasota were instrumental in keeping alive August Bournonville’s classic, which debuted in Copenhagen in 1836. (There was an earlier incarnation that debuted in Paris in 1832, but that version didn’t survive.)

Ettore says Flemming Flindt, who retired in Sarasota and died here in 2009 at age 72, might be the one who deserves the credit for “La Sylphide’s” appearance on the Sarasota stage. As a director for the Royal Danish Ballet, Flindt preserved the 19th-century works of Bournonville while adding his own signature.

Continuity matters when it comes to protecting historical gems like “La Sylphide.” That’s why Sarasota’s arts community has breathed a collective sigh of relief that the ballet’s board of directors recently renewed the contract of ballet director Iain Webb for another 10 years.

Sarasota Ballet Director Iain Webb rehearses with a member of the ballet.
Courtesy photo

A former Royal Ballet dancer in London, Webb joined the Sarasota Ballet in 2007. Along with his wife Margaret Barbieri, a former Royal Ballet prima ballerina who is now assistant director at Sarasota Ballet, Webb is credited with attracting superb talent and putting Sarasota on the global ballet map.

In addition to drawing rave reviews in newspapers ranging from the Financial Times to The Washington Post, under Webb’s direction the ballet has been invited to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Joyce Theatre in New York and the Jacob’s Pillow summer dance festival in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

Kobborg’s version of Bournonville’s “La Sylphide” has been performed by companies across the world including The Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet. This weekend, his production will be accompanied by The Sarasota Orchestra, which will be conducted by American Ballet Theatre Music Director Ormsby Wilkins.

“Johan is one of the most sought-after directors in the ballet world,” says Ettore. “He was one of the greatest dancers of his generation. He was a principal with both the Danish Ballet and Royal Ballet. The artistry that he brings to Sarasota is amazing.”

Another key player in the growth and evolution of the Sarasota Ballet is Executive Director Joseph Volpe, who joined the organization in 2016. The retired general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera spent 42 years at the Met and worked his way up the ranks after starting as an apprentice carpenter. 

Volpe even wrote a book about his experiences, “The Toughest Show on Earth, My Rise and Reign at The Metropolitan Opera,” which was published by Random House in 2006.

On April 30, the Sarasota Ballet will honor Volpe with a gala that includes a special performance at the Sarasota Opera House followed by dinner catered by Michael’s on East and dancing at the Circus Arts Conservatory. “We are incredibly grateful to have him,” Ettore says of Volpe.

Despite the trajectory of the Sarasota Ballet, like all performing arts organizations, the company was knocked off its feet by Covid. Asked how the ballet has recovered from the pandemic, Ettore has to temper his exasperation. “Haven’t enough words been written about that already?” he asks.

Ballet isn’t all toe shoes and tutus. It’s also about dollars and cents. Pressed to discuss Covid's impact, Ettore notes that the Sarasota had the financial wherewithal to pay its artists and other employees and provide assistance to ballet folk stranded during the crisis.

While the ballet’s coffers were full enough to withstand the pandemic, Ettore credits local arts patrons for their financial and emotional support during Covid.

But things still aren't quite back to the way they used to be. This season, Ettore says the Sarasota's attendance is down about 15% from the pre-pandemic 2019 season. But he says this is better than the industry’s record right now of audience declines of between 20% and 30%.

For those arts aficionados who want to see “La Sylphide,” there is a limited window of opportunity. The production will be staged just three times over the weekend of March 24-25 at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. 

The company returns to the stage on April 23-29 with a tribute to George Balanchine at the Sarasota Opera House.

“We’re a touring company in our hometown,” Ettore quips, noting the different venues that host its performances. But regardless of the stage, it’s a safe bet that the Sarasota Ballet will land on its feet.



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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