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The Sarasota Ballet takes London by storm

The Sarasota Ballet won favor with London critics with such productions as Sir Frederick Ashton's "Dante Sonata," part of the program of "Ashton Celebrated" at the Royal Opera House.
The Sarasota Ballet won favor with London critics with such productions as Sir Frederick Ashton's "Dante Sonata," part of the program of "Ashton Celebrated" at the Royal Opera House.
Image courtesy of Foteini Christofilopoulou
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More than 35 years after his death some of Ashton’s ballets are more popular than ever and some of those that might easily have been forgotten are being kept alive in Sarasota." –Bachtrack

The revelation was 'Dante Sonata,' which sends 22 dancers flooding across the tiny stage in movement at once uninhibited and highly sculptural." –The Guardian

Tuesday’s strongly danced triple bill began with Ashton’s swoony, wistful take on Ravel’s 'Valses nobles et sentimentales,' which premiered in 1947. Sarasota’s well-drilled couples inhabit Sophie Fedorovich’s debs-and-dancecards setting with smiling conviction, led by Jessica Assef swivelling undecidedly between two romantic possibilities (a cheeky nod to 'Sleeping Beauty')." –Financial Times

All hail the Sarasota Ballet. They came, they saw, they conquered. The glowing reviews of their June 4-9 London residency at London’s Royal Opera House provide the proof.

Among their fans and benefactors in Florida, there seemed little doubt that the Sarasota Ballet would be a hit in London. 

After all, the company, which has made its reputation preserving the ballets of Sir Frederick Ashton, has gone from strength to strength since Iain Webb became managing director in 2007 and was joined by his wife, Margaret Barbieri, in 2012, as assistant director. 

Earlier in their careers, Webb and Barbieri danced the principal roles in Ashton ballets at the Royal Ballet, where Ashton was choreographer under Ninette de Valois and later director of the company. 

The Sarasota Ballet flew to London and performed in “Ashton Celebrated” at the invitation of Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare, but the residency was fraught with peril, to hear Webb tell it. 

Bringing coals to Newcastle

“It was like bringing coals to Newcastle,” said Webb, a native of Yorkshire, in the north of England. 

“Even though it was a great honor, there was the fact that we’ve been known for doing Sir Fred’s ballets — it’s what put the company on the map. But you’re basically taking his ballets, which are very special, back to his home theater,” Webb noted in an July 3 interview. 

“There’s long been a perception that the Royal can’t dance Balanchine and the Americans can’t dance Ashton. We were going up against that by bringing in rarely seen works with new dancers,” he adds. 

The Sarasota Ballet performs Sir Frederick Ashton's "Tweedledum and Tweedledee" at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre.
Image courtesy of Foteini Christofilopoulou

Before the residency, Webb couldn’t stop thinking about how the National Ballet of Canada met with disaster when it performed Ashton’s “La fille mal gardée” at the Royal Opera House in 1979. Recalls Webb: “I was there and everything possible went wrong. It was as if it had been sabotaged.” 

“It was daunting because there had been so much hype beforehand,” says Barbieri about the Sarasota Ballet’s London showcase. “Tickets sold out almost immediately and the expectations were so high.”

It was Barbieri who staged the Ashton ballets the company performed in London. The repertoire included the ensemble-driven “Dante Sonata” (staged with Patricia Tierney), the showcase of choreographic satires “Facade,” the abstract “Sinfonietta,” the waltzing “Valses nobles et sentimentales” (with Webb) and Ashton’s self-parody “Varii Capricci,” as well as several divertissements, smaller pieces that are ballet’s answer to a chef’s amuse bouche.

Ashton’s considerable legacy and the storied reputations of the Royal Ballet dancers weighed on the Sarasota Ballet’s performers. “The Royal Ballet is such an icon in the ballet world,” says principal dancer Jessica Assef, who joined the company last season from the Atlanta Ballet. “It’s such an honor to dance there. It’s something you dream of when you’re little.”

Assef adds, “You know you’re going to meet these ballet stars from today’s generation and hear about the ones from before. The studios are named after them — the Fonteyn, the de Valois, the MacMillan — and they all have the pictures of their namesakes above them. So you’re there dancing and MacMillan is watching you. You [feel] the weight of it.” 

Asked if she was surprised by anything during the residency, Assef replies, “How welcoming everyone was,” at which point Barbieri chimes in. “The surprise was that the reviews were great. The audience reaction was wonderful too,” she says. 

As it turns out, all of the fears about flopping in foggy Londontown were for naught. The hard work paid off. 

Heavy lifting required

It took lots of heavy lifting to get the Sarasota Ballet to the “Ashton Celebrated” program in London honoring the choreographer’s 120th birthday.

Of the Ashton ballets performed at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, the Sarasota Ballet had presented three — “Varii Capricci,” “Dante Sonata” and “Sinfonietta” — during its 2023-24 season, which wrapped April 26-27 at the Sarasota Opera House. 

“Sinfonietta” was in the last program of the season, so it was fresh in the dancers’ minds and bodies, but it still needed polish, Webb says. 

Five days after their season finale, the Sarasota Ballet dancers returned to the studios, where Barbieri began to stage all the Ashton ballets that would be performed in London. 

The Sarasota Ballet performs Sir Frederick Ashton's "Friday's Child" at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre in London.
Image courtesy of Foteini Christofilopoulou

“It would have been easy to just do one program throughout the six days but instead I did three different programs,” says Webb. “So Maggie had to really teach everything with the help of Victoria (Hulland) and Octavio (Martin).”

Hulland, a former Sarasota Ballet principal dancer, danced many of Ashton’s ballets during 16 years on stage. She returned to the company in 2022 as artistic assistant to the directors. Martin is ballet master of the Sarasota Ballet.

Once they arrived in London, the Sarasota Ballet dancers only had a day off before they had to begin rehearsals. After the residency, Webb gave them another day off to go sightseeing.

A last-minute laundry snafu

During the London run, everything went like clockwork except for a last-minute laundry snafu on the first night, says Jennifer Hackbarth, Sarasota Ballet principal dancer. “Our white tights turned pink in the laundry,” she says. “They must have been washed with something.” 

However, the Royal Ballet’s costume department was able to come up with some fresh white tights for their guests.

In addition to dancing their Ashton repertoire in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre, the Sarasota Ballet also shared the main stage with the Royal Ballet. The company performed “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” on June 7, 18, 21 and 22. 

Sarasota Ballet's Ricardo Graziano and Macarena Giminez performed “The Walk to Paradise Garden” on the main stage of the Royal Opera House in London.
Image via Foteini Christofilopoulou

“For Kevin (O’Hare) to do that was quite remarkable,” Webb says. “It was a great gesture that showed he understood and respected what we’ve been trying to do with Sir Fred’s works.”

But no good deed goes unpunished. This was the performance that received a brickbat from the critics amid all their other bouquets. 

The Guardian dismissed “The Walk to Paradise” as “an oddity, best forgotten.” Still, that’s more a criticism of Ashton than the company. 

While the Sarasota Ballet’s management, staff and dancers pushed themselves to the limit to make the London residency a reality, it wouldn’t have been possible without the financial wizardry of Joseph Volpe, the company’s executive director, and the generosity of donors, Webb says.

The $640,000 cost of the London trip didn’t come out of the Sarasota Ballet’s regular budget, which is about $9.2 million. It was raised separately, Webb says, after the company received its London invite in April 2023.

Volpe joined the Sarasota Ballet in 2016 after retiring as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Along with Webb and Barbieri, Volpe forms the troika that has raised the Sarasota Ballet’s international profile and strengthened its financial footing.

Volpe’s financial acumen is needed more than ever in the wake of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ rejection last month of $32 million in state arts grants for fiscal 2025. Last year, the Sarasota Ballet got a state cultural grant of nearly $104,000. It had hoped for at least a similar amount this year. 

The news of the arts cuts came while the Sarasota Ballet was in London, Webb says. But the company didn’t let it rain on their Covent Garden parade.



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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