Frederick Ashton, founder choreographer of the Royal Ballet, has found a home amid the palm trees of the Gulf of Mexico: Sarasota Ballet, under its British director Iain Webb, has presented eight complete ballets and several smaller works in celebration of the life and work of the UK’s foremost classical dance-maker. This enterprise lends a sad truth to the assertion that a prophet is not without honour save in his own country and should make British companies blush, such has been its ambition and unwavering devotion to The Master. Webb has chosen a broad range of works from five decades of creativity – what is shameful is that even the best known among them are revived only intermittently in Britain, while others have languished in the locked bottom drawer of the repertoire.
Webb and his ex-ballerina wife Margaret Barbieri have, in a few years, given this small American company the world’s most extensive active Ashton repertoire, the fruits of their labours proudly shown off during this festival. It is a striking reaffirmation of the choreographer’s deep artistry and breadth of invention – attributes in danger of being forgotten.
Thus, in addition to the expected Ashtonian elegance of Birthday Offering, a glittering neoclassical parure of solos designed to show off the seven Royal Ballet ballerinas in 1956, there is also the strange Rimbaud-inspired Illuminations (1950), full of symbolic gesture and sexual imagery. Les Rendezvous (1933) is a known essay in easy charm and beguiling wit, but Webb has also restored the virtually forgotten Sinfonietta (1967), a sophisticated visualisation of Malcolm Williamson’s breezy score, and the high-Romantic Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (1947), Sophie Fedorovich’s exquisite pink and plum designs filling the stage once again. Neither ballet is currently performed anywhere else in the world.
Indeed, central to the festival’s artistic vision – alongside fidelity to the choreography – is true care for the ballets’ mise-en-scène, so Les Rendezvous, currently presented in the UK in a recent, unsuitable setting, was given in a recreation of William Chappell’s designs, which wholly share Ashton’s concept. The only shortcoming was the absence, owing to financial constraints, of live music for two performances, made all the more telling by the playing of the Sarasota Orchestra on the first and fourth, lifted by Ormsby Wilkins’ sensitive conducting.
The company is small, but is at the stage in its development where the dancers remain individuals. That is crucial to successful performance of Ashton, who tailored his movement to each artist he worked with. Thus Birthday Offering was danced with a true sense of the individuality of each of its seven solos and revealed an ensemble imbued with the Ashton aesthetic: chic, witty and bursting with a vitality that pours forth in a natural, unforced legato.
The dancers enjoy performing these ballets, and their engagement makes the choreography sing – Ricardo Graziano emerged as a compelling and versatile Ashton dancer, displaying cool control in the seraphic adagios of Monotones II (1965) and farouche earthiness as the rebel poet in Illuminations. The company performs with zip, exulting both in the twists and bends of the torso and the filigree footwork that lend Ashton’s movements their particular tang, and they also understand that less is always more: in Façade (1931) the revue-like vignettes of social and character dances are underplayed, making them all the funnier. Webb and his Sarasota ensemble have shown that, with the right approach, Ashton’s extraordinary choreographic voice can still speak with vibrant eloquence.