A Treat for the Senses

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By Steven J. Smith

Iain Webb thinks it’s time The Sarasota Ballet takes its rightful place among the world’s premiere ballet companies, which is why the 2018 spring season opener will hit the ground running with Dreams of Nature on March 2 and 3 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

“We’re bringing in the best people around to ensure Sarasota audiences see some of the finest ballet anywhere,” said Webb, director of The Sarasota Ballet. “We’re a little like a touring company in Sarasota, because we perform at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, the Opera House and the Van Wezel. So when I get a chance to go into the Van Wezel, which is usually twice a year, I have to pick ballets that are really special.”

Webb explained Dreams of Nature features two ballets: The Dream, which is Sir Frederick Ashton’s depiction of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and David Bintley’s Still Life at the Penguin Café.

The Dream was originally choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton and the role of Oberon was created by Sir Anthony Dowell,” Webb said. “When Sir Frederick passed away he left the ballet to Sir Anthony, who was and ever will be the greatest British dancer of all time. The Dream is a ballet that is very close to us, but it has taken me eight years to get permission from Sir Anthony to perform it.”

Still Life at the Penguin Café, Webb added, was originally choreographed by Bintley, renowned director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. It is set to the music of composer Simon Jeffes, founder of the Penguin Café Orchestra and features a menagerie of endangered animals seeking shelter from a storm at the Penguin Café. This ballet offers a prophetic message of environmental awareness.

The Dream has been performed by American companies before, but we’re the first American company that has permission to perform Penguin Café,” Webb said. “I was pleasantly shocked that we got permission to do it here in America.”

Webb added Dowell will actually fly in to Sarasota for a week to coach the dancers and oversee renowned repetiteur Christopher Carr’s staging of The Dream at The Sarasota Ballet.

“Christopher is one of the Royal Ballet’s great repetiteurs,” Webb said. “He came to us in September and basically taught most of the ballet, which (Assistant Director and Repetiteur) Margaret Barbieri and I also oversaw. Sir Anthony will come in then Christopher will also return for two weeks before it goes on stage. It’s going to be absolutely perfect.”

He added Penguin Café is an ideal companion piece to The Dream, because it too is a fanciful piece that focuses on denizens of a natural setting. Bintley had an image of Noah’s Ark, full of half animals and half people. He then found a book called The Doomsday Book of Animals, about extinct species, which inspired a story of their plight.

“It starts off with the most amazing music and costumes and choreography, set to Mendelssohn’s wonderful score,” Webb said. “You see that wildlife have been killed to give humans their fashion statements. But all through it you have this great, lively dancing that is musical and very entertaining, with a powerful message.”

The Sarasota Orchestra will accompany this performance, he added, conducted by American Ballet Theatre Music Director Ormsby Wilkins.

“I’d say our biggest challenge is that we have a very short period of time to rehearse these ballets,” Webb said. “But doing Dreams of Nature is a big step forward for a company of our size. We’re performing works that are normally only ever done by the major companies such as American Ballet Theatre and Washington Ballet. I love the challenge, raising the bar and doing ballets no one else has had the chance to do.”

Webb added he hopes audiences will see how The Sarasota Ballet is “flying Sarasota’s flag” in the ballet world by mounting productions of a heightened caliber.

“In The Dream, they’ll get a perfect telling of Shakespeare’s timeless play,” he said. “It’s got Mendelssohn’s music, performed live by a wonderful orchestra. With Penguin Café, they’ll get a huge visual richness and tremendous choreography. It’s a treat for the senses and great entertainment with a profound message that we really do have to be careful with the environment, for the sake of our children and the future of our planet.”

Dreams of Nature will play at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, located at 777 N. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, at 7:30 p.m. on March 2 and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on March 3. Ticket prices start at $30. For more information, call 941.359.0099 or visit sarasotaballet.org.

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