A dark and disturbing ballet by the late Sarasota resident Flemming Flindt about a ballet teacher who murders his student was the stunner on the Sarasota Ballet's "Out of Denmark" program at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts Friday night.
While the company must also be commended for taking on several pieces by August Bournonville, the Danish choreographer whose name now stands for the longest and most purely preserved ballet tradition, it was "The Lesson," Danish native Flindt's take on a play by Eugene Ionesco, that was the show stopper.
In fact, my immediate reaction was to wish that Flindt, a former Longboat Key resident who died here in 2009, was still alive so that I might pick the clearly fascinating brain that created this 1963 work.
The set, built by the Asolo Theater crew in only a matter of days, was deceptively simple, portraying a small basement dance studio, with piano, barre, mirrors and windows with curtains that could be drawn to let in daylight. With lighting design by Jim Sale, it made for an alluring visual set up. Best of all was the upper level "window" that allowed the audience to see just the legs of the ill-fated ballet pupil as she arrived for her lesson, as well as those of the next potential victim at the ballet's end.
The cast is made up of only three dancers and I can't imagine a more perfect one than that I saw on opening night.
Sara Sardelli, who has had my eye all season (and, as a member of the coryphee seems certainly due for a promotion) was the personification of a coltish adolescent, head-over-heels in love with ballet and her new pointe shoes. (I have refrained from the temptation to put a diminutive in front of her name because I'm sure the 95-pound, 20-something is weary of being described as "little," but in fact, she is, which only made her more perfect for the part.) Her transformation from bubbly exuberance to ashen-faced terror was enough to make you want to rush to her aid.
As the teacher, Octavio Martin quickly confirmed his dramatic success in "The Rake's Progress" was no fluke, as he evolved from a repressed neurotic unable to look his new student in the eye, to an unleashed and misogynistic disciplinarian beating his pupil into the ultimate submission.
From the opening eerie notes of the Georges Delerue score, when the severe pianist, wonderfully portrayed by Amy Wood, prepared the room with a heels-first, knees-bent stealth walk, to the disposal of the body as a new student arrived, this work was captivating. Flindt's ex-wife, Vivi, who helped stage the program and was in the audience Friday night, must have been exceedingly proud.
The company's take on "The Lesson" was so affecting that – presented, as it was, sandwiched by two Bournonville works – it was difficult to shake off its impact and relax into the celebratory gaiety of the evening's final piece, Bournonville's "Napoli, Act III."
The Bournonville style, which has come to stand for ballet as it was in the beginning, is not an easy nor familiar one for American companies and audiences. It has none of the bravura of the Russian tradition, instead emphasizing a subtleness in the arms and upper body, a deceptive demand on the legs with its constant small jumps, and some very understated finishes.
For such a young company, taking this on could have been a disaster; instead, it was largely a delight.
In the program's opening section – a series of variations gathered under the heading "Bournonville Divertissement" – the dancers showed they had absorbed, if not completely mastered, the demands. And in the final selection – the third act of "Napoli," which depicts the jubilant reunion of two ill-thwarted lovers, surrounded by celebrants – they truly got into the spirit of the style.
Especially impressive was their seeming ease in coordinating the use of epaulement (shoulder and upper body angling) and various "props" such as scarves, tambourines and even the skirt action of the female dancers. (Lovely floral trimmed dresses, by the way, designed by Johan Kobborg, the Danish-born Royal Ballet dancer who was to have performed in this program, but due to a schedule conflict, was only able to visit for a week to help set the ballets.)
Some of the dancers were clearly more suited to this type of thing – Ricardo Graziano, Ashley Ellis, Ricardo Rhodes and Simon Mummé stand out in my recollection – but overall, this first bite of a bit of Danish was a delicious success.
"Out of Denmark," Sarasota Ballet. Reviewed at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts Friday, Mar. 4. Additional performances Sat., Mar. 5 at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sun., Mar. 6 at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets $20-75. 359-0099, ext. 101 or http://www.ticketsarasota.com.