In the past, the Sarasota Ballet's annual "Meet me at the Barre" event introducing the company's dancers for a new season has been held in the lobby of the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, with the dancers each making a Hollywood-like entrance down the red-carpeted stairs from the mezzanine.
This year, the introductions took place on the ballet's home stage in the Mertz Theatre, less dramatic in presentation but more impressive in size. Over a summer in which Artistic Director Iain Webb was busy with adding a new training conservatory, creating a five-year plan for the repertoire and a building from scratch a brand new "Nutcracker" to debut in December, he was also adding to the ranks.
Including apprentices and trainees, the company now stands at 52 dancers, more than it has ever wielded in its 22-year history.
"This is very different because the company is now huge," said a beaming Webb. "My staff is getting used to the idea that when I come up with an idea, I expect it to be done straight away."
It was a rare opportunity to see the dancers in street clothes, a startling display of long legs and, for the women, sky-high heels rather than pointe shoes. Among the newcomers are dancers from England, Israel, Japan, China and Australia. Only principal Danielle Brown, attending the funeral of her grandmother, was missing.
In addition, the company's augmented, but still lean staff was introduced, the veteran, ballet master Pavel Fomin, having been on board for the company's entire history. Choreographer Matthew Hart, who has been in Sarasota for the past seven weeks setting choreography for "John Ringling's Circus Nutcracker" escorted repetiteur Wendy Ellis, a former Royal Ballet principal who is staging Frederick Ashton's "Symphonic Variations," a ballet seldom seen in the U.S. which she owns and gave permission for the company to use.
Webb also detailed the revamping of the company's school and the creation of the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory, a program that will not only channel new talent to the company, but also provide aspiring dancers with academic studies and a pathway to a degree, as well as dance training.
There will be an emphasis this season on live music, Webb said. The Sarasota Orchestra has been retained to play for both the new "Nutcracker" and Ashton's full-length ballet "La Fille Mal Gardée."
"Live music is so important because the music comes through our bodies," he said. "And when its done to a tape, it can become a little wooden."
There will be smaller-scaled accompaniment for both the ballet's program in November, featuring two opera singers and a pianist and the final "Theatre of Dreams," in which company dancers, who provide the choreography, will also be encouraged to use live music.
With the company "totally debt-free" for the first time in its history, Webb said there is still careful consideration of all financial commitments. So when Jerry Genovese, president of the Friends of the Sarasota Ballet, which sponsors "Meet me at the Barre," concluded the event with presentation of a $10,000 check, pretty much everyone was beaming.