The Sarasota Ballet may be settling in after six years with Artistic Director Iain Webb at the helm but, artistically and financially, the company continues to break new ground.
"The season has been a success on every level," said Managing Director Mary Anne Servian, at a luncheon Monday during which Webb and several company dancers reminisced about the season's highlights.
In the black for the second year in a row, the company saw ticket sales grow this year by 14 percent, Servian said.
But success wasn't just in the numbers. Almost a dozen new works were added, including a number of world premieres. And the company's reputation as a foremost interpreter of the works of Sir Frederick Ashton was cemented by its invitation to appear in "Ballet Across America" next month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., a showcase of the best regional companies from across the nation.
Webb and three of the company's principals — Danielle Brown, Victoria Hulland and Sara Sardelli — recalled their favorite moments from a season that began with the presentation of the Paul Taylor Company and concluded with choreography from dancers within the company.
Ashton, however, was the central focal point. Webb, who danced for the British choreographer during his career in England, has made presenting his work a priority. This year, three new ballets — including the full-length "La Fille Mal Gardée" — joined a half-dozen Ashton works already in the repertoire. Next year, several more will be added, culminating in a four-day "Ashton Festival" in early May.
"The Ashton repertoire is the one that's put the company on the map," said Webb. "Sarasota has become the focal point for his works in America."
Webb said he intentionally chose to bring Ashton's work to Sarasota not only because he is an avid admirer but also because the mix of veteran and new dancers he inherited here called for a unifying "grounding."
"The Ashton ballets for me made me understand movement and musicality," he said. "They were a good foundation for my career."
The dancers all agreed that Ashton's style — which calls for exaggerated use of the upper body, often in combination with intricate, rapid footwork — was difficult to master.
"At first it felt a bit foreign," said Brown. "Now it just makes sense. It doesn't work unless you do it the way it's meant to be done, using the entire body. It's made me a better dancer, technically and artistically."
All three cited Ashton ballets among their favorites, especially "Two Pigeons" (Sardelli and Hulland) and this year's "La Fille Mal Gardée" (Brown).
Another dancer highlight was Will Tuckett's "Changing Light" created specifically for the company in January.
"He was a dream to work with," said Brown, "and the ballet was like a little gift he gave to all of us."
Apparently the love affair was mutual because Webb reported he recently received a text from Tuckett — sent during the middle of a "Bayadere" rehearsal at Tuckett's home ground of Covent Garden in London — praising the talent of the Royal Ballet dancers but regretting a lack of the "spirit" he had seen here.
Among the other seasonal highlights, the dancers cited Matthew Hart's original "Nutcracker," based on the Ringling circus family, and the one-performance-only gala, danced on an outdoor stage at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.
The coming season, announced recently, includes two more Ashton ballets — "Sinfonietta," a work that has been dormant since 1980, and "Illuminations," the only piece Ashton ever created for the New York City Ballet — a return of the circus "Nutcracker" and another Tuckett world premiere. It also includes works by George Balanchine and Anthony Tudor, as well as guest appearances by international stars Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru.