When Mary Anne Servian, managing director of the Sarasota Ballet, turned her cell phone on after her flight home from Washington, D.C., Sunday night, up popped the New York Times review of the company's performances in "Ballet Across America" at the Kennedy Center.
She turned to Artistic Director Iain Webb, seated several rows away with a panicked look and mouthed: "The Times review is in."
"I was literally holding my breath," Servian recalled. "After the first few paragraphs, I was just in shock. I turned to Iain and just gave a 'thumbs up.'"
The review, by critic Alastair Macaulay, went a step beyond even the enthusiastic assessments of other critics from the Washington area over the troupe's performances of Sir Frederick Ashton's "Les Patineurs" in the showcase of regional ballet companies last week.
Macaulay, who had seen the Sarasota Ballet perform the same piece (choreographed by Ashton for the Royal Ballet in 1937) here in 2008, wrote that "what was good has now developed into the marvelous."
"The dancers perform it with an understanding that surpasses the Royal Ballet's and with a warmth that makes its charm breathe from within," Macaulay wrote, adding: "The Sarasota performances are the finest I've seen of this ballet in over 30 years."
Servian said the attention-drawing accomplishments in the nation's capital give her "ammunition" for a list of targets she now hopes to address, including: convincing nonbelievers to attend a performance in Sarasota; soliciting additional financial support; vying for a larger performance space; and opening possible touring opportunities.
"It will absolutely attract those snowbirds that are here from other cities and have yet to come because they think we have a regional, parochial ballet company," Servian said. "It also gives us a story to tell, which is what will make donors want to be a part of this amazing organization. And I'm hoping for a few knocks on the door that will give us the opportunity to take the company other places on tour."
For Webb, who danced with the Royal and considered Ashton a mentor, it was all a bit overwhelming. Entering the airport terminal Sunday, Servian handed him her phone, but he couldn't bring himself to read more than the first few paragraphs.
"The minute he said something about the Royal, I just had to stop reading," Webb said Monday morning. "I just have to keep very focused and keep my feet on the ground."
After six years of turmoil and toil — years in which the company teetered on the brink of financial collapse and he was occasionally treated as a pariah rather than a savior — when Webb finally did finish reading the review, the words of praise served as a welcome confirmation that he, and the company, are on the right track.
"For Alastair, who is a great authority on Ashton, to say that and to know that he sees the care and love and passion with which we coach the dancers, it was just incredibly generous and we are very fortunate," Webb said.
"But the main thing I feel about the reviews is that this is the best way we can turn around and thank everyone who supports us and stood by us, as a way to say, 'Your investment was worth it.'"
The Sarasota Ballet was the smallest-budgeted and shortest-lived of the nine companies on the "Ballet Across America" program and the only troupe requested to perform an "historical" ballet that required an elaborate set and costuming.
Their well-executed rendition of Ashton's one-act ballet about a Victorian-era skating party earned universal praise, but the biggest payoff is likely yet to come.
Webb said he has been receiving a slew of congratulatory emails and phone calls ever since arriving back in Sarasota, including from the company's founder, Jean Weidner, and professional friends throughout the ballet world.
He expects the number of resumes he receives from dancers seeking auditions and an opportunity to dance the company's diverse repertoire will continue to climb upward from the almost 300 he fielded this year. A equal-opportunity director, he has already turned down dancers from such illustrious companies as American Ballet Theatre and the Royal in favor of the talented, eager and young aspirants he enjoys nurturing and who will buy into his "all hands on deck" philosophy.
When the ballet's box office opened Monday morning — during a time of year when it often sees little or no action — there were people waiting to ask for brochures, reported Susan Reeves, the company manager.
Servian said she hopes the success will help the ballet vie for more dates at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, which has a seating capacity nearly four times that of the ballet's home theater in the FSU Center for Performing Arts. Several of the ballets Webb has added to the repetoire require a larger stage and many of the performances for the ballet's seven-program season are already sold out.
However, Servian says the company, which still operates with a skeletal staff of six, will continue to make conservative choices about major moves, such as obtaining a theater/rehearsal space or doing self-presenting tours; the financial woes of the past are still far too recent to forget.
But by Monday morning she had already forwarded reviews to city commissioners, making sure they knew the "jewel of 'Ballet Across America'" as the Washington Post critic called the Sarasota Ballet, was as well acknowledged and appreciated here at home.
"It really reinforces what we have always known, that we have this amazing company in our backyard," she said.
As much as the dancers and the company may reap rewards from the critical acclaim, Webb believes it will also promote Sarasota.
"For our organization, it's such an incredible thing, but it's major for the city too and sort of highlights all the arts we do here," he said. "Hopefully everybody can benefit by our good fortune and luck."
As for whether the hubbub in Washington places additional pressure on himself, Webb said there is no need for that.
"I'm kind of over-sensitive, over-superstitious...I have all these different hangups," he said. "So the pressure is not added, it's already there. Now we've got to make sure we stay humble and focused and doing what we have to do to keep up the standard, the work ethic and the artistic quality."
He paused for a moment before begrudgingly allowing:
"But yes, I did have a smile this morning."