The Sarasota Ballet's fourth program of the season spanned a choreographic time frame of nearly 70 years, yet any one of the three ballets performed looked was if it might have been created yesterday.
In fact, only one — the world premiere of a second company commission from Brit Will Tuckett — was. But George Balanchine's "Four Temperaments," which premiered in 1946, even before the birth of the New York City Ballet, and Frederick Ashton's "Sinfonietta," never performed in America at all since its 1967 Royal Ballet debut, looked every bit as fresh, modern and original.
That may have been the only weakness of this bill, with three non-narrative, minimally-costumed, maximally-scored neo-classical pieces in a row. But can there be too much of a good thing?
The most eagerly-awaited was Tuckett's, whose athletic and exuberant "Changing Light" was the hit of last season. "Lux Aeterna" is a very different piece. Danced to American composer Morten Lauridsen's choral requiem of the same name (alas, recorded), it is a somber but not despairing elegy sparked by the 100th anniversary of Europe's entry into World War I. Though abstract, it is clearly about lives lost, women left behind and the enigmatic moment of "crossing over," but with a hopeful rather than funereal slant.
It opens with eight men in shadowy gray unitards (by Bill Fenner) "running" in slow motion — an image that returns periodically — and falling as if hit by artillery until just one, Ricardo Graziano, remains standing. A single woman in white (Danielle Brown) — his lover? his wife? his fantasy? — enters with the floating parallel bourreés that are a recurrent theme for her and 14 other women, who in turn beckon, comfort, lean on and fade from their partners.
There are some achingly beautiful moments, hauntingly lit by Aaron Muhl, among them, the prone men's heads resting in their partners' laps, and a petite girl (Jessica Cohen) frolicking with the lead couple, as if she were the child they never had.
But there is also some difficult partnering that comes off awkwardly and the cramped stage of the Mertz Theatre made it all but impossible to appreciate Tuckett's complex patterning and movement flow, which at times looked confused, even messy. The final moments, however, leave an enduring image, one I'd suggest be shown to any politician considering sending young men to war.
"Four Temperaments," inspired by the medieval belief that humans are made up of four elements (earth, air, water and fire) represented by four personalities (melancholic, sanguinic, phelgmatic and choleric) added another Balanchine work to the rep. With each, the company moves closer to conquering his rapid rhythms without loss of musicality, but with 25 dancers there was an inevitable wide range of execution. Some of the casting was also puzzling — the puckish Logan Learned as "melancholic" and the bubbly Kate Honea as "sanguinic" — but all the soloists danced with commitment and precision.
"Sinfonietta" (from 1967, not the later Jirí Kylián work of the same name) gave the dancers an opportunity to show off Ashton's range and their own reputation for excelling in his ballets. Honea, with Alex Harrison, and Nicole Padilla, with Juan Gil, were terrific in the bouncy, staccato first movement, in costumes — white tunics with horizontal colored stripes — that replicated the originals. And Ricardo Rhodes, whose growing confidence is finally allowing for full exposition of his gifts, was triumphal in the final tarantella.
But it was the elegiac second movement, with Victoria Hulland partnered by five men in white who kept her high overhead for impossibly long minutes, that left an impression. I do wish, however, that Ashton had not had such a predilection for those beanie hats.
Creating a program before knowing what a commissioned work will come to be carries a risk, thus the stylistic similarities of the three pieces is forgiveable. The company has proven in the past its ability to conquer the dramatics of a story ballet, so it was reassuring to know it is capable as well of convincingly mastering the non-narrative.
BALANCHINE, TUCKETT & ASHTON, Sarasota Ballet at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail. Reviewed Jan. 31; additional performances Feb. 1 at 2 and 8 p.m., Feb. 2 at 2 and 7 p.m. and Feb. 3 at 7 p.m. $28.50-$100. 359-0099, ext. 101; www.sarasotaballet.org.