Even the most jaded of Frederick Ashton fans at the Sarasota Ballet's four-day festival honoring the British choreographer must have had a sense of heightened anticipation before the third program of the four-day event at the Sarasota Opera House Friday night.
Two of the ballets on the triple bill were works very rarely performed in England and never before seen in America until Artistic Director Iain Webb introduced them to the repertoire over the past two years.
Until it premiered here in 2012, "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales" had not been performed anywhere since Ashton himself revived it in 1987, shortly before his death. Considered "lost," it was painstaking resurrected by Webb and his wife, Margaret Barbieri, from a poor quality film in the Birmingham Royal Ballet archives.
Originally created in 1947 to Maurice Ravel's sumptuous score, this is simply one gorgeous ballet. With its rose-tinted, atmospheric lighting, romantic velvet and tulle costuming, and simple set of opaque screens and silhouetted palms, it captures the yearning for glamour after war's austerity, and personifies the signature Ashton style, emphasizing the upper body and evoking his original muse, Anna Pavlova.
As the principal couple, Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano were elegance personified. Graziano has always been the most steady of partners, but it was gratifying to see Brown has conquered the nerves that sometimes plagued her past performances; in both this and her principal role in the program's opener, "Birthday Offering," she displayed a confident richness of texture and detail and a gracious ease.
As one of four secondary couples, Mirella Costa Neto (with Jamie Carter) also deserves notice. A newcomer to the company this season, she shows great promise and a captivating charisma.
As a finale, you couldn't do better than "Sinfonietta," which Ashton created in 1967 and which the company debuted just four months ago. The opening and closing movements of Sir Malcolm Williamson's score — a staccato toccata and a spirited tarantella respectively — are a bouncy aerobic workout capably handled by two couples in the first (Kate Honea with Alex Harrison and Nicole Padilla with Juan Gil) and an ensemble led by Ricardo Rhodes in the last.
It is the middle movement, however — a curiously dissimilar adagio elegy — that leaves the most indelible impression, as five men manipulate a single female (Victoria Hulland), rarely allowing her feet to touch the floor. At one point, held aloft on each side, she literally walks on air, barely touching the backs of the three men crouched on the floor; more than once, held horizontally overhead, she is swooped forward in a breathtaking dive that just misses the floor.
"Birthday Offering," showcased a different cast of female soloists (save Padilla, who replicated her prowess in the Elaine Fifield role) than performed in the same ballet on the festival's opening night. That they successfully captured the distinctive styles of the seven Royal ballerinas for whom Ashton choreographed the solos, with the same precision and authenticity as the first cast, underscored the depth of talent here, particularly among the women.
The entire program highlighted not only the company's caliber, but the singularity of its accomplishment in presenting, personifying and preserving these remarkable ballets. Webb's primary intention for the festival was to pay tribute to his former mentor but, in fact, he has done far more, ensuring the future of both the Sarasota Ballet and of Ashton's signature work.
SIR FREDERICK ASHTON FESTIVAL, Sarasota Ballet. Program three: "Birthday Offering," "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales" and "Sinfonietta." Reviewed at the Sarasota Opera House May 2. Final performance 6 p.m. May 3. Tickets $20-$65. 359-0099, ext. 101 or www.sarasotaballet.org