When it comes to making dance accessible for enthusiasts and novices alike, The Joyce Theater has it all. For its prime location in Chelsea, its affordable ticket pricing ($10 seats are usually available in the front row, if you don’t mind missing out on some footwork), and its friendly, intimate atmosphere, attending a performance there is like falling in love with your best friend – comfortable and exciting all at once.
The Sarasota Ballet program featuring works by Sir Frederick Ashton and Christopher Wheeldon feels much like that, too. Although The Joyce is known for bringing new and innovative dance to the stage, Sarasota Ballet’s presentation is satisfyingly classical without being stodgy. The small Florida company has developed an expertise in the pristine choreography of Ashton, a (I should say the) British contemporary of the “father of American ballet” George Balanchine. In “Monotones I and II,” two trios of dancers – first a man and two women, then a woman and two men, execute basic ballet steps, beginning with a series of crisp arabesques, with precision, elegance, and grace. They’re accompanied by live piano music, familiar tunes by Erik Satie, as sparse and crystalline as the dance. There’s no place for the dancers to hide in this piece. No languid waltzing allows the dancers to fudge the footwork, no flowery music covers the sound of their pointe shoes, no sets or frilly costumes (just sleek unitards and headpieces reminiscent of a sixties Mod take on glam Martians) – distract from their movements. The dance is pure.
And remarkably egalitarian. In both sections, the men and women perform mostly the same steps. There’s little traditional partnering here, where the men lift and manipulate the women. Rather, each trio is a unified group, equal and equally compelling.
That can’t be said for “Symphony of Sorrows,” the dark piece by Sarasota dancer and choreographer Ricardo Graziano that follows the Ashton on this program. On a lantern-lit stage, five couples appear and disappear like shadows from the back of the stage. In this case, the women are the focus. They’re struggling, reaching out and collapsing, supported and pulled away by their male partners, who act as stoic anchors against the women’s grief. “Sorrows” is a pleasant, if emotional, departure mid-evening from classical ballet. The dancers perform in soft shoes and the movement is modern, free-flowing, expressive.
Christopher Wheeldon’s “There Where She Loved” closes the evening with a spirited return to classical ballet, delightfully colored with Wheeldon’s signature marks. Wheeldon, one of the most interesting choreographers of our time, is known for his intricate choreography for couples. Their interplay is captivating, their next moves unpredictable. “There Where She Loved” features several such couples. We alternate between a more upbeat and classical scene, with live musicians singing in German, and a broodier one, sung in French. The theme is love, in its many embodiments, from joy to despair. The chintzy silk shirts that the men removed to reveal even chintzier suspenders over bare torsos were the only counter to an otherwise engaging, contemporary take on classical ballet.
And that’s what you can always count on at The Joyce. Classical voices alongside new ones, but always fresh. At this unassuming venue, insiders and newcomers come together for an up-close encounter (especially in the $10 seats) with what’s happening in the dance world. And if you don’t happen to connect with what’s on one week, there’s always something new showing the next.