Sarasota Ballet takes its place in the world of ballet

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BECKET >> The transformation of Sarasota Ballet from a small provincial company, only occasionally reliable in delivering repertory staples, into a significant force in the world of ballet has been astounding to many who have watched the troupe's day-to-day progress. Moreover, it is a matter of pride for the community from which it has ascended into its new role.

Credit for the transformation must go to Iain Webb, the Yorkshire-born dancer and director who took over leadership of the company in 2007.

Since then, Sarasota Ballet has had a virtually complete change of personnel, and during those seven seasons the company, in 118 ballets and divertissements, has offered 36 world premieres, 67 Sarasota premieres, seven American premieres and 10 revivals.

As it celebrates its 25th anniversary with its first engagement at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, which began Wednesday in the Ted Shawn Theatre and continues through Sunday afternoon, the troupe has watched ticket sales in its three performance spaces at home rise to more than 1.6 million last season from 230,000 in 2007.

In achieving all this success, Webb has infused the repertory with ballet's magic names, in the works of the great dance masters Ashton, de Valois, Macmillan, Balanchine, Cranko, Tudor, van Manen, Bourne, Wheeldon, Tharp, Taylor and deMille, with whom he and his wife, Margaret Barbieri, the company's assistant director, and former principal of The Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet, have enjoyed special relationships.

The two seem a powerhouse, with links throughout the world of dance. Webb has brought 25 of his 47 dancers to the Pillow in programs that epitomize his repertory strategies.

As an Ashton associate for the Sir Frederick Ashton Foundation, Webb was especially close to Sir Frederick's oeuvre, and that association has been particularly valuable for the Sarasota Ballet and for keeping alive the remarkable collection of Ashton's dances.

Ashton's "Monotones I and II" are on the program, the former laid out in graceful movement for two women and a man; the latter set to Satie's 1886 "Trois Gymnopedies" has two men and a woman moving about in sprightly abstraction.

Christopher Wheeldon's "The American" was inspired by the sense of space and tranquility of the Great Plains and open skies that the country exuded to Dvorak when he composed he score, Webb said during a recent telephone interview between rehearsals.

Praised not only for its trove of legendary dance, the company also is noted for its regular production of new works. Ricardo Graziano, a the troupe's resident choreographer, is providing his seventh creation for the Pillow in "A State of Weightlessness," set to Philip Glass' Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

"To have the chance as a dancer to perform at Jacob's Pillow is a great honor in itself," said Graziano. "But for Mr. Webb to ask me to create a world premiere is beyond belief.

"Choreographing on this company has given me such pleasure, and the dancers have been inspirational. "To have Mr. Webb's trust to represent The Sarasota Ballet on a national platform is the greatest gift for me this season."

It would appear that Graziano and his fellow dancers will have many encouraging, friendly faces as they make their Pillow debuts.

"Everyone here is very energized," saidd Mary Anne Servian, the company's managing director.

"So many of our board will be there to see the company. Many of our patrons have a home in the Berkshires, and they are very proud to have 'their' company at the Pillow."

IN PERFORMANCE

What: The Sarasota Ballet

Who: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival

When: Now through Sunday. Evenings — 8 Tonight, Sat. Matinees — 2 Sat, Sun.

Where: Ted Shawn Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket

Tickets: $75-$45

How: (413) 243-0745; jacobspillow.org; in person at Jacob's Pillow box office


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