BECKET — This week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, an American ballet company performs the works of two Englishmen and one Brazilian. To a certain extent, it’s just business as usual in our globalized dance world: One of the Brits is Christopher Wheeldon, a choreographic superstar of this era whose ballets are must-have items in many ballet companies; but the ballets of the other Brit, Frederick Ashton — despite being a revered figure of the 20th century — are, relatively speaking, infrequently seen on programs these days.
Not so at the Sarasota Ballet, which has been noted for its hearty Ashton repertoire. For its Pillow debut, the company, directed by Iain Webb (another Englishman), has brought Ashton’s delicate trios “Monotones I” from 1966 and “Monotones II” from 1965, set to equally tender music by Erik Satie, his “Trois Gnossiennes” and “Trois Gymopédies” suites. The dancers, sleek in their Ashton-designed unitards and head-hugging caps, perform a small pool of ballet vocabulary austerely, with exquisite care and severe exactitude.
Whether the devil or the glory is in the details, whether these little Ashton gems are precious, as in value or in twee affectation, depends greatly upon how the dancers have been coached. Assistant director Margaret Barbieri’s work in the studio has produced a “Monotones” that is as it should be— wonderfully strange and mysteriously moving.
The two casts — Samantha Benoit, Alex Harrison, and Ryoko Sadoshima, compact and spry in “I”; and Ricardo Graziano, Victoria Hulland, and Ricardo Rhodes, elegant and languid in “II” — inhabit and breathe life into the highly stylized port de bras and épaulement, hallmarks of what the British “style” used to look like.
This ability to convey style is a slippery slope with dancers these days, who are increasingly astounding technically, but whose necessary versatility can blur artistry. The Sarasotans perform with character; this matters for the audience, and those choreographers who are demanding that versatility, who want us to see what’s so special about their dances.
Indeed, the generous way the company performs Wheeldon’s 2001 “The American” brings out the nuances of this sweeping, pretty ballet. Set to Antonín Dvorák’s spirited “American Quartet” and anchored by its luxuriously romantic pas de deux performed with maturity by Rhodes and Danielle Brown, it’s not complicated, but it’s not pat. A warm sunniness permeates the piece: in the breezy classicism of the ensemble work and continuously swirling partnering; in Jeff A.R. Jones’s yellow and bronze costumes; in Aaron Muhl’s sun-disked lighting; in the convivial circles that the dancers form throughout.
In “The American,” some of the company’s weaknesses were subtly evident. In general, the men’s allegro doesn’t push quickly nor strongly enough off the ground, while refinement of the women’s feet in pointe shoes varies. Though the men are sturdy and attentive, some of the partnering betrays the labor; not all transitions are silky-certain. These aren’t deal-breakers, but surmountable qualities; what hopefully won’t be smoothed over is the dancers’ genuineness.
In the opening and closing of “In a State of Weightlessness,” a world premiere by Graziano (who also serves as the company’s resident choreographer), the darkly costumed men (Graziano’s design) almost disappear, like Bunraku puppeteers, into Muhl’s enigmatic, shadowy lighting, so that the women, when lifted or supported, look like they’re floating. A seamless, slightly overlapping series of pas de deux continues the metaphor; the five couples tilt and drift and soar, the women’s legs often tucked into a pas de chat or a cousin of it. After the third or so duet, it’s risky, compositionally, not to break up this formula with new configurations — a solo, a large ensemble section, anything — but, in the same way that the Philip Glass score doesn’t drone but rather develops, so too does the sum of the duets add up, quite a bit: “Weightlessness” is indeed weighted, with intensity and beauty.
THE SARASOTA BALLET
At: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday.
Tickets: $10-$75. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
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