Iain Webb has been artistic director of Sarasota Ballet for just two years, but even without seeing the company perform under his leadership until recently, it was obvious that something interesting was going on here.
Webb's programming in his first two seasons has included dances by Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, Antony Tudor, John Cranko, Matthew Bourne and David Bintley. These are important choreographers — and all British, as is Webb — but it is rare to see so much of their work staged by an American regional company.
"I want this company to be unique in America,'' Webb said one recent morning, over the first of several cups of coffee in quarters that the ballet shares with the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota's FSU Center for the Performing Arts. "The majority of people hadn't heard of Ashton or MacMillan or any of the choreographers I wanted to present. I'm just doing pieces that I love to watch and loved to be in.''
Webb, 49, brought a glittering resume to Sarasota. He was a principal with two of England's leading companies, the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet Covent Garden. After retiring as a dancer, he was rehearsal director for Bourne, the innovative choreographer whose all-male Swan Lake won two Tony Awards. Before coming to Sarasota, he was assistant director of Japan's K-Ballet Company.
While with the Royal Ballet, Webb became close to Ashton and de Valois, two of the founding pioneers of English ballet. He refers to her as "Madame'' and to him as 'Sir Fred,'' and has photos of them and a framed letter from de Valois on display in his office.
As a performer, the featherweight Webb was known for his jumping ability, but he was also something of a thinking man's dancer. He is an avid collector of ballet memorabilia, with a library of 2,000 dance volumes and such objects of art as the bronze death mask of hallowed Russian choreographer Michel Fokine.
For all his sophistication, Webb has a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude about ballet. He grew up in the north of England, in Yorkshire, where men dancing had a stigma, not least with his own father, a fireman. It all sounds very much like Billy Elliot, the British movie and now Broadway musical about a boy who overcomes working-class prejudice against dance to become a ballet star.
"Billy Elliot is a wonderful movie, but it's difficult for me to watch,'' Webb said. "My father never admitted to anyone that I was a dancer. I know that he was proud of what I achieved, but . . .' His father died 14 years ago.
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At the heart of Webb's vision for the company is his commitment to the ballets of Ashton, known for his collaboration with ballerina Margot Fonteyn and for lyrical works such as A Month in the Country, The Dream and La Fille Mal Gardee.
"A lot of people say that Americans can't do the Ashton ballets,'' said Webb, dressed all in black, sunglasses atop his head. "Well, they can if they're coached well.''
He began his first season in Sarasota with an Ashton ballet, The Two Pigeons. Its performance made the company the talk of the town.
"That was the 'a-ha!' moment for the city,'' said Chris Pfahler, president of the ballet board. "Not everybody got to see it, and there was a buzz going around about Two Pigeons. People who didn't get to see it wanted to see it. So we repeated it this season, and people came in droves. I think it was that particular piece that launched everything for the company.''
When the company revived its production of The Two Pigeons this past December, New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay, an Englishman raised on Ashton, attended the performances and wrote a rave review that dubbed the company "America's foremost exponent of Ashton ballets.''
"It was a real coup,'' Pfahler said of the review.
Webb's programming has included some ballets rarely or never seen in the United States, such as de Valois' The Rake's Progress, about the misspent life of a rich man's heir, and Bourne's Infernal Galop, a homoerotic romp to Edith Piaf and other French music. One of the strongest characteristics of the work has been its theatricality and the company's acting, not usually a strong suit for dancers.
"One of the things I've worked on with the dancers was to get across to them the importance of believing in the characters,'' Webb said. "Quite often you're on stage and you're playing out to the gods, to the audience, but for the theatrical pieces, your job is to bring the audience on stage with you rather than projecting out. You can only do that if you keep in the character. That was one of the hardest things. They were always looking to the audience to try to get a reaction rather than believing in the piece. They've picked up on it.''
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Sarasota Ballet is 18 years old, and it was a respectable but unexceptional company under its first two artistic directors, Eddie Toussaint and Robert de Warren, who were both choreographers and put the focus on their own work. There has been considerable turnover in the 34-dancer company since Webb's arrival, with only a handful left from de Warren's tenure.
"Before, we were kind of stuck in one style,'' said Kate Honea, one of the holdovers, in her seventh season with the company. "With Robert, we knew what to expect and maybe became kind of complacent. Now all the time there's somebody new coming in. I feel like I've become a much more versatile dancer.''
Honea, 26, who grew up on nearby Longboat Key, especially appreciates the contributions of Webb's wife, Margaret Barbieri, a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet who made her name in Giselle and other classics. Barbieri was a favorite of Ashton's, performing in many of his ballets, and she staged his Les Patineurs, The Two Pigeons and Facade in Sarasota this season.
"She's so inspiring,'' Honea said of Barbieri. "She's a true prima ballerina who has done all these great roles.''
The Sarasota company is young, the dancers ranging in age from about 17 to their early 30s, and attractive. There is a strong complement of men, and principal ballerina Lauren Strongin is strikingly good.
The challenge is to pay the dancers a living wage. Webb said salaries range from $290 to $800 a week in the 34-week season. So some dancers have to work other jobs. "It's one of the things that really bothers me,'' he said. "The salaries are very low here. I sometimes don't know how they manage, especially when you see what we put on.''
The company has a $2.7 million budget, and that's not likely to increase in the troubled economy. "We're trying to be cost-conscious given the economic situation, but we're also trying to balance that,'' ballet board president Pfahler said. "The board is committed to doing whatever is necessary to continue this level of programming, but we need to be realistic.''
Next weekend, the company gives three performances of Andre Prokovsky's full-evening staging of Anna Karenina, from the Tolstoy novel to a score by Tchaikovsky. Prokovsky, a French-Russian choreographer and former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, was in Sarasota this month to work on the production, which features Strongin and Kyoko Takeichi alternating in the title role.
Sarasota Ballet performs, for the most part, to recorded music, and that pains Webb. "I'm not used to doing it to tape,'' he said. "One of the hardest things to come to terms with is not having live music.'' He's thinking about doing some performances to piano or string quartet.
Webb's first two years have not been without complaints. He dismayed traditionalists by not staging The Nutcracker this season. He'll probably put Tchaikovsky's holiday classic back on the schedule next season.
"It will answer all the people that criticized me for not doing Nutcracker this year,'' he said. "And it balances out the people who praised me for having the nerve not to do it. In a way, it's a compromise a little bit. Is it business savvy? Yes.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.