The handful of business people passing through the defunct shopping center in downtown Sarasota pause at the unexpected sight. A group of dancers are rehearsing in the space where a hired Santa Claus might have bounced children on his knees or merchants might have advertised the latest fashions. The sweating dancers disperse and gyrate as music fills the storeless mall. A goateed man on a director's chair claps his hands and shouts instructions, moving from English to French and back without a pause. The passers-by watch, mouths agape in smiles and surprise.
"It's actually a very good place for us to rehearse," said Eddy Toussaint, the multilingual artistic director of the new Sarasota Ballet, as the rehearsal paused. "It's almost like a performance."
There's something very Florida about launching a new ballet from the hold of a fizzled downtown development. But Toussaint, his dancers and the community behind their effort hope the ballet's success will be anything but passing.
Audiences will have their first glimpse of the new Sarasota Ballet at its debut concerts Saturday and Sunday in the Sarasota Opera House. Even before the ballet makes its official bow, it is a success story during a time filled with little good news for the arts.
With more than 1,200 subscribers for its initial season and healthy touring commitments in place, the ballet has had to add concerts to accommodate ticket demand. The only tickets available for this weekend's premiere are at the 2 p.m. Sunday matinee, which was added after the regular performances sold out. The rest of the season is similarly hot.
The Sarasota Ballet's genesis has left even the headiest dreamers whirling.
"Just six months ago we were planning all this in my kitchen," said Jean Weidner, a Sarasota resident and a distinguished dancer herself.
Weidner, who rose to fame as a dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet, came to Sarasota three years ago and was drafted into organizing a ballet series at the Sarasota Opera House. The series presented groups such as the Miami City Ballet and attracted large audiences.
"We had a five-year plan for organizing our own company," Weidner said. "But after three years we were ready to move forward and form a company."
The push came from Sarasota business and community leaders, Weidner said.
"The business leaders said they wanted to contribute to something that was going to stay around, something that would carry the name of Sarasota," she said. "The arts community was extremely supportive as well. Without the beginnings of the Sarasota Opera presenting ballet, we wouldn't be here now. There's really no community quite like this."
The key to the equation was finding Toussaint.
The Haitian-born choreographer founded his own company in Montreal in 1974 and nurtured it into one of the best-trained and exciting contemporary groups in North America. The group toured extensively, building an international reputation. But Toussaint was ready for a change.
"In Canada, if you are French, there are too many political problems," he said, his recently learned English still dotted with French inflections. "We were well-known with our touring, but it was 12 years before we performed in (English-controlled) Toronto."
Weather was a factor as well.
"It is so cold in Canada for so long," he said. "I am from the south, and I miss the sun. What good is it if you are in a place where you can't go outside for six months out of the year?"
Toussaint's wanderlust and Sarasota's big plans found each other.
"I couldn't believe we had a chance to get an artist of Eddy's stature," said Weidner. "He presented us with a budget for what he wanted to do, and it was just in the range of our plans. We don't want a big company, something like the Miami City Ballet. We want something that's not so expensive to tour that we have to go into debt just to travel."
Toussaint brought 10 dancers along with him from his former Montreal company. The other 19 include three Soviets, Michael Choupakov and Alexei Dovgopolyi from the Bolshoi Ballet and Sabirjahn Yapparov from the Odessa Ballet.
The stylistic fit between the community and Toussaint was an important consideration, according to Weidner.
"We didn't want someone who would do the old-style story ballets," she said. "But we couldn't have someone too far out, because we have quite a few golden oldies in our audience. But they are people who, in many cases, know dance and are interested in seeing something new."
Toussaint fits the bill. His choreography, as it matured in Montreal, proceeded from a firm base of traditional ballet technique into works that incorporated a number of dance and musical styles. His choreography won first place in the 1984 Helsinki International Dance Competition.
The common theme in Toussaint's work is an appreciation of color, excitement and purity of form. His musical inspiration ranges from Mozart's Requiem through the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzola and all points in between. The upcoming Nutcracker is typical Toussaint: a well-known classic tale twisted slightly by placing it in the future.
Toussaint's plans for new works will be harnessed somewhat by the financial constraints inherent in beginning a new company. One wonders, in fact, why Toussaint would want to leave behind a large, successful company in a cosmopolitan city for a new venture.
"Let me tell you, it is very important that an artist have the peace and the space and the happiness to create," he said. "It is not so good to be in a big city, in a big post, and always have people watching you and looking to stab you in the back. I am already happy here.
"But I know there is not so much tradition here like in Montreal or in Europe," he said. "But I want to create tradition here. So that when we have created this, there will be something for the future."
Among the many people enjoying Toussaint's arrival is dancer Kathryn Dandois, a St. Petersburg native whom Toussaint chose from auditions here.
"It used to be if you wanted to be a dancer, you had to leave Florida for New York," she said at a rehearsal break. "I never expected to be able to make a career in Florida. But the situation has changed in the last five or 10 years."
The Sarasota Ballet, Eddy Toussaint, artistic director, at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N Pineapple in Sarasota. Performances 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday are sold out. Tickets are still available for 2 p.m. Sunday performance. Tickets are $8-$30 and are available by calling 954-7171 (Sarasota).