Sarasota Ballet's program filled with art and drama

The Sarasota Ballet will give a nod to romance and dramatic art in its January program, which opens Friday.

Featured on the bill will be Alicia Markova’s “Les Sylphides” and an encore of last year’s “Facade” by Frederick Ashton. The center piece of the program, which will transform the art work of William Hogarth through dance, will be Ninette de Valois’ “The Rake’s Progress.”

But there’s more to Valois’s piece than meets the eye.

The Sarasota Ballet’s performance of “The Rake’s Progress” has historic proportions that have captured the eyes of nation’s ballet community, said artistic director Iain Webb. It was last performed in the United States 61 years ago by the Royal Ballet during a performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.

Since then, it’s stayed in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, and has never been performed on American soil again, and rarely anywhere else in the world.

Until now.

The nation’s dance critics have dreamed of seeing a piece they’ve only been able to read about, said Webb, who, during his short time with the ballet company, loves having the troupe be the constant talk of the town.

Though there’s a mystique behind the dance, “Rake’s Progress” is enough to pique interest of ballet and theatergoers alike. Set in the 1800s, the ballet version is based on six of Hogarth’s eight engravings in his famous 1732-34 “Rake’s Progress” series, which features the demise of a young man who throws away his inheritance on the decadent sins of life — gambling and brothels. His money flows through his fingers quickly, leaving him penniless and demented.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum, which is presenting samples of Hogarth’s other works in its permanent collect to coincide with the ballet’s performance, calls “Rake’s Progress” a moral series, depicting “a harsh statement about aristocratic life in England,” according to its Web site.

Hogarth, a print maker, was known as a social satirist of sorts, said Maureen Zaremba, associate curator of education at the Ringling. His other series addressed harlots, elections and other controversial subjects of the times.

“His style is constant through his career,” Zaremba said. “It’s realistic, with a lot of detail and symbolism. He’s telling a story.”

When Valois began choreographing the ballet, which premiered in 1935, she pulled characters, such as the Rake and the Betrayed Girl, right out of Hogarth’s work. She was also inspired by the dress and detailed backgrounds of the series, Zaremba said.

The ballet still inspires today. The leads in the Sarasota Ballet production have been so intriguing during rehearsals that it moved Webb’s wife, Margaret Barbieri, who is staging the program, Webb said.

In his usual style of crafting ballet programs, this one follows the familiar path with the dramatic offering of “Rake’s Progress” bookended by classic and sophisticated ballets.

Markova’s classic “Les Sylphides” is an old romantic piece that Webb calls “one of the purest, beautiful ballets” about a poet who dreams about the Sylphides (girls).

The other, Ashton’s “Facade,” is a fun tribute to the songs and dances of the 1920s.

Webb said he brought it back again this season because “people just love it.”

“After the dramatic scenes in the ‘Rake’s Progress’ you need to give them an uplift.”

January Holmes, features writer, can be reached at 745-7057.