Ballet Turns Heads in Sarasota

A young company adds polish to the city's reputation as a place where culture thrives

A handful of ballet artists in this seaside community are helping steer some local disadvantaged and minority children toward university educations on dance scholarships.

This imaginative connection between the arts and education is just one of many achievements of the Sarasota Ballet of Florida. To continue their mission, the ballet's leadership has just hired an international figure in ballet, Robert de Warren, as the new artistic director.

Fresh in town from Milan, Italy, where he directed ballet at La Scala for five years, Mr. de Warren recently told the Monitor, ``The artistic environment in Sarasota is worth more than gold.''

Bent Schonberg, a Danish ballet critic and editor of the yearbook World Ballet, which is published in London, said: ``de Warren may be the best pick of the 95 applicants for the job, for one because he survived the intrigues at La Scala - worse than those in Moscow and Paris - and still did very good work.''

Sarasota's cultural assets include an opera company with its own opera house, several theater groups (one of which sponsors playwriting contests and performs some of the winning plays), a major performance center for touring productions, a chamber-music orchestra, and schools for the performing and fine arts. It is home to the Florida West Coast Symphony, to a number of artists of all kinds, and it hosts a jazz festival.

Before Mr. de Warren's work in Milan, he was artistic director of Northern Ballet Theatre of Great Britain, in Manchester, England. He presented, among others, works by Rudolf Nureyev, who was artist laureate of the company while de Warren was director. Today, the ballet productions of de Warren, a native of Uruguay who speaks six languages, are performed by other ballet companies.

In Milan, as director of La Scala's special projects, he also set up the La Scala ballet school, which he says leads naturally into Sarasota Ballet's five education programs - including the university-scholarship program for disadvantaged children. This program, started in 1991, admits 50 third graders annually from Sarasota and Manatee counties. The youngsters must complete seven years of dance training, keep their grades up, and stay out of trouble. Local educators confirm that the program is proving successful. Those who complete the program can go into the dancing profession or take advantage of the scholarships.

Several Russian and Ukrainian ballet stars, now living in Florida, grace the teaching roster of the ballet. Ukrainian Pavel Fomin was principal ballet master at the Odessa State Academic Theatre in Odessa, Ukraine. Russian Sabirjan (Sasha) Yapparov was a principal dancer at the same institute. Both toured widely as performers and their education and experience in ballet is formidable.

Sarasota community leaders say that much of the power behind the ballet here - which only started in 1991 - is Jean Allenby-Weidner, who gave seed money and founded the company at the request of the Sarasota Opera. She explains that the opera badly needed dancing to support its own repertoire. Many 19th-century operas, she points out, include full ballets.

The dance-opera collaboration is different today. At the end of March, for example, the Sarasota Opera and the Ballet presented a captivating Verdi concert and ballet evening, featuring Verdi songs, followed by a ballet piece by Verdi.

A top dancer at the Stuttgart Ballet from 1970 to 1981, Mrs. Allenby-Weidner trained in former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and danced with the Cape Town Ballet before moving to Germany. She told the Monitor that Sarasota ``draws people from all over the United States and the world. They are knowledgeable, they lead successful lives, and they have disposable income.''

After a number of disagreements with the ballet's first artistic director, Eddy Toussaint, Allenby-Weidner and the ballet's board dismissed Mr. Toussaint last May. Toussaint says the disagreements were over artistic control, while Allenby-Weidner says management control was the issue.

Toussaint, who had brought his dance company from Montreal in 1991, says many of his dancers are still with him, and they will perform in Sarasota part of the year as Ballet Eddy Toussaint.

Allenby-Weidner, however, may have an edge on Toussaint as far as fundraising and community influence are concerned. ``As of the middle of April,'' she says, ``we are in the black, even after redoing half of our program starting last May [when Toussaint was let go].''

Allenby-Weidner and de Warren agree that their company must produce a balance of classical and modern ballets. Their audience is on the conservative side. But de Warren plans to ``help educate them'' toward the modern ``a bit,'' he says.

* The Sarasota Ballet's season resumes in September. The first program is ``Summer Sizzler,'' which includes Balanchine's ``Rubies''; the US premiere of Robert de Warren's ``Elegy''; ``Carmen''; and ``Nous Sommes'' (Sept. 23 to 25). ``Swan Lake'' is scheduled for Nov. 4 and 5; ``The Nutcracker,'' Dec. 16 to 21; International Gala of Stars, Jan. 20 to 21; Winter Celebration, Feb. 3 to 4; ``Midsummer Night's Dream,'' April 21 to 23. For more information, call the box office: (813) 366-6740.

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