Two Sarasota Ballet Dancers Look Back on Their London Tour and Royal Ballet Collaboration

June 28, 2024

From the cheeky, colorful energy of Façade to the opulent elegance of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, The Sarasota Ballet brought a selection of its extensive Frederick Ashton repertory back to where most of them originated: at London’s Royal Opera House. Royal Ballet artistic director Kevin O’Hare had invited the Florida-based company to perform in June, marking Sarasota’s first international tour.

The Sarasota Ballet and The Royal Ballet presented five different programs to kick off the Frederick Ashton Foundation’s five-year Ashton Worldwide Festival. Sarasota headlined its own week of performances from June 4–9 at the ROH Linbury Theatre. Then, five dancers stayed on to join The Royal Ballet in a separate program, Ashton Celebrated, on its Main Stage from June 6–22.

Despite being across the Atlantic from The Royal Ballet, The Sarasota Ballet’s artistic lineage is very near. Director Iain Webb and assistant director Margaret Barbieri, the company’s married artistic team, both danced at The Royal Ballet and at the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. Since taking the helm in 2007, Webb has exponentially grown The Sarasota Ballet’s repertoire and international recognition, particularly for its aptitude for performing Ashton’s complex and dynamic anthology. His ballets are technically challenging and artistically demanding, building on the foundations of classical lines with a stylized, dramatic flair. Ashton’s choreography is sculptural yet fluid, with evocative poses punctuating intricate movement phrases.

Ricardo Graziano and Daniel Pratt are two longtime Sarasota dancers who performed in the company’s Linbury shows and stayed on to dance Ashton’s The Walk to Paradise Garden on the Main Stage. They shared their whirlwind experience performing in the “House of Ashton” and among ballet’s biggest stars.

Ricardo Graziano, wearing flesh-colored shorts, stands in a wide stance and bends slightly to his left, his arms up and fingers spread. He has a black rope wrapped up and down around his body. He looks down towards Lauren Ostrander, who sits on the ground and embraces his left thigh passionately, closing her eyes. She wears a light leotard and long black skirt, and her blond hair flows down her back. Behind them, two men in flesh colored shorts and wrapped in black rope watch them and dance. They perform on a dark stage, with Graziana and Ostrader within a bright spotlight.
Ricardo Graziano and Lauren Ostrander in Dante Sonata. Photo by Foteini Christofilopoulou, courtesy The Sarasota Ballet.

Hit the Stage Running

The company arrived in London on Wednesday, May 29, and started rehearsals the next day on the Linbury stage. They ran dress rehearsals of their two programs (with rotating casts), plus a gala program a few days later. “On Monday, some of us had rehearsal until almost 10 o’clock at night because we also had rehearsals on the Main Stage,” says Graziano. “By Tuesday, we were doing a dress rehearsal in the afternoon, show in the evening. And Wednesday again: dress rehearsal in the afternoon, show in the evening. So we were quite busy.”

Pratt describes the rehearsal schedule as a “jigsaw,” with Sarasota’s 12 different Ashton works and multiple casts all finding time to rehearse amidst the regular Opera House timetables. Nonetheless, he says, staying busy made the week fun and enjoyable. “What an iconic theater and an iconic space, and The Royal Ballet has been so welcoming.” He adds, “I think we felt a little nervous in a way bringing Ashton ballets to his home, but it’s been wonderful.”

A group of six men and women cluster close together and pose for a photo, smiling towards the camera. Five of them are dancers wearing various costumes and warm-ups. A woman stands in the middle in a black patterned dress and gold heels.
Posing backstage. Photo by Foteini Christofilopoulou, courtesy The Sarasota Ballet.

For their Linbury Theatre performances, The Sarasota Ballet brought London audiences a different taste of Ashton. “Our ballets were his chamber pieces, very rarely seen, smaller casts,” says Pratt. In addition to Façade and Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, they included Dante Sonata and Sinfonietta. “These ballets were usually made in smaller theaters, so they really worked in the Linbury space.”

The Royal Ballet performed larger-scale works, like Les Rendezvous, The Dream, and Rhapsody, and Pratt believes the contrast resulted in very complementary programs. “You could see sort of all the aspects of Ashton’s work: the brilliance of his corps de ballet choreography in something like The Dream and then the intelligence of his comedy in ballets like Façade.”

Dancing With the Stars

Despite sharing the same space for the month, the Sarasota dancers rarely crossed paths with The Royal Ballet dancers during their Linbury run. But when they did, they were starstruck. Graziano recalls trying to play it cool when sharing a dressing room with Marcelino Sambé and Matthew Ball, or sharing the stage with Natalia Osipova. “She went before me, and then William Bracewell and Francesca Hayward were right after me,” Graziano says. “I’m being sandwiched by the stars!”

Unfortunately, due to rehearsal logistics, the companies were unable to take class together, which Pratt feels could have led to shared knowledge about Ashton’s repertory. But after most of the company returned to Sarasota on June 11, the five dancers who stayed took company class with The Royal Ballet.

A group of four women and two men, wearing casual clothing and coats, stand clustered together and smile towards the camera. They stand in a grand foyer with with walls and mirrored doors.
Dancers with The Sarasota Ballet and The Royal Ballet pose for a picture. Photo by Foteini Christofilopoulou, courtesy The Sarasota Ballet.

Pratt, born and raised in south London, was thrilled to return to his hometown and perform in the historic opera house. “This was the place where I came to see my first ballets when I was a young child, so to be performing on that stage is a real sort of full-circle moment,” he says.

Brazilian-born Graziano also felt awed by his experience. “So many people have asked me if this is a dream come true, and it’s funny because I don’t even think it’s a dream coming true because I never thought I could dream that far. That wasn’t even an option to dream about because of the way we see Royal Ballet and these dancers. So for me, of course, the highlight has been performing on the Main Stage.”

Pratt says the tour has left the company more inspired and excited for future crossovers. “A real highlight for me has been seeing how my colleagues just own the space. You could be so intimidated by that huge stage and that beautiful auditorium, but they just went out there, and I was so proud to be part of Sarasota Ballet.”