Things were out of whack Thursday night at the Kennedy Center. Was this really June? An unseasonably cool rain fell outside. Inside the Opera House, snow fell not once, but twice.
The first flakes fluttered prettily at the close of “Les Patineurs,” the infectiously uplifting ice-skating ballet by Frederick Ashton that, with a fresh, bighearted performance by the Sarasota Ballet, ensured its place as the jewel of this year’s “Ballet Across America” sampler of regional companies.
Snow fell again at the end of “Wunderland,” Edwaard Liang’s 2009 creation for the Washington Ballet. No, it didn’t fall; it clattered to the stage like a shower of plastic pellets. The contrast was stark between Liang’s strenuous work and “Les Patineurs,” which is effortlessly transporting. But this noisy, unmagical effect rather neatly sums up the differences.
Ravishing as it is, the success of “Les Patineurs” is thick with ironies. Skating is a mainstream sport thanks to its rise in the Olympics in recent decades, but back in 1937 when Ashton created “Les Patineurs” for the Vic-Wells Ballet (which later became the Royal Ballet), he knew next to nothing about it.
His aim was to show off the strengths of the nascent English ballet, and the fact that he did so — and did it splendidly — with the illusion of gliding on steel blades and ice is an especially potent testament to his genius. Ashton was not just a brilliant craftsman; he had a unique way of transforming everyday activities and behaviors into art. It’s not so much that he stylized the slips and shifts of weight and frictionless flow of skating. He saw in them a grace and artfulness that needed little embellishment. And so he was able to uncover great wonders by the simplest means.
For example, there’s a waltz in “Les Patineurs” that contains scarcely a single waltz step yet so buoyantly rides the music (Meyerbeer selections, arranged by Vic-Wells music director Constance Lambert) that you’re nearly lifted out of your seat. It’s not complicated, just a spray of turning jumps and little bounces, performed by the Blue Boy (Logan Learned, with a personality as big as his jump) and the Blue Girls (Kate Honea and Nicole Padilla, twins in charm and sparkle). But it gorgeously unifies the skating motif, the sweep of the music and the cheery atmosphere; it is at once recognizable and magical.
The achievements of this work are too numerous to list. But among the most striking is that, while it is entirely make-believe — no skates, no ice — this skating party is improbably realistic. In appearance, “Les Patineurs” has all the elegance of a candlelit ball, while in emotional tone, it takes us into a more grounded world of high-spirited friendship.
The Birmingham Royal Ballet loaned the beautiful set — the pond ringed with wicker arches, and overhead, bare tree branches, entwined like delicate basketry — and the Victorian-era costumes, seen through 1930s eyes. Sarasota Ballet’s Yorkshire-born artistic director, Iain Webb, has been steadily transforming the Florida troupe into an outpost of British excellence.
The final irony of the success of “Les Patineurs” is this: At $3.7 million, Sarasota Ballet has the tiniest budget of the nine companies in this installment of “Ballet Across America.” And Webb, who arrived in Sarasota six years ago, is one of the directors with the shortest tenures. His achievement, and that of his dancers, is nothing short of miraculous. Call “Les Patineurs” a miracle on ice.
After all this good cheer, “Wunderland’s” melodrama felt especially heavy. The irony in this ballet is that while the dancers are meant to look nearly naked — the men wear flesh-toned outfits that make them look like Gumby dolls — the effect of the work as a whole is over-saturation. Too many difficult tricks that shouted out their difficulty; too many cranked-open joints, too much panting.
The Pennsylvania Ballet capped the evening with Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments,” a fine showcase for the company’s breadth of talent. Baltimore native Jermel Johnson possessed true star power; his Phlegmatic was assured, calm and cool. So cool, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. He has that special magnetism of casual excellence.
This program repeats Saturday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.