Iain Webb is bringing international recognition to Sarasota Ballet.

Iain Webb describes himself as “a total bunhead.” To prove it, he takes out his iPhone and brings up a photo of Michel Fokine’s death mask, explaining that it’s part of his personal ballet library in his home. Also in that collection? A photograph of Webb himself hanging a 12-foot Sarasota Ballet banner. “It would have cost $100 to pay someone else to put it up,” he explains, with a chuckle. “I needed that hundred dollars to buy my dancers one and a half pair of pointe shoes.”

Since becoming Sarasota Ballet’s artistic director in 2007, Webb has stretched the resources—and artistry—of the company in some jaw-dropping ways. Out of a modest $4.1 million yearly budget, Sarasota Ballet has presented 53 company premieres and 33 world premieres in just seven seasons. Ticket sales have quadrupled. And the troupe has gained international recognition for its interpretations of Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballets. Yet Webb candidly admits that since he arrived, “We’ve literally almost closed three times.”

Webb, 55, feels at home in the underdog role. As a dancer at The Royal Ballet, he suffered from such bad stage fright that he ended his soloist career early to do character roles instead. (“That way I could hide,” he says.) After retiring from the stage in 1996, he became a rehearsal director for Matthew Bourne, then assistant director for K-Ballet Company in Japan, while also putting together galas and festivals where he presented former Royal Ballet colleagues, like Johan Kobborg. “I liked staying behind the scenes, organizing everything,” he says, “but I was getting old, and it felt like directing was the next level up.” So when Sarasota Ballet was looking for a new leader at the end of 2006, he took the gamble and applied.

The troupe, founded in 1990, had never garnered a lot of attention under its former artistic directors, contemporary choreographer Eddy Toussaint and then Royal Ballet alum Robert de Warren. By the time Webb arrived, it was also riddled with financial problems.

“I remember thinking, ‘This might not last more than a year, so I’d better put together a season that’s going to make me smile,’ ” Webb says. “And also something that’s going to put this company in the history books.” To do that, he convinced Bourne to let Sarasota be the first ballet company to perform his Infernal Galop, and he brought in Hans van Manen to stage Grosse Fuge. He also presented a double bill of Ashton’s Les Patineurs and The Two Pigeons during his second year with the company.

The repertoire over the past seven seasons has been carefully calibrated for the Sarasota audience, which is largely filled with “snowbirds” from the Northeast who have high classical standards set by major companies like American Ballet Theatre and Boston Ballet. Rather than compete, Webb found that by embracing his inner bunhead he could create his own niche: historical one-acts. “I looked at all the companies that were at our same level or the next level up, and they were all doing very similar rep,” Webb says. “If we were going to survive, we had to do something different.”

In particular, Webb gravitated to Ashton’s one-acts, and Sarasota Ballet now has more works by “Sir Fred” than any other American company. “His ballets are so musical, and I love how he always gets the female dancer to look like a woman,” Webb says. “People don’t do these works much anymore, but they need to be seen or else they will be lost.” Both Webb and his wife, former Royal Ballet dancer Margaret Barbieri (who is now Sarasota’s assistant director), were coached by Ashton during their performing careers and bring firsthand knowledge to the work. Some British critics have written that the company’s grasp of Ashton’s style surpasses even The Royal Ballet’s. This May, Sarasota’s four-day Ashton festival will showcase 11 of the choreographer’s ballets, along with films and lecture/discussions. Ticket orders from as far away as Europe were placed months in advance.

Webb has leveraged his high-profile connections throughout his tenure. One of his first steps as director was flying to London to have tea with Lady Deborah MacMillan to ask if he could get a couple of Kenneth’s ballets. Christopher Wheeldon once offered up a piece after Barbieri mentioned Sarasota Ballet’s struggles to the choreographer’s parents one night. And when Sarasota Ballet’s star dancer retired just before a production of Giselle in 2009, Webb got out his address book and was able to announce to the press just four hours later that Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg would be performing instead.

How has he financed this? In the beginning, many of those connections offered their services for limited fees. Webb also used much of his own money at first to cover expenses like physical therapy and costumes. Since then, a handful of donors who believe in his vision have paid off the company’s debts and funded items like last season’s pay raise for the dancers.

The company still lacks the finances for more seasoned dancers’ paychecks, and Webb admits that many of his company members are very green. But he’s found a hungry group (almost all are now his hires) who work to meet the high standards he sets in order to attract big-name choreographers to Sarasota. Webb’s also working on building talent from the ground up: In 2012, Sarasota Ballet launched the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory of Dance, a full-time pre-professional training program designed to be a feeder for the company.

Webb is realistic about his company’s place in the larger dance world: “If I weren’t the director, I would probably think, ‘Well, I don’t know if they should quite try to do that rep.’ ” But he will never put a work onstage that he isn’t proud of. And he refuses to let the company’s modest reputation stop him from trying to create something that will make him smile. It’s in part thanks to that ambition that, earlier this year, he was awarded a 10-year extension of his contract. “We’re never going to be one of the big companies,” he admits, “but we’re going to have something that’s unique.”

 

 

At a glance

Sarasota Ballet

Number of dancers: 43

Length of contract: 36 weeks

Starting salary: $350 per week

Performances per year: 7 productions, an average of 32 shows

Website: sarasotaballet.org

 

Audition Advice

“I look at dancers’ personalities, because you’ve got to live with these people. I can’t have cliques or dancers who watch other dancers’ solos and think, ‘That should be me.’ ”

LADP's Rachelle Rafailedes leading a workout. Photo by Studio 6, Courtesy Sunshine Sachs.

If your usual workouts are feeling stale, Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project might be able to help. The contemporary ballet troupe recently launched an online exercise platform that puts its stars in your living room.

Keep reading... Show less
Training
Video still by Nel Shelby Productions, Courtesy Dancio.

"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."

For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.


Keep reading... Show less
popular
New York City Ballet in "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Lincoln Center.

Nutcracker season is upon us, with productions popping up in on stages in big cities and small towns around the country. But this year you can catch New York City Ballet's famous version on the silver screen, too. Lincoln Center at the Movies and Screen Vision Media are presenting a limited engagement of NYCB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at select cinemas nationwide starting December 2. It stars Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier.

While nothing beats seeing a live performance (the company's theatrical Nutcracker run opens Friday), the big screen will no doubt magnify some of this production's most breathtaking effects: the Christmas tree that grows to an impressive 40 feet, Marie's magical spinning bed, and the stunning, swirling snow scene. Click here to find a participating movie theater near you—then, go grab some popcorn.

popular
Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing for "The Sleeping Beauty" for the 2017/18 season. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Today the Pennsylvania Ballet's board of trustees announced the appointment of Shelly Power as its new executive director. Having been involved in the five-month international search, company artistic director Angel Corella said in a statement released by PAB that he's "certain Shelly is the best candidate to lead the administrative team that supports the artistic vision of the company." Power's official transition will begin in February. This news comes at the end of a few years of turmoil and turnover at PAB, including the departure of former executive director David Gray in June.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars
Tiler Peck with Andrew Veyette in "Allegro Brillante." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet.

"I was particularly excited when I saw my name on casting for Allegro Brillante in 2009," remembers principal dancer Tiler Peck. "Balanchine had said Allegro was, 'everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes,' and of course that terrified me." To calm her fear, Peck followed her regular process for debuts: begin by going back to the original performers to get an idea of the quality and feeling of the ballet and ballerina. "It is never to imitate, but rather to surround myself with as much knowledge from the past as I can so that I can find my own way," says Peck.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT has also offered sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast in the past.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

Keep reading... Show less
Your Best Body
Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!