Risk-taking and collaboration were the hallmarks of an exciting 2011-12 Sarasota arts season. Here’s a look back at some of the highlights—and a few lowlights, too.
SER O NO SER Could the Asolo Rep pull off its audacious plan to present English and Spanish performances of its Hamlet: Prince of Cuba? That was indeed the question, and the answer was a resounding yes.
For me, this Cuban twist on Hamlet, set in Havana in 1898, was the high point of the arts season. True, the English version, which opened in March, didn’t have as much Cuban flavor as I had expected. But it was a thrilling production, thanks in large part to Frankie J. Alvarez’s fiery, provocative performance in the title role.
I returned in May to see the same cast in the Spanish-language opening night, which was a benefit for the Hispanic organization Unidos Now. It was wonderful to see the Asolo filled with such a diverse, enthusiastic audience. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of such a rousing standing ovation as the one at the end of this performance. Congratulations to Alvarez, and to Asolo producing artistic director Michael Edwards, for going out on a limb and making such a noble effort to build bridges in our community.
FAREWELL TO LEIF The most poignant moment of the season had to be Leif Bjaland’s February farewell performance as conductor and artistic director of the Sarasota Orchestra. Bjaland rarely lets his emotions show. But he was clearly touched as he took repeated bows in front of a cheering audience. Daniel Jordan, the orchestra’s concertmaster, gave a moving speech about the love and respect the orchestra’s musicians have for Bjaland.
After the performance, I attended a small party for Bjaland at the home of his former music professor from the University of Michigan, who now lives here. Virtually every arts leader in town was there. They took turns thanking Bjaland for his collaborative nature, and for inspiring them to match his level of excellence.
The orchestra’s search for Bjaland’s successor will continue next season, with several guest conductors coming in to audition.
BIG STEP FOR SARASOTA BALLET The Sarasota Ballet attracted national attention last October when its dancers performed with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The Wall Street Journal made special note of Sarasota company member Danielle Brown’s “spontaneity” and her colleague Ricardo Graziano’s “verve and authority.”
Sarasota Ballet’s dancers will have the Kennedy Center stage to themselves next June when the troupe returns to the arts center as part of a Dance Across America series. The invitation to return is “a huge compliment to this company,” says artistic director Iain Webb.
As for the company’s performances in Sarasota next season, I’m most intrigued by its new twist on The Nutcracker. The ballet will open in a New York hotel in the 1930s, where the young heroine, Clara, meets circus impresario John Ringling. Instead of being transported to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara will find herself here in Sarasota and the colorful world of the Ringling Circus winter quarters.
Sarasota Ballet’s 2011-12 season ended on a sad note, when we learned that the company couldn’t reach agreement on a new contract with principal dancer Octavio Martin. An audience favorite not only for his passionate dancing but his gregarious nature, Martin will be missed.
HIGH TIME FOR RINGLING
Steven High’s first full year as executive director of the Ringling Museum was an exciting one. Attendance reached record levels during some winter months, in part because of better marketing efforts. The Ringling also benefited from the PBS concert shot throughout the Ringling complex that featured young singer Jackie Evancho.
Just in time for the winter solstice in December, the museum opened its long-anticipated James Turrell Skyspace. Visitors sit on gently tilting benches and stare through the Skyspace’s large oculus at the changing Florida skies above them. At the preview I attended, some patrons of a certain age got so enthused that they sprawled on the concrete floor and seemed to reach a meditative state.
High, who from what I hear is widely admired for his collaborative leadership style, formed a committee to develop a fund-raising strategy for the Ringling International Arts Festival, which returns in October. The festival had been supported by state funding, which ran out last year.
Some thought that might mean the end of the festival. But High thinks the event makes a symbolic statement of the importance of contemporary performing arts at the museum.
“We have so many areas of excellence at the museum, and this can be another component we can build into an area of national prominence,” High says.
VISUAL ARTS ROUNDUP Art Center Sarasota celebrated its own history and Sarasota’s pioneering visual artists with a pair of compelling exhibitions last winter. One told the story of the Sarasota Art Association (now Art Center Sarasota) from its founding in 1926 through 1966. The companion exhibit showcased works by Jon Corbino, Julio De Diego, Hilton and Dorothy Leech, Jerry Farnsworth and so many more. At the end of the season, Fayanne Hayes stepped down as the center’s director, after five years in which she deftly honored the organization’s traditions and infused it with new vitality.
All wasn’t tranquil on the visual arts front. French graffiti artist MTO caused controversy with provocative murals on two north Sarasota buildings. And Unconditional Surrender, that landmark bayfront statue of a smooching sailor and nurse, was shipped to New Jersey for repairs after being struck by a car.
The giant statue still seems to inspire equal amounts of love and disdain. Count me as one of those who wish this sailor could go on permanent furlough.
CHORUS OF APPROVAL The Sarasota choral group Key Chorale continued to reinvent itself during an adventurous, collaborative season.
Full disclosure: I’m a Key Chorale board member. But I don’t think that makes me overrate the achievements of this risk-taking organization. The chorale’s Cirque des Voix performances with Circus Sarasota were a huge success, not only under the tent in Sarasota but at St. Petersburg’s Palladium theater, which is eager to have the show back again next year.
Key Chorale also joined forces with more than a half-dozen local dance troupes to present Dancing with Jenkins, a thrilling performance of composer Karl Jenkins’ Requiem. Its season ended with another innovative collaborative with that hip chamber group, Sybarite5.