Sarasota Ballet’s Margaret (Maggie) Barbieri and Iain Webb “IN CONVERSATION” with Gerald Dowler
20th July 2021
Susan Dalgetty Ezra wished everyone a warm welcome, adding: “and I do mean warm,” pointing out that the temperature in London at that time was 31 degrees, the same as in Sarasota.
It was, she said, truly a transatlantic evening, not only with the usual London Ballet Circle Zoom audience drawn from all around the UK, North America and Europe, but also a large contingent of the “Iain and Margaret fan club from Sarasota.” There were, she said, real links between UK ballet and Sarasota, with a number of dancers who had graduated from ballet schools in Britain going to join the American company.
She then handed over to interviewer Gerald Dowler who wanted to know “ What are Margaret Barbieri and Iain Webb doing in Sarasota, Florida?
Without hesitation Iain answered: “Well, we’re having a good time.” He then elaborated. Initially, their lives were in London at The Royal Ballet and the Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet; that is where their passion and inspiration had come from. Maggie’s career had been guided by Ninette de Valois whereas, said Iain, his dance career had begun a little later “and a lot of my education was from the amphitheatre.”
Maggie said she had been so fortunate to be dancing when she did and she enumerated some of her contemporaries including Fonteyn, Beriosova, Merle Park, Antoinette Sibley, Anthony Dowell and, while in the touring company, Doreen Wells, Elizabeth Anderton, Shirley Graham, Lucette Aldous, Brenda Last, David Wall and Richard Farley.
“They were inspirational, I learned so much from all of them. They were generous in passing on knowledge to the younger dancers which is something Iain and I do here at Sarasota.” She added: “I had Dame Ninette as my mentor right from the beginning and Dame Alicia Markova was also a mentor and a very important person in my career.” Her first director had been John Field and then Peter Wright, both of whom guided her career.
She continued: “Everything one stages or teaches, it’s not just steps. We have to encourage our dancers to know what the rôles are, research the ballets and how to make them their own.”
Gerald asked why the passing on of knowledge was so important, saying: “There’s a constant pursuit of the new and here we have two individuals speaking to us today about the importance of the past.”
Maggie responded: “I don’t think you can look forward if you don’t also look back. There is so much to learn from our heritage but it isn’t to say we must stagnate.”
Iain said: “We can’t be a museum company but we have the respect for the history.” It was important wherever possible to bring in someone who had worked with the original choreographer. Whenever Sarasota Ballet staged a work by Balanchine, “ we always try and bring someone in who worked with Mr B. Likewise with the Ashton ballets. One of our biggest gifts was to have Sir Anthony Dowell coming to Sarasota to coach the dancers”, when the company was staging Ashton’s The Dream. And after such a session he would sit around answering the dancers’ questions.”
And Iain admitted: “In the early years when things were difficult here I would ring Anthony Dowell in London and he would talk for an hour getting me off the window sill!”
Sarasota Ballet under Iain and Maggie has made a particular name for itself staging a comprehensive range of Ashton ballets. Gerald here put in a question posed by one of the Zoom audience. “How do you deal with criticism of Ashton; with people who say his ballets are old fashioned or not relevant today?”
Iain laughed. “Well, I don’t understand the question. Nonsense!” He said the company’s dancers so enjoyed dancing Ashton that it did not look dated. “If you coach it and you inspire them to be real people, it isn’t dated.”
Gerald said that there was sometimes quite a reverential approach in London to choreographers like Ashton and, as a result, one could sometimes see the fear on the faces of the dancers. “I’ve been lucky to come out to Sarasota and see your dancers and there is none of that, there’s genuine enjoyment dancing Rendezvous or Birthday Offering. It’s a very different feeling. Is that something you have consciously created to demystify Frederick Ashton?” he asked.
Maggie said it was not so much something done consciously, but that the dancers were very comfortable with the style and really enjoyed it. “And a lot of them have said: ‘When are you going to do another Ashton Festival, it was so much fun?’ It was hard work, mind you.”
Iain said it had never been their intention to make a sort of crusade out of performing Ashton but when they took over running Sarasota Ballet (in 2007) it was a company with no real schooling. The first programme they put on after taking over was Ashton’s Two Pigeons and Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante.
So, said Gerald, “ your focus on Ashton and his choreographic output has allowed you to forge a company, to forge a company style?
Maggie agreed that this was the case, adding: “But the company also does Balanchine and we’ve just done Twyla Tharp and David Bintley. The company is getting a very good all-round repertoire. It’s not just Ashton but he has played a huge part in making this company known.”
Picking up another audience question Gerald asked: “How about bringing Ashton home (to the UK) because Sarasota Ballet does more Ashton than all the others put together, including his home companies, which is very sad. Have you any plans?”
“It’s our dream,” commented Maggie. Iain expanded on this: “We would love to come to London because a lot of these works are going to be forgotten. It would be nice to go to Sadler's Wells, as it was our home, to bring some of the smaller works there, or to the Linbury.” He added: “There have been some discussions. But, we would be very nervous!”
One particular work of Ashton’s that Sarasota Ballet had preserved was Illuminations. “I only ever saw it once and then it went out of the rep.,” said Iain. “I needed to see it again so I bought it along with Balanchine’s Bugaku.”
Another questioner from the Zoom audience suggested that Ashton had, in effect, provided a syllabus for Sarasota’s dancers and wanted to know Iain and Maggie’s views on ballet training and Cecchetti because Ashton’s work was based on this method.
Maggie replied that the company did not have Cecchetti teachers, which was a shame, but that those who taught her and Iain, people like Madame and Terry Westmoreland had that background. “I was actually trained in the RAD method and then found out later that I was supposed to be related to Cecchetti but have no proof of that,” she said.
“The training is very important but if the teachers have the background of knowing the Royal Ballet repertoire and having danced them, that’s important. There’s not an Ashton syllabus as such but there’s so much in his choreography that we were taught. If you’re doing the ballets you are learning the training that we want them to do.”
Iain said: “Valse Noble is one we have just done recently and there’s so much of the Cecchetti, it’s just pure Cecchetti. The greatest time was doing Valse Noble with Sir Fred. I just couldn’t get enough of it. I actually bought the production It’s in our rep.”
Looking back to earlier days Gerald asked: “In 2007 why did you take up the job?”
Iain said: “I never thought I wanted to be a Director. When I was with the Royal I used to organise lots of galas, lots of festivals. I loved working with dancers and producing things … people kept saying ‘if you do something again I want to be in it’ or ‘why don’t you set up your own company?”’
Iain had worked on productions with the Adam Cooper Company, with Matthew Bourne and with Johan Kobborg. Then, in a conversation with Maggie along the lines of ‘what do I do now’, she replied “most charmingly, ‘if you don’t try and be a Director now you’ll be too old.’ So then we looked around and we heard about Sarasota. I thought ‘let’s try it.’ The company had been going about 14 years. It had been founded by Jean Weidner, the first Director was Eddy Toussaint and everyone will know Robert de Warren who was director for 13 years and then I turned up.”
Gerald asked what were Iain and Maggie’s initial targets when they took over running the company?
“They said they wanted someone with a long term commitment, who would relaunch the Company and give it national and international recognition,” Iain replied, adding: “They offered a three-year contract. I said that’s not long term, it will take me five years, so I got a five year contract.”
An early production was Matthew Bourne’s Infernal Gallop, which Iain described as “a rather naughty and cheeky piece.” They were, he said, the first ballet company in the world to do one of Bourne’s productions. Other early ballets had included works not only by Ashton and Balanchine, but also Hans van Manen’s Grosse Fuge, with the choreographer coming to Sarasota to assist with the production
“How did you build your audience?” Gerald wanted to know.
"People would come down from New York and Boston to escape the winter snows", said Iain. The city was definitely the jewel in the crown for arts in Florida with an opera company, theatre and a symphony orchestra. “ Culture was here but ballet was the token one. But word got out about us and people could see the difference.”
He went on to discuss the funding of the Company. There was no state sponsorship so money was sought from private donations. “People are excited about change but they are also nervous about change,” said Iain. “It was hard going.” At first, Ashton was unknown there whereas now it was a household name. This was why the company was careful to do a mixture of works. Maggie was the first to commission a piece from Christopher Wheeldon for The Images of Dance Company in London. People now donated to the Sarasota Company because of the reputation it has built up.
Gerald asked about Sarasota Ballet’s facilities.
Iain explained that they had one main studio and the use of another for half a day a week. They performed at the FSU Performing Arts Centre, a small theatre with a beautiful auditorium that had been brought over from Scotland. They also performed at The Sarasota Opera House and The Van Wezel Theatre: “David Bintley calls the latter ‘the purple theatre by the sea.’” They also tour productions.
Turning to the question of teachers, Iain said that while he and Maggie used to teach they now have a former principal dancer of the company, Octavio Martin, and Pavel Fomin who had been the company’s ballet master in its earlier days teaching class, as well as Lindsay who was a principal with Dutch National and New York City Ballet and then went to National Ballet of Canada as Principal Ballet Master. He is joined by his wife, Mandy Jayne Richardson, formerly of The Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, and National Ballet of Canada, who will be Ballet Mistress this season.
Asked by Gerald if they both missed teaching, Maggie replied: “ Not really because I taught for so many years. I love the staging and bringing the ballets and the rôles to life and seeing the dancers develop.”
She went on to explain how she goes about staging productions. Many included rôles she had herself danced but she did not just rely on memory or body memory, carrying out a great deal of research. An example was Raymonda in which she had danced every female rôle and she had danced with Nureyev. “So I remember him in rehearsals, coaching the dancers and I found a fabulous video of him when he was dancing and taking the rehearsal.”
She also recalled watching a video of The Two Pigeons (which she learned from the original gipsy girl Betty Anderton) and saw that the dancer was starting the solos on the wrong side. “If that video was being used by somebody else to stage it, it wouldn’t be the original."
“Both Iain and I like to make sure it’s the original. There were certain things that Sir Fred did change for different dancers but we do try and keep the essentials right.” Maggie said she was not au fait with notation but made great use of recordings. The Company brought people in to do the notation of roles, such as Grant Coyle, who has staged many Ashton ballet for the Company.
Gerald asked about the Company staging Ashton’s Apparitions. “It hadn’t been done for a very long time. There was a revival by London Festival Ballet. How do you approach something that is very unknown as a piece?”
“It’s about the passion,” said Iain. “Someone said: ‘when you die what do you want to be remembered for?’ And I said ‘that we revived Apparitions and it was a success.’” He recalled that, when the Cecil Beaton costumes arrived, the ballerinas were truly excited. “They had never looked so beautiful.”
Also revived was Varii Capricci – Iain having bought the work. He recalled: “We had to do it in the small theatre so we had to use recorded music. We bought the CD but the last movement didn’t fit the choreography.” They discovered that Ashton thought it was too long and had made cuts, although nobody seemed to be aware of that. Iain got the Birmingham Symphonia to re-record the score with an additional half hour to include the original last movement.
Gerald turned to the company’s “impressive track record” of commissioning works. He asked for the logic behind that?
Iain said that the DNA of the Company was respecting and preserving the history, the choreography of the day and of the future. “You’ve always got to keep in mind what it was like as a dancer. I was 18 years, Maggie was 25 years with the company (the Royal). There is nothing greater than having something made on you. It makes everything much stronger to you as an artist. It’s vital for the future providing you don’t forget the history.”
There was further discussion about works being lost, particularly those by Massine who had coached Maggie. Gerald reflected that at one point he was considered the world’s greatest choreographer. He went on to ask about the work of the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory.
Maggie said that she had been more involved initially than now. Christopher Hird and Dierdre Miles Burger now co-direct and Lindsay Fisher will join this season as assistant education director, undertaking a lot of outreach work.
Finally the conversation turned to the subject of the Covid pandemic. This, said, Iain, had been hugely difficult for the company but, fortunately, their Executive Director was Joe Volpe, former General Manager of the Met. “When we spoke back in March (2020) there was no question that we had to go on paying everybody their salaries right to the end of the season. Then, in America all the dancers get laid off in the summer months. When we came back, I brought back 12 dancers but everybody in the company got 75% of their basic contract and their full health insurance. So everyone was on salary and every single person in the Company got the chance to perform at one point or another.”
He went through the “learning curve” they experienced in putting on works digitally and how Maggie had been clear that the lighting in the theatre needed adjusting for filming purposes. And he added: “And the biggest shout out is for all our amazing donors. They wanted to make sure that we were going to survive.”
This had been achieved, despite the fact that there were still a few dancers trapped by Covid restrictions in Scotland, Brazil and Italy.
The final programme of the company’s 30th anniversary season was to have been a focus on female choreographers with Iain determined to spotlight the “old dames of the ballet world”; Agnes deMille, Madame and Nijinska. “But we couldn’t do it so I did all new works with the women in the company who wanted the chance to choreograph.”
At the conclusion of the interview Susan Dalgetty Ezra commented: “ I hope those of you watching are ready to call the airlines and book a ticket to Sarasota because the enthusiasm you get from Iain and Maggie is just infectious.”
Written by Phillip Cooper and edited/approved by Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri