The choreographer Frederick Ashton created a style of classical ballet that was clean, modest and very English. His 1983 work “Varii Capricci” was a kind of against-type joke: It’s set in the Mediterranean and stars a poolside gigolo. For Sarasota Ballet to perform this work is a joke inside a joke, since the regional troupe has acquired its national reputation by transplanting Ashton’s repertory and style to the incongruous environment of the Gulf Coast of Florida.
“Varii Capricci” is an odd trifle, though. Closing the program that Sarasota Ballet is presenting at the Joyce Theater this week, it caps an evening that feels pleasant and slight, despite being plumped out with two intermissions and a world premiere by Jessica Lang.
Lang’s “Shades of Spring,” her first work for the company, is fresh, inventive and pretty — modestly so. Video projections by Roxane Revon give the dance a background of nature: roots and flowers and their watery reflections. The choreography picks up on the theme with images of insect life and daisy-chain connectedness.
Mainly, the dance is springy, channeling the frolicking energy of selections from Haydn piano trios. There’s a section for a man and three women (shades of Balanchine’s “Apollo”) and one in which that man shadows a male-female duet. Later, the man has a tender moment with another man, but these suggestions of human drama are wisps. The strength of the piece lies in how it makes the company — both veteran members like Ricardo Rhodes and impressive newcomers like Arcadian Broad (what a name) — look relaxed, contemporary and engaged.
It’s unfortunate that this impression contrasted with that of the opener, Ashton’s “Birthday Offering.” This is a classical showcase, set to Glazunov and inspired by “The Sleeping Beauty,” in which the ceremonial dancing of seven couples frames seven solos for ballerinas. Much of the opening night cast wasn’t up to its exposing challenges. This woman was imprecise, that one wandering, the next OK up top but weak in the feet — these ballerinas lacked the finish to make Ashton’s baubles fully register, much less sparkle.
The exceptions were Marijana Dominis (also lovely in “Shades of Spring”) and, in the lead role, Macarena Giménez, who just joined Sarasota this season. In the climactic pas de deux, gently but firmly supported by Ricardo Graziano, Giménez used her tendril-like arms and sure balances to partially awaken the spirit of Sleeping Beauty.
That kind of awakening is crucial for a company so devoted to history. The printed program labels the solos in “Birthday Offering” with the names of the Royal Ballet dancers who originated them in 1956. Sarasota is led by former Royal dancers — Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri — who have personal connections to those original dancers and to Ashton. The promise of such connections is legacy, horse’s mouth authority. The danger is of becoming an antique shop or an indiscriminate collection of family heirlooms.
Staging “Varii Capricci,” which the Royal Ballet has never revived, is on the completist, antiquarian side of Ashton worship. Neither the music (by William Walton) nor the light-classical choreography are seriously or comically engaged with the theme or characters, who are rooted in “Facade,” an early piece by Ashton.
Still, performing it on opening night, the company veteran Danielle Brown got to show off her elegant shoulders and back, lounging on a chaise and melting in chic poses. Rhodes, as the gigolo, looked more Miami Vice than Mediterranean in his sunglasses. The joke at the end is that the gigolo is more interested in his shades than in the ballerina, a gag that sags not just because it’s weak but also because the values it inverts aren’t upheld strongly enough elsewhere on the program. A company dedicated to Ashton is never going to be cool. It needs to work harder at being classical.
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org