Treat your Soul to Sarasota

Friday, May 31, 2024

Sarasota’s arts scene has long enjoyed a reputation for its ambition, innovation and international-level quality

The Sarasota Ballet in Sir Frederick Ashton's Dante Sonata (photo: Frank Atura)
The Sarasota Ballet in Sir Frederick Ashton's Dante Sonata (photo: Frank Atura)

When Sarasota Ballet arrives in London this summer for a week-long residency at the Royal Opera House, it will be something of a homecoming for the renowned Florida institution’s two artistic leaders. Both the company’s director Iain Webb and assistant director Margaret Barbieri were dancers with the Royal Ballet - the former a first soloist and the latter a principal dancer.

Their positions at Sarasota Ballet - and the invitation to give seven performances at Covent Garden from 4-9 June from the Royal Ballet’s own director Kevin O’Hara - indicate the high regard in which the Florida company is held among dance professionals and audiences. Sarasota Ballet may be the jewel in the crown, but there’s plenty more in the city to treasure. Sarasota’s arts scene has long enjoyed a reputation for its ambition, innovation and international-level quality. In the last decade or so, all that has been turbocharged. 

Danielle Brown, Daniel Pratt, and Ricardo Rhodes in Sir Frederick Ashton's Valses nobles et sentimentales (photo: Frank Atura)

It’s hardly surprising that for generations, artists have been drawn to Sarasota, the jewel in the crown of Florida’s Gulf Coast and the hub of its blossoming arts scene. No destination does more to remind visitors that there’s more to the state than gators and dolphins, while also reassuring them what balm the bounties of Florida’s abundant nature can provide. Sarasota has award-winning beaches, spectacular surrounding nature, abundant wildlife, birdlife and botany and all the relaxation and exhilaration that comes with huge expanses of ocean and inland water and pristine barrier islands.

The Ringling

Still, it has been said that all of Sarasota is a stage. For much of that we have a certain John Ringling to thank - the father of the modern circus who moved his considerable operations to the city in 1927. Ringling left a spectacular legacy behind. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art - aka The Ringling - consists of 14,000 square metres of priceless art, Mediterranean antiquities, stunning architecture and ornamental gardens as well as the renowned Circus Arts Conservatory and the exquisite Historic Asolo Theatre. The latter, a classical horseshow auditorium in pale blue, was built in the Mantuan city of Asola in 1798 and transported here in 1949, where it has been painstakingly and lovely restored and invested with up-to-date technology.

Alex Harrison & Logan Learned in Ashton's Tweedledum and Tweedledee (photo: Frank Atura)

While the Historical Asolo Theatre enshrines The Ringling’s tendency to preserve traditions and the best of the best, the Asolo Repertory Theatre tends Sarasota’s own flame of creativity, presenting a season of theatre while hosting world-class performing arts companies including Sarasota Ballet.

The ascent of Sarasota Ballet has been meteoric since its founding in 1987. The company has a track-record of luring visionary performers and leaders from institutions including The Metropolitan Opera and the Teatro alla Scala. The husband-and-wife team of Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri arrived in 2007 and set about revolutionizing the company immediately, expanding its repertoire and establishing its international reputation.

After the summer’s London tour - a celebration of the work of the great British choreographer Frederick Ashton, which will launch the five year Ashton International festival - the company’s 2024/25 Season incorporates seven new programmes that will bring new work to the company’s repertoire and include a visit from the Martha Graham Company.

The Sarasota Ballet in Sir Frederick Ashton's Sinfonietta (photo: Frank Atura)

For lovers of the classical arts, Sarasota’s riches only continue. Sarasota Opera, the only company in the world to have recently completed performances of every stage work by Giuseppe Verdi, occupies its own beautifully restored theatre originally built in 1926. The Sarasota Orchestra celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year with a dedicated Festival and has ambitious plans for a new Music Centre and concert hall. The orchestra’s coming season includes visits from soloists Vadim Gluzman, Yefim Bronfman and conductors Peter Oundjian and Giancarlo Guerrero. The Players Theatre presents West End shows and musicals and the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe has delivered plenty of African American actors into stardom. Each April, the Sarasota Film Festival brings the best of international screen art to the city. 

Sarasota Opera House

All this would count for little were Sarasota not such a vibrant destination. Traditionally, it was made so by the ‘snowbirds’ who came here in decades past to escape harsh north-eastern winters. Their influx of energy and high expectations fused with local Sarasotans to create a cosmopolitan city that offers the best of urban life unusually close to the purity of nature. For those who want the two combined, Sarasota boasts the world’s first positive energy botanical garden complex in the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, easily accessible from anywhere in the city. 

Nowhere do you feel Sarasota’s particular energy more than in its happening downtown, which combines small-city intimacy and tradition with big city ambition when it comes to food, drink and nightlife. You can mix city farmers’ markets and lazy beach afternoons during the day with stunning sunsets and fine dining in the evening, perhaps with a ballet, opera, concert or circus performance thrown in. But like the Florida weather, Sarasota performs in all seasons, around the clock.  

To learn more, visit:

America As You Like It has a seven-night holiday based on two people travelling to Sarasota from £1,675 per person, including return flights to Tampa on Virgin Atlantic, seven days fully inclusive car hire and seven nights room only at the Westin Sarasota. Dates based on early December travel. For more details:

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