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By Carrie Seidman
Higher and higher: Sardelli with Octavio Martin in The Lesson. Photo by Frank Atura, Courtesy Sarasota Ballet.
When Sara Sardelli danced the lead in Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson last season, it was as if the 27-year-old had turned back the clock. With her hair in high blonde pigtails, her tiny frame draped in a short yellow dress, and an adolescent bounce in her step, the diminutive dancer personified the coltish ballet student whose naïve eagerness to please her malevolent teacher soon turns to terror.
There was a time not long ago when she might have found the role hard to embrace. Sardelli felt anxious that her opportunities at Sarasota Ballet, where she was a member of the corps, might be limited because of her size. “I’m not just short, I’m really tiny and I don’t fit in any uniform corps,” she says. “I used to worry about it a lot. But now I feel if I was typecast this year, it’s working, because it was one of the best of my life.”
It was a year in which Sardelli—barely 5' 2" and well under 100 pounds—captivated audiences and critics with her effervescent charisma. Though only in her second season, she danced leading roles in The Lesson, Will Tuckett’s Spielende Kinder, Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, and Joe Layton’s The Grand Tour, among others—all parts that called for a small dancer with a big stage presence. At the end of the season, she was promoted to first soloist.
Under artistic director Iain Webb, Sarasota Ballet has earned acclaim for a diverse repertoire that ranges from Ashton’s Two Pigeons to Tharp’s In the Upper Room. The company also stands out for the physical diversity of its dancers.
“When you look at our company, everybody is different,” says Webb, who was often called “too small” during his own professional career in England. “Each person is there for a reason. Sara can really play on her high energy, but she can also master a dramatic role.”
Others agree with Webb. Sardelli impressed Tuckett when the choreographer reset his piece about the uneasy transitions from childhood to maturity. “Months after working with Sara I still find myself choreographing on her in my mind,” says Tuckett, who plans to make a piece for Sardelli next year. “The vivacity, accuracy, and dynamic of her dancing had the ability to lift and focus the atmosphere in the studio. She’s smart, sensitive, and blessed with a sense of humor.”
But Sardelli isn’t just the darling of visiting choreographers. “At the end of the day, she’s a real audience pleaser,” says the British-born Webb, who hired Sardelli in 2009, his third season directing the company. “We’re in the business of putting bums on seats and Sara can do that.”
Sardelli began her training at Ballet Arts near her hometown of New Hartford, New York, when she was 10 and remained there through high school. She also spent several summers at the School of American Ballet, but eventually decided to pursue a dance degree at Butler University. “I just wasn’t ready to be in a company, not so much dancewise, but mentally,” she says. “I still needed to grow up.”
The performance experience she got at Butler gave her the confidence to audition widely after graduation. Though she was offered only an unpaid position as a trainee at Louisville Ballet, she accepted because she felt at ease there. The next year she became an apprentice. Helen Starr, at the time Louisville’s associate director and ballet mistress, saw something special in her. “She had personality and enthusiasm,” says Starr. “Many dancers have what appears to be a problem—too small or too tall—but when they have talent, which Sara does, a position opens for them.”
In retrospect, Sardelli wonders if she should have remained in Louisville as an apprentice, rather than accepting a position with Ballet Gamonet, choreographer Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros’ short-lived contemporary company in Miami. Though she embraced the challenge of a new style and was given the lead in Gamonet’s signature piece Nous Sommes, the collegial atmosphere she’d found in Louisville was missing.
The troupe folded in less than a year. Seeking another position while earning her Pilates teaching certification, Sardelli contacted two dancers from her hometown at Sarasota Ballet. It led to an invitation for Sardelli to take a company class. Webb liked her and offered her a contract.
“She was confident, but not arrogant,” he says. “And I have to be frank—she was perfect for Logan.”
Logan Learned, also a first soloist, is a compact former gymnast with remarkable athleticism. Last season he and Sardelli were paired in Spielende Kinder and in Balanchine’s lively Tarantella, among other pieces. The two learned the Balanchine piece in two hours over two rehearsals, far less time than suits Sardelli’s demon work ethic. Though she works constantly, often going to the studio before performances, she is rarely satisfied with her preparation. “I worry a lot,” she says. “I’m always thinking, ‘What could I do better?’ ”
But Sardelli no longer worries about her size. She now feels it can work to her advantage. “There are certain roles I’ll never be able to do,” she says. “And I did play a child a lot last year. But I don’t get tired of it anymore. It just means you have to dance bigger.”
Carrie Seidman is the dance critic for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.