The Sarasota Ballet brings back its original version of the Christmas ballet classic.
Back in 2011, when award-winning British choreographer Matthew Hart was in town setting his “Tchaikovsky Ballet Fantasy” — a hilarious piece that features a mishmash of characters from ballet’s most famous works — I sat next to him at a Sarasota Ballet luncheon. The running and very amusing account of his prolific dancing career and seemingly endless choreographic ideas he kept up made me feel like I had my own personal standup comedian.
When I stopped laughing long enough to marvel at his creativity, he shrugged.
“I have a wild imagination,” he explained. “It just runs rampant.”
Not long after that, Hart’s fertile imagination came up with the idea of taking the “Nutcracker,” the ubiquitous warhorse of all ballets, and reconceiving it to incorporate the circus history of John Ringling and Sarasota. Less than a year and nearly a million dollars later, the result was “John Ringling’s Circus Nutcracker,” which the Sarasota Ballet commissioned from Hart and brought back this year for the fifth time since its debut in 2012.
As either a dancer, patron or critic, I have seen or participated in an average of about two “Nutcrackers” a year since I was 5-years-old. So, no matter the quality or creativity, it’s tough for me to look forward to sitting through another round of the omnipresent Tchaikovsky score. But even after multiple viewings, Hart’s layered concoction reveals enough clever conceptual details to keep a jaded observer engaged. It’s clear a great deal of thought went into this grandiose production.
While perhaps not yet as familiar as the traditional E.T.A. Hoffman version, Hart’s tweaked plotline is no longer a novelty to local balletomanes: It’s 1920s New York City, where Clara (Ryoko Sadoshima) and her family, visiting during the holidays, happen upon an entourage from the circus. John Ringling (Richard House) and his nephew John Ringling North (Filippo Valmorbida) invite them to the circus’s winter home in Sarasota, where, in Act II, they’re treated to a string of spectacles, from acrobats, equestriennes and clowns, to tight rope walkers and the flamboyant trapeze duo, Prince (Ricardo Graziano) and Sugar (Kate Honea).
Hart’s reimagining works particularly well in Act I, where busy scenes set in Grand Central Station and an Art Deco hotel lobby replace the tired Christmas party of the conventional version. Once again, Ivan Duarte, a reliable scene stealer, was a hilarious hambone as Clara’s ill-behaved and petulant brother Fritz. But it was fun to see the fresh flavor some of the company’s newer faces brought to the quirky secondary roles.
Ivan Spitale, taking over for Jamie Carter as the swishy hotel manager, evidenced a flair for the histrionic, as Lauren Ostrander, a more beautiful Gertrude Stein-type in a louche silk suit, led him in an unctuous tango. Luke Schaufuss, the company’s newest heartthrob, was a suitably handsome partner in the dual role of Captain Stahlbaum/Snow King for Danielle Brown, as his wife and queen. And though she was far too refined for the role, I got a kick out of seeing the company’s prima Romantic ballerina Victoria Hulland (now well into her first pregnancy), cavorting as one of two clown soloists alongside a gleeful and expressive Ricki Bertoni.
Act II — which even in the traditional version can seem like a too-long stream of choppy variations — doesn’t fare as well, but remains entertaining, thanks to the real stars of this ballet: the stunning sets and costuming (by Peter Docherty), the impressive gamut of circus-like lighting (by Aaron Muhl) and Hart’s inventive choreography, which even on subsequent viewings, reveals fresh nuances and innuendos. Rarely, however, it also reveals instances where his urge to be original produces awkwardness; I’m thinking of the lifts by a trio of zebras of the equestrienne, Samantha Benoit, which never seem to go fluidly.
Speaking of fluid, a nod is due to the languid and lovely Amy Wood, making her final stage appearances as Mable Ringling. (The junior principal, who has been with the company since 2007, will retire following this run to become the ballet’s finance and office manager.) Her portrayal of Ringling’s beloved wife was polished and characteristically understated; her quiet but always lyrical presence will be missed.
As for the flaws in this year’s rendition, there were a number: scattered moments of misalignments and bobbles, a wobbly pyramid in the acrobats’ section, some messy fouettes in the “Russian” variation and a rare instance during the final grand pas de deux for Prince and Sugar when the usually impeccable Sarasota Orchestra, under the baton of Stillian Kirov, momentarily lost its unity.
But those are quibbles. It was fun for me to imagine what it would be like to see this Nutcracker version with the fresh eyes of a previously unexposed child; I had to think it would be endlessly more entertaining than the staid original. The two little girls sitting near me in their party dresses and patent leather shoes, seemed entirely entranced for the 2+ hour duration — kind of the way I was sitting next to Hart at that long-ago luncheon.