You don't really need to know anything about the Ringling family and its circus to enjoy the Sarasota Ballet's new production of the Tchaikovsky holiday classic, which is called John Ringling's Circus Nutcracker. Basically, it's a traditional Nutcracker in a regional setting, not unlike, say, the San Francisco Ballet's version, which takes place during the world's fair held there in 1915.
Iain Webb, director of Sarasota Ballet, expanded his company to accommodate the full-length work, featuring about 45 company members and 25 children, and the circus theme works surprisingly well.
Of course, many residents of Sarasota know all about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which wintered there and is central to the city's identity. A virtually full house turned out last Friday for the ballet's premiere at Van Wezel Hall. The production transfers to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater for three performances this Friday and Saturday.
In this Nutcracker, created by a pair of Englishmen, choreographer Matthew Hart and designer Peter Docherty, the ballet is set in the 1930s in New York and Sarasota. The key adaptation in the libretto is to make circus boss John Ringling the Drosselmeyer character, the somewhat mysterious figure who brings the nutcracker toy to the Stahlbaum family Christmas party and presents it to Clara. The change is mostly effective, though by introducing Ringling/Drosselmeyer early in Act 1 — at the New York railroad station where Clara and her family see the circus loading up — the drama of his entrance to the party, announced by a delicious minor chord in the Tchaikovsky score, is undercut.
With Ringling (David Tlaiye) at the center of the ballet, other characters fall into place nicely, including his nephew John Ringling North (Logan Learned), who is transformed into the Nutcracker and, in Act 2, as the Ringmaster for the string of divertissements performed not in the usual Kingdom of the Sweets, but in the Kingdom of the Circus. Ringling's wife, Mable (Victoria Hulland), has an important role, as a ghostly presence in white at the heart of the Waltz of the Roses done to music of the traditional Waltz of the Flowers. Mable's rose garden is a popular attraction on the grounds of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
In the Waltz of the Roses, John and Mable perform a romantic number along with a dozen young women from the corps de ballet in gorgeous red, arranged around six male dancers who form a gazebo in the middle of the garden. It was the best moment in the ballet on opening night.
In many stagings of The Nutcracker, Clara doesn't have a lot of dancing, but Hart gives her plenty to do, and Sara Sardelli was an exuberant highlight of Friday's performance. I was less taken by the conception of Sugar (i.e., the Sugarplum Fairy, played by Kate Honea) and her Prince (Ricardo Graziano). They're introduced in the first act as trapeze stars in their traveling garb of furs and a cowboy hat for him. Later the pair did their grand pas de deux in garish circus outfits, including some unfortunate hot pink tights for the Prince. Graziano was a smooth, powerful partner, but Honea didn't make much of an impression in the ballet's big finish with Hart's oddly generic choreography.
The Stahlbaums' holiday get-together is held at a New York hotel, with the art deco lines of the Chrysler Building dominating the scenery (as well as Docherty's design for the tutus). Clara's rambunctious brother Fritz (Pedro Pupa) had some suitably athletic spins (he returned in costume to lead the gangster mice in a battle with child clowns), and Jamie Carter's finicky hotel manager was amusing. Capt. and Mrs. Stahlbaum (Ricardo Rhodes and Danielle Brown) danced a perfunctory pas de deux during the Waltz of the Snowflakes, which features a Rockettes-style kick line.
The diminutive, thickly muscled Learned sported a red top hat as Ringling's nephew, then turned into the Nutcracker, then came back with the hat in Act 2 as the Ringmaster to do the Russian dance as a solo. Other vignettes that Clara watched from a platform above the stage featured the Equestrienne (Samantha Benoit) with three zebras, brightly costumed clowns that emerged from a car in the traditional Mother Ginger number and an elaborate elephant puppet.
Andrew Lane conducted the Sarasota Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's exquisite score. Having live music is sadly rare for ballet nowadays, so this was a treat. However, that the Sarasota Orchestra will be in the pit for the Clearwater performances will not sit well with supporters of the Florida Orchestra, which has played for countless productions of the ballet through the years at Ruth Eckerd Hall and can always use the work.
In many ways, The Nutcracker has been debased by being danced to death by ballet companies, from professionals to storefront studios, and too often it comes across as nostalgia done strictly for the money. Sarasota Ballet has made a worthy effort to infuse some freshness and creativity into the 120-year-old warhorse, and the new version largely succeeds, though by this point, audiences may be too jaded to appreciate it.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.