It’s hard to compete with George Balanchine’s version of “The Nutcracker,” but Matthew Hart certainly compares with his absolutely clever rendition of the holiday classic, which centers on the circus history established by Sarasota’s John Ringling.
The storyline that weaves John and Mable Ringling’s love story, the circus and Mable’s rose garden is brilliant. The sets and costumes designs by Peter Docherty are magnificent and sparkle with creativity. Hart’s choreography is simple by design but has an oh-so-ever-reaching effect. The dancing is yet again perfectly performed by the Sarasota Ballet dancers. And, nothing will give you goose bumps more than Tchaikovsky’s music as the Christmas tree grows before the battle scene, especially when the music is performed live by the Sarasota Orchestra conducted by Andrew Lane.
This truly is a Sarasota holiday classic.
One wondered how this year’s Clara would compare to recently retired Sara Sardelli’s excellent portrayal, but Jessica Cohen stood up to the challenge and was a wonderful Clara with excellent expressions, stage presence and beautifully danced technique. Her counterpart, Logan Learned, played the part of the petulant child, Fritz, wreaking havoc through the party scene with his band of boys from the Sarasota Ballet School.
David Tlaiye, as John Ringling, and Alex Harrison, as John Ringling North, displayed the perfect amount of debonair grace, commanding the stage as they created excitement and magic for the party children. Jamie Carter, as the hotel manager, however, stole the show in the Party Scene. His comedic acting skills drew big laughs and giggles from the audience.
Hart’s battle scene is absolutely clever. With larger-than-life, wind-up robotic mice, gangster mice and clowns (instead of soldiers), the battle scene takes on a whole new meaning. The gangster mice, led by Learned as the Mouse King, perform a version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance before taking on the clowns, led by The Nutcracker, danced by Harrison. Learned and Harrison performed perfect grand tour jetés manages, while the battle ensued in the middle of the stage. A nice touch was the Mouse King’s Mole danced by Nicole Padilla, who cut a sultry-siren figure.
Once Clara defeats the Mouse King with a whack on the head by a shoe, she is transported by John Ringling via hotel luggage-cart train to the land of snow, where her parents, the Stahlbaums, danced by Ricardo Rhodes and Danielle Brown, are transformed into the Snow King and Queen. The snowflakes danced a Rockette-style show with a kick-line that pinwheeled around the stage. Although, a few times, the snowflakes seemed to a have a few moments of messy lines — it didn’t matter, because, after all, every snowflake is different. They sparkled and shone, nonetheless.
Every scene and dance in Act 2 was truly splendid. Hart turned the Land of the Sweets into a circus spectacular and, in every essence, it really was that — spectacular.
Samantha Benoit, as the Equestrienne, was hoisted in air by three Zebras, first lifting her in a shoulder sit then flipping her around multiple times into an arabesque mid-air. A magnificent elephant appeared with Anais Blake riding atop as the Arabian. But, most fun were the writhing wild cats, danced by Amy Wood, Emily Dixon, Kristianne Kleine, Kelly Yankle, Ellen Overstreet and Kristen Conrad, who hissed and clawed at the Arabian man, Daniel Rodriguez, as he tried to tame them.
The Tightrope girls tiptoed en pointe with parasols with standout twirlers Elizabeth Sykes, Ryoko Sadoshima and Nicole Padilla. Sara Scherer and Ricki Bertoni led the circus clowns with hilarity, especially when Bertoni arrived in a tiny, electric clown car that contained eight clown dancers from the Sarasota Ballet School. And the waltz of the roses was absolutely beautiful, as Mable Ringling, danced by Victoria Hulland, wove in and out of the dancing garden with John Ringling (Tlaiye).
Finally, Sugar, an aerialist, danced by Kate Honea, and her prince, Ricardo Graziano, commanded the stage in the grand pas de deux. The pair danced with effortless grace and performed each of their solos with precision. They wowed in the coda, with Graziano pulling off perfect tricks of multiple tours en l’air, entrechat six and grand assemblés that seemed to travel halfway across stage. Honea danced perfect piqué turn manèges that included grand tour jetés en attitude devant interspersed, as well as multiple fouetté en tournants in a corner sequence.
The magnificent production dramatically ended with John and Mable Ringling rising above the circus on a giant crescent moon with the entire cast waving from below. Bravo!
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