Iain Webb’s eyes light up like a kid on Christmas morning.
“Do you want to see the mouse?” he asks.
In the time it takes to blink, he scampers off down the hallway at FSU Center for the Performing Arts. Within seconds, a small-dog sized motorized rat prop made to look like a wind-up toy wheels into the room, with a remote-control-wielding Webb trailing close behind. He’s grinning — he clearly is excited.
The upcoming production of “The Nutcracker” is highly anticipated. It’s a special production putting a Sarasota spin on the classic Nutcracker, telling the story of John Ringling. Made as a tribute, the production is a holiday gift for Webb’s patrons who have and continue to support Sarasota Ballet.
Part of Webb’s goal for this celebration of Sarasota was to also corral the community. The ballet will be performed at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the Sarasota Orchestra will be performing the score, and the Asolo Repertory Theatre will be helping construct the majority of the costumes.
The conception of the program took place this time last year, when choreographer Matthew Hart was in town for “Tchaikovsky’s Ballet Fantasy,” a production meshing three Tchaikovsky stories into one ballet.
But, last year wasn’t the first time the dream-team worked together — Webb and Hart’s working relationship dates back more than 20 years to when Hart was enrolled in the Royal Ballet School. During his stay last October at Webb’s home, Hart learned about Sarasota’s rich circus history.
“He wanted a new ‘Nutcracker,’ but he also spoke to me about maybe doing a ballet that reflected Sarasota circus history,” Hart says. At that point, in Webb’s mind, these were two separate productions.
“The Nutcracker” had been performed by Sarasota Ballet for years, in fact, the production’s set and costumes are about 12 years old. Webb needed a revitalized “The Nutcracker.”
One night, when Hart and Webb got home from dinner and settled in for the night, Hart had an epiphany.
“Fifteen minutes later I hear footsteps coming down the stairs, and (Matthew) said, ‘I’ve come up with an idea: If you’re looking for a new ‘Nutcracker,’ why not have Drosselmeyer be John Ringling?’” Webb says.
Webb hadn’t imagined a circus-themed “Nutcracker,” but thought it was “brilliant.” The idea quickly snowballed.
“The next morning Matthew came up with more ideas, and then the afternoon, more ideas, and it kind of grew into this incredible production,” Webb says.
There are so many parallels between the Ringling story and “The Nutcracker” that it has all fallen into place. For instance, the two nephews: the nephew in “The Nutcracker” and the role of John Ringling’s nephew, John Ringling North, who eventually took over the reins of his circus. In Sarasota Ballet’s production, the “Nutcracker” story stays true to the traditional one but plays off the Ringling history.
“I did a lot of reading and looking at pictures and going to the museum,” says Hart.
Although this “Nutcracker” is circus-themed and set to the backdrop of 1930s prohibition, it uses a lot of the original components. For one, the score, to be performed by the Sarasota Orchestra, is Tchaikovsky’s original. Hart took only a few liberties with Lev Ivanhoff’s original steps from his famous pas de deux. And Hart even brings back some elements from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” that were lost — such as clowns.
“It’s great, because the people who still want to see a traditional ‘Nutcracker’ are going to get it,” Hart says.
But, instead of Clara running away to The Land of Sweets, she’ll run away with the circus and get whisked to Sarasota.
The Nutcracker will be a ringmaster. The Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy will be trapeze artists named Prince and Sugar. The snowflakes will be Rockettes-inspired chorus-line dancers — of course, they’ll be in 1930s art-deco, Chrysler-building-inspired costumes. Traditionally, the dance of the sweets, containing the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and Marzipan dances, will instead be circus acts.
“It’s so showy, it’s all about spectacle, and these quick numbers that really hit you in the eye,” Hart says about the original dance of sweets. “You’re constantly surprised and excited by the next number that comes on, and it works so beautifully with the idea of it being in the circus.”
One of the acts was inspired by a guy who drops and pulls the sets backstage.
“He showed me a photograph of his mother,” Webb says. “She’s en pointe with an umbrella on the tightrope.”
This ballet isn’t dark — it’s sweet, magical, uplifting and fun, but it does play to some elements of sadness.
“I always feel in Tchaikovsky’s scores, in general, there’s always a darkness underneath, there’s always something deeper, a bit painful,” Hart explains.
By sticking to the classic score and the traditional “Nutcracker,” Hart has played with these undertones. They meld perfectly with Ringling’s story — the production is set a few years after Mable Ringling’s death.
“As a fact, Drosselmeyer is a very lonely, single figure, you know?” Hart says. As Drosselmeyer gave to children, Ringling gave to Sarasota.
Mable Ringling’s incorporation into the ballet, as the Christmas angel who repairs the Nutcracker, will be unique to this production. Instead of The Dance of Flowers, it will be a dance of roses, representing Mable Ringling’s great passion.
It’s the biggest production the company has ever done. Every principal dancer will be on stage in a leading role; every apprentice, and the children of The Sarasota Ballet School, will be on stage as well. And Webb’s plans are to tour this production and, hopefully, one day perform it under a big top.
“I hope everybody is as proud of it as I am,” Webb says.
Video by Loren Mayo.
Classic to Circus
Drosselmeyer — John Ringling
Land of Snow — New York City
Land of Sweets — Sarasota
Dance of the Sweets — Circus diverts
The Prince — Prince, a trapeze artist
Sugar Plum Fairy — Sugar, a trapeze artist
Snow King and Queen — Clara’s parents
Snowflakes — Chorus line dancers
Nutcracker — Ringmaster (John Ringling North)
Clara Stahlbaum — Clara Stahlbaum
Christmas Tree Angel — Mable Ringling
If You Go
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15
Where: Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail
Cost: $10 to $90
Info: Call 359-0099, Ext. 101
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