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Florida Gulfshore Ballet and Gulf Coast Symphony bring “The Nutcracker” to the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall

“The Nutcracker” traces its origins to an 1816 holiday story written by E.T.A. Hoffman. Some 30 years later, Alexandre Dumas of “Three Musketeers” fame penned an adaptation. Nearly 50 years after that, Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky composed a ballet that’s gone on to become the most produced ballet around the world, bar none.

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Courtesy of Florida Gulfshore Ballet
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The Gulf Coast Symphony-Florida Gulfshore Ballet production has some special treats in store for those lucky enough to get tickets to either performance.

““The Nutcracker” has all these characters,” said Florida Gulfshore Ballet Artistic Director Iliana Lopez. “It’s a wonderful story. You have Drosselmeyer. You have Marie. You have the Prince. You have the Marzipans. You have the Candy Canes, the Snowflakes, the Flowers. It’s a huge ballet. We have 45 kids on stage plus the adult students that sometime collaborate with us.”

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Courtesy of Florida Gulfshore Ballet

The story follows a young girl named Clara, who creeps downstairs on Christmas Eve to retrieve her favorite gift, a nutcracker which was given to her by her godfather, who is also a mysterious magician. Nodding off on the sofa, she is suddenly whisked her off on a magical adventure. After defeating the villainous Mouse King, Clara and the Nutcracker fly on a golden sleigh through the Land of Snow to the Kingdom of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy serves up a dazzling display of dances, including her own. Back at home in bed, Clara is convinced it must all have been a dream. But was it?

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Courtesy of Florida Gulfshore Ballet
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“It’s a Christmas tradition,” said Lopez. “Actually, most countries have it as a Christmas tradition. So, yeah, there’s a lot of characters. It’s very exciting. It has a story behind it. And it’s just a very beautiful ballet to see. You know, the music is Tchaikovsky, so it’s gorgeous music. And it’s kind of interesting…even the little kids love it. They won’t fall asleep, that’s for sure.”

For kids, this production is not just entertaining, it’s aspirational. That’s because the Gulfshore Ballet students who they’ll see performing on the Barbara B. Mann stage range in ages from just three or four all the way to 18-years-old.

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Courtesy of Florida Gulfshore Ballet
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Adults in the audience will be equally impressed. Gulfshore Ballet’s students are well-rehearsed, richly refined, disciplined dancers.

“I think they will go home thinking, ‘were they students? They look like professionals,’” said Lopez.

“That’s a comment we get all the time from people when they come to see our shows. 'Your students look like they’re professionals; The way they dance. The way they behave on stage.’”

In fact, many Gulfshore Ballet students have gone on to professional careers at companies around the world.

“We have a lot of students that continue with professional careers. In fact, we just lost three this past season. Two are in Milwaukee Ballet. One is in the second company of Milwaukee Ballet and one is as a trainee. The other dancer is with Kansas City Ballet. And we also have a dancer that’s signed a contract with Royal Danish Ballet in Europe. We have dancers that have gone to Houston and Boston Ballet. We have Anna McKinney who is in San Francisco.”

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Courtesy of Florida Gulfshore Ballet
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In addition to the 45 students who are taking part in this year’s performances, there are a number of adult performers, as well as two guest dancers from Miami City Ballet, principals Katia Carranza and Luis Silva. This not only gives the students the rare opportunity to rehearse, perform with, and learn from professional dancers who are at the height of their careers, but allows the audience to see just how well the students measure up to their exacting professional standards.

When “The Nutcracker” premiered in Russia in 1892, it was panned by critics and even the composer himself. Part of the reason for the ballet’s less than stellar debut was its substandard choreography.

The opposite applies here. With careers spanning more than 35 years, Gulfshore Ballet Artistic Directors Iliana Lopez and husband Franklin Gamero are acclaimed nationally, if not internationally, for their fresh, imaginative choreography.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Florida Gulfshore Ballet dancers rehearse "The Nutcracker"

“Our choreography is fun,” Lopez promises. “People have said that we keep the classical, classically based behind it, but it has our touch. We danced a lot of Balanchine when we danced with Miami City Ballet, so that Balanchine style is reflected in the choreography somehow. So, I think it’s a performance that will make you feel happy at the end of the day.”

In addition to the music and dancing, “The Nutcracker” has become a pop culture phenomenon because of its spectacle and pageantry. The Florida Gulfshore Ballet-Gulf Coast Symphony collaboration is no exception.

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Courtesy of Florida Gulfshore Ballet

“Another beautiful thing about our Nutcracker performance is the set,” said Gulfshore Ballet Board President Claudia Beyer.

“We have backdrops that are gorgeous that go along with the theme in each scene of the show. And the costumes that the girls use during the performance are absolutely beautiful. They’re colorful. They’re shiny. They’re professionally made.”

Most ballet schools and many professional ballet companies only get to perform to canned music. This will be the case for Gulfshore Ballet’s Dec. 17 performance at the new Tribby Art Center at Shell Point, but the music at the Barbara B. Mann is live, compliments of Gulf Coast Symphony, and Maestro Andrew Kurtz calls it the highlight of his Christmas holiday season.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Florida Gulfshore Ballet dancers rehearse "The Nutcracker"

It will no doubt be the highlight of holiday season of attendees and Gulfshore Ballet’s students and their families, but Artistic Director Lopez expects more.

“Our program prepares kids for life in general, not just to be dancers but to learn about life principles – to have commitment, to have discipline, to learn about punctuality, to learn about to be respectful, respect your teachers, say hello. We think all those things are values that are so important. It teaches them perseverance and hard work and I think those are key things to have in life. They learn to be positive and to work hard, no matter what,” said Lopez.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Florida Gulfshore Ballet dancers rehearsing "The Nutcracker"

“Their bodies are their instruments, so you have pain, a lot. Dancers go through a lot of pain. Muscle pain. Their feet are bleeding when they start learning point work, but they still need to learn how to still keep their point of view when they’re in pain. Like it teaches them to be tough in a way and in life you have to be tough, you know, when things don’t work the way you want for them to work.”

This year’s performances of “The Nutcracker” are at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10 at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall and at 6 p.m. in Tribby Art Center at Shell Point on Dec. 17.

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