Local children costumed as colorful reef fish interact with ‘Jewels of the Atoeshu’ ballerinas. CAROL TEDESCO/KeyWestHolidayFest.com

By Amy Patton

It’s difficult to imagine a more iconic storytelling of the magic of Christmas than George

Balanchine’s classic ballet fantasy, “The Nutcracker.”

But there’s no need to leave town to enter this dreamy wonderland. A charming two-act iteration of sugar plum fairies and waltzing flowers set to Tchaikovsky’s symphonic masterpiece is on stage right here in Key West for a limited run through Sunday, Dec. 11 at the Tennessee Williams Theatre on College Road.

But in the islands, the perennial dance display is reworked with a twist. Soldiers are sailors, fairies are fish, and conch shell-adorned characters twirl through nautical, underwater scenes.

The 100-cast repertory boasts an impressive range of performers, including locals from the Nutcracker Key West studio and imports from the New York Dance Project. The merging of the two dance companies is both complicated and joyous, said director and producer

Matthew Rawls, adding that the blend makes the show unique. Rawls gives credit to Joyce Stahl, the initial creator of the tropical take on the ballet.

Local children costumed as Key West chickens surround Reese Kight, one of two local performers alternating the role of Clara in the 2022 production. CAROL TEDESCO/ KeyWestHolidayFest.com

 “She created this adaptation of Nutcracker in 2005 to reflect the images and themes of the island,” said Rawls at the dress rehearsal on Dec. 5. “We’ve taken her vision and brought it to the stage with this.”

Stahl helmed the show and brought it to the local stage every two years since its inception. When she was unable to continue the production, Stahl donated all the show’s assets (costumes, sets, etc.) to the nonprofit Performing Arts Center Key West, which operates the Tennessee Williams Theatre.

The Nutcracker’s coming-of-age story of Clara and her family’s Christmas Eve gathering with friends (yes, there’s a giant tree) dissolves into elaborate dance sequences, bringing her crush on a boy at the party into a full flight of imagination. Adorable Key West chicken sprites peck and scamper throughout Clara’s “dream.” The scenes evolve into snowy egrets flying through the night among moonbeam dust. Audiences and children living in the Keys’ climate will delight in the falling snow that floats upon the Sea Star Fairy, the Angelfish and the finned mermaid, some of whom represent the show’s Royal Court.

So many dancers are involved in the production that the show has been split into two casts: “Reese,” named for the dancer Reese Kight playing the lead character of Clara, and “Nela” for ballerina Nela Sulak. “We double-cast every other show,” said Rawls, “so that we can alternate roles” of the ballet. 

Francesca Kraszewski and Jeremiah Bernal, both New York Dance Project corps members, perform as Snowy Egret Queen and King in a Key West salt ponds scene. CAROL TEDESCO/KeyWestHolidayFest.com

Tchaikovsky’s soaring score is not produced by a live orchestra in this ballet, but is an existing track from a previous performance.

Credit must be given to the costume and set design in this onstage confection. Dancers are bedecked with hand-sewn garments that are reserved only for the biennial Christmas show. ”You could put these pieces in a museum,” said Rawls. 

A sunken ship prop piece bears the name “Atoeshu,” a tongue-in-cheek nod to the ballet en pointe slipper and Key West’s famed Atocha shipwreck.

The gemstones are another extravagance of the Nutcracker Key West. The ballet’s production team borrowed an astonishing $5 million worth of jewels from local jewelers Neptune Designs, Emeralds International, Blue Sophia and Pacific Jewelry.

If you’re close enough to the stage, you can see the sparkling precious stones that adorn some of the prima ballerinas; including an 11-carat diamond ring on loan to the show.

‘Nutcracker Key West’ artistic director Matthew Rawls (in white T-shirt) goes over final notes with New York Dance Project performers Francesca Kraszewski and Kahlil Jackson before a Dec. 5 dress rehearsal. CAROL TEDESCO/KeyWestHolidayFest.com

Gracing world stages since its 1892 premiere in Moscow, the Nutcracker’s endearing and sentimental elements have helped keep this classic holiday ballet alive. The ballet eventually made its way to Manhattan in 1954, danced by the NYC Ballet Co., and continues, in many adaptations, to thrill audiences in small cities like Key West.

“This show only exists because the community wants it and supports the arts,” Rawls said. “It’s a true reflection of the island’s culture. As the Keys become more commercialized, this ballet is one of the last holdovers from an earlier generation of creative people.”

In the words of the great playwright Tennesee Williams, whose eponymous theater is home to this year’s Nutcracker Key West, “An artist must believe in himself. Your belief is contagious.”

So, too, is this charming and infectious holiday celebration. 

“It’s the perfect gift we can give to our island city,” Rawls said.