Leslie @ Lunch

With Guest Peter Stark

Story by Leslie Joy Ickowitz

The first time I met Peter Stark, dance department chair and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet at The Patel Conservatory, he asked, “Want a look inside the tutu closet?” 

I have never wanted to Facebook friend-request someone so fast. Peter is so cool. He’s sweet and fabulous to be around—what with all the ballerinas and dreamy costumes and beautiful music. Even a few not-so-pesky mice.  

After scoring the sweetest parking spot in downtown Tampa, Peter and I met up on the street outside Spain Restaurant & Toma Bar. There was marked glee in my reaction to his arrival. What is it about this guy? A former ballet dancer himself, with leading roles at New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet and Washington Ballet, Peter is light on air. And dashing in a handsome blazer with a collarless shirt, jeans and polished shoes. 

Wearing something I envision twirling around at The Nutcracker’s Christmas Party scene, I led Peter into Spain’s crisp white space and owner Fred Castro welcomed us. Peter hadn’t dined there before and when he learned they offer a Flamenco dance performance, he lit up and likely plans to bring a clan of visiting friends to see one. From the lunch buffet, we were served our choices: a light, fresh fish dish for him and arroz con pollo for me. Both of us were delighted upon delivery of a small slice of buttered, pressed Cuban bread. 

It’s practically a Christmas miracle that Peter was able to join me for lunch at this time of year. It’s the week of Thanksgiving and Next Generation Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is peering around the corner (December 7th and 8th at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts’ Carol Morsani Hall). 

“It’s beyond,” he says of the production featuring a growing Christmas tree comprised of 2,500 individually-dyed ostrich feathers with sets, props and costumes designed by Thom J. Peterson. It should be noted that Peter Stark knows a thing or two about The Nutcracker. This one will mark his 39th Nutcracker. He is 46 years old.   

This specific Nutcracker, originally hailing from the Omaha Ballet, is set in Russia circa 1896 and features Peter’s favorite costuming of any ballet of all time. When he arrived here, Peter felt it was imperative for Next Generation Ballet (NGB) to introduce its own production of The Nutcracker. He knew they needed it but didn’t know how or where the show’s components would come from. Then came news of the Omaha Ballet’s (which, as a result of the elaborate build, bankrupted the company) and after renting it for one year, NGB acquired it permanently. 

“It was one of those kismet moments in life. It couldn’t have come together more perfectly,” Peter says. 

This season’s production features Boston Ballet principal dancer Lia Cirio as Sugar Plum. She will be partnered by her brother and Boston Ballet principal dancer Jeffrey Cirio in the role of Sugar Plum Cavalier. These guest artists perform along with NGB’s award winning dancers and a cast of nearly 175 dancers, gymnasts and other guest artists. 

Peter’s enthusiasm for infusing his creativity and choreography into Thom Peterson’s original vision, which he holds in such high regard, is as brilliant as a pirouetting prima ballerina. And the music! Just the thought of it conjures visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in my head. 

“The music is like your mother’s voice,” Peter says as sweetly as a lullaby. 

NGB serves as a stepping stone for talented dancers and its performers have been awarded scholarships at leading ballet schools worldwide such as the Royal Ballet of England and The School of American Ballet. That kind of success turns a lot of attention our way. I love that Peter Stark is putting Tampa on the map in such a graceful way. And now we’re friends on Facebook. Hooray! 


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