Keturah Stickann sits in the Sarasota Ballet's cramped downtown studio on Lemon Avenue, an unflappable figure amidst a flurry of moving bodies.
"I'm running into the elephant man," complains one dancer.
"You mean Ganesh," says Stickann calmly, with an amused smile. "No problem, we'll work that out once we have the whole chorus on stage."
Turning to another dancer she adds, "And by the way, Luis, thumbs-up is not an Asian thing. In fact, in a lot of Eastern countries, that's sort of like swearing."
It's all in a (late) evening's work for Stickann, 36, who is making her debut with the Sarasota Opera directing and choreographing the reprise of Georges Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers." If she seems imperturbable it's because she has been a part of this operatic portrait of 1850s Sri Lanka under British colonial rule six times before — as a dancer, assistant choreographer, choreographer and assistant director — everywhere from the San Diego Opera to the New York City Opera.
Since giving up her professional career as a modern dancer in 2006, Stickann has become a specialist in the creation and direction of opera choreography, as well as an in-demand movement coach for young singers and actors. Increasingly, she is moving into directing full productions; this marks the first time she is wearing dual hats for a production of "The Pearl Fishers," and rather than adding to her load, she says it's actually easier this way.
"It's ideal to have the direction and the choreography meet," says the ponytailed Stickann, who hardly looks old enough to be running the show. "I like being in both worlds. In this case my choreography will drive the story in the way I need it to, so I can tailor it to what happens on stage. Everything the dancers are doing is helping the audience understand what this world is all about that they've stepped into."
The opera's artistic director, Victor DeRenzi, says he did not hire Stickann for her dance background, but her talent in that area certainly doesn't hurt.
"The dancing is not only an asset, but a necessity," he says. "But more important, I think she understands the feeling of the period and the ambiance of it and that she will capture the emotion of the singing."
"The Pearl Fishers" is a particularly "dancey" opera, Stickann says, though she has removed one movement sequence in the second act because of time constraints.
The original French choreography was likely "full out ballet,"; her own version, based on research of the period, combines classical elements with ritual dance, acrobatics, martial arts and Indian Bharatanatyam.
"It's a little bastardized, but everything is reality-based," she says. "After all, this is an exotic piece written by a Western European gentleman who never even went to this country, so I don't think we're that far off. You're retelling the story with a very French flair."
Though she now specializes in French operas, her introduction to the art form was as a dancer performing the ritualistic movement in Philip Glass's "Ahknaten," about the life and religious convictions of the pharaoh. Oddly enough, that unusual first exposure sealed the direction of her career.
"It happened like that," Stickann says, snapping her fingers. "It was the most exhilarating performing experience I had ever had as a dancer, an incredible symbiosis of movement and music. I thought: 'This is where it's at.' It's such a total art experience."
Most of Stickann's cast of young dancers for "The Pearl Fishers" — Pedro Batista, Luis Gonzalez-Hager, Jermaine Thornton, Marina Masterson, Richael Nelson and Dara Nicole (with Levi Laterrear as understudy) — are getting a similar introduction now. For all except Nicole, a former dancer with Next Generation Ballet in Tampa, this is a new experience.
"I've never even seen an opera, but I've always wanted to perform in one," says Thornton, a University of South Florida graduate who performs with Florida Dance Theater in Tampa. "To hear people sing with that magnitude just takes me to a whole new level."
Already a convert, Thornton holds up a hand to stop the conversation momentarily when strains of "Nessun dorma," the famous aria from "Turandot," wafts through the opera house courtyard from a nearby rehearsal hall.
"I have to listen," he explains. "I just love that."
The dancers, who answered an open audition call, will each receive a $2,000 honorarium, a welcome change from their usual pickup performance efforts.
"It's really encouraging that another discipline would honor and respect my time and the fact that what I do is difficult," says Thornton, whose first professional dance job earned him $25 and "the promise of a pizza I never got."
Though Nicole has danced twice with Tampa Opera as a student with the Patel Conservatory, this is also her first paid dance position. When she received her first check, before rehearsals had even begun, she hesitated to cash it because "I felt guilty because I hadn't done anything yet."
"It's not just about the money, though," Nicole adds. "It's how we're treated. The respect is there on all levels. And Keturah never forgets about us, which is amazing because she has so much to do."
The dancers also appreciate Stickann's wariness of injury (she refuses to let them dance full-out when the rehearsal flooring is inadequate) and her complete understanding of the challenges of dance within an opera — in particular, having to limit their movement to the available space between the chorus members and the large-scale sets. Stickann says she can easily put herself in their (in this case half-soled) shoes.
That's probably why she's also lavish with her appreciation during rehearsals, couching any critiques in an ample amount of praise, especially with her youngest cast members. (She attributes her facility with young performers to her mother's unplanned pregnancy when Stickann was 16 — "The best birth control she ever could have given me.")
"That's so perfect I can't even tell you," she says to young brothers Seth and Samule Stahlman, non-dancers doing their novice best in a festival scene. "Now just don't get too close to the edge of that stage because you're worrying me."
Stickann says she is one of "a handful" of people who specialize in choreography for opera and the career choice dictates that she is on the road about 10 months of every year. She'll next head to Knoxville, Tenn., to direct a production of "Tales of Hoffman."
"For me, it's all opera all the time," she admits. "When I decided to retire from dancing, everything kept coming back to this. It seemed to be my niche.
"To find joy in my work at 22 was a very lucky thing and I just thank God that I found it."
THE PEARL FISHERS, by Georges Bizet. Sarasota Opera, directed and choreographed by Keturah Stickann. Feb. 16 - March 22; times vary. 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. $19-$135. 366-8450; www.sarasotaopera.org.