Sweet Sugar Plums
The Sugar Plum Fairy is ballet’s ambassador. For so many girls, she’s the first ballerina they ever lay eyes on. If the dancer performs the role with warmth, graciousness, and elegance, the spell is cast. Sugar Plum not only welcomes Clara and her prince into the Land of the Sweets in
The Nutcracker, but provides the classical high point to this favorite holiday ballet. Here seven dancers talk about why they (mostly) love this annual ritual.
Principal, New York City Ballet
The Nutcracker is the one ballet that everyone knows. The kids love it, and before you get out onstage they already like you.
I find the solo in the beginning really difficult. In Balanchine’s version, the Sugar Plum variation is performed at the beginning of the second act. I like to move a lot when I dance, but it’s all underneath yourself and very precise. The music’s very quiet and not a lot’s happening, and all the angels are watching you. The pas de deux is the fun part. The coda keeps the momentum going, and it has more of the gasp! factor than the variation.
When I was Marie in 1986 and 1987, I would sit on the throne, and my hands would sweat because I would get nervous for the Sugar Plum. Everyone was waiting for her to come out. I loved watching Kyra Nichols and Darci Kistler. Darci was so exciting you didn’t know what was going to happen. Kyra made me the least nervous; she seemed so calm.
In our version, at the height of the pas de deux, you step on a slide that pulls you across the stage to magical effect. A circle is drawn in black and that’s your target. In the intermission we test-run the slide. Usually you try it out only when you have a new partner. Most principals say, “I’m good, I don’t need to try.” But I do it every time. It’s a little difficult to judge. My tutu is a larger one, so sometimes I can’t see. You want to be on the center. If you miss it a fraction, you’ll start jiggling from side to side.
Joey Lynn Mann
We have some matinees where the kids come backstage. The girls see your costume, the fabulous tiara up close. Just to see the look in their eyes makes it all worthwhile.
You’re onstage so little that it’s hard to make that relationship with the audience. You have 10 minutes to create a rapport. You have to be this confident, sparkling radiant thing—and also be gracious, warm, and tender. I imagine myself in my own snowball bubble, in my perfect world, like the little glass paperweight that you shake and the snow happens. I try to forget how long the variation is. It’s not bravura but it has that crystal pin drop excitement. It’s pristine, calm water, and there’s no room to fix a little oops. It has to be true. I look into my partner’s eyes right before we go out, and think, OK let’s do it, this is fun.
Principal dancer, San Francisco Ballet
I used to get very melancholy because I could never be with my family at that time of year. So more than anything, what motivates me is just seeing all the new kids, looking around at all these little faces in awe, everyone in the company and the school brought together. These big rehearsals bring me back to my youth when I looked up to the ballerinas and thought, One day, maybe, I’ll do it. There are so many ballerinas I love, but Gelsey Kirkland was one of my favorite Sugar Plums. I remember seeing her for the first time in the role and it was sort of imprinted in my brain. She was so airy. She just glided over the floor. Her footwork was amazing—that quality of suspension.
In Helgi Tomasson’s production, the Sugar Plum is Clara in a different dimension. I try to play her with joie, gaiety, as a happy girl that just saw herself transform. There is a little more youth, like, Wow, I became this princess that I had a dream about.
In America The Nutcracker is almost a necessity, rather than something we choose to do. So it’s easy to write it off. But I love the Sugar Plum Fairy because she reaches out to so many people. My hope is that when I dance, it touches people, that it inspires them and they experience something beautiful. The Nutcracker is a fairy tale. People have a chance to escape from their lives. The Sugar Plum Fairy is the conductor of all of that. She’s a queen; she’s in charge. She orchestrates the whole thing. But she is also gracious toward Clara. She’s mysterious. The music in her solo conveys that.
In a lot of the older Nutcrackers, the pas de deux is done slower, with lots of stops, the big lift, and walking around. The version that Robert Weiss, artistic director of Carolina Ballet, created has a flow from beginning to end that you have to sustain. There are no rest spots or parading around. You have to not get ahead of yourself and be in the moment. It’s the heart of the ballet. You have to be calm, cool, and collected, not projecting any thoughts about what it’s going to be like. And not get distracted by the fact that everyone else is finished and you’re still waiting around.
The Sugar Plum Fairy doesn’t entail a lot of acting, but she has to create the atmosphere, the feeling. It should be a magical atmosphere. She has a personality like Glinda in The Wizard of Oz in the pink bubble who’s filled with love and goodness and happiness—what all little girls dream of being.
Principal dancer, Pennsylvania Ballet
One of the things we don’t say is that we get bored doing Nutcracker. But I always think that there are people in the audience who have never seen it before and I wouldn’t ever want to disappoint anyone.
When I first come out I can hear the children’s reaction. It makes me remember having the dream to be a ballerina when I grow up. The Sugar Plum Fairy is a guide. She rules the land and it’s her job to make sure that the children are taken care of. She has to have a little maternal instinct.
When I was younger at SAB, Darci Kistler was a true Sugar Plum. Her personality is exactly the same as the Sugar Plum’s should be—genuinely very loving and caring. The way she does the role is easy and effortless on top but strong from the waist down. I love Wendy Whelan’s Sugar Plum too. She’s an absolute technician. Her muscle tone is amazing. She’s completely ripped.
For me it’s not as difficult a role to dance technically as when I first started. I’ve gained more strength and figured out where to breathe. It’s taken me years to find the rest spots. The challenging part is making it look nice and sweet. I used to punch it out. I’d have to do all the steps perfectly. I’d have to do a lot of turns. But the audience doesn’t notice that. So now I try to be softer and easier on top. I want to feel it.
I still like to be daring. I love the carried jetés that go across the back of the stage and the running shoulder sits. I try to see how much distance I can cover.
I’m originally from Cuba and The Nutcracker is performed very rarely there. I only started seeing it and then dancing it in 1996 at Hartford Ballet, where I learned it from Kirk Peterson. It was a very different version, The American Nutcracker, with all his own choreography.
At The Washington Ballet, the first act is set in a Georgetown mansion. Historical figures from DC are guests at the party, and George Washington is the Nutcracker. The second act is still a magical world, but it is set among the cherry blossoms. The Sugar Plum Fairy is a combination of sweetness and delicacy, but you also need to have command of the stage and the strength for the technical steps. We do The Nutcracker so much every year that you can lose the spark. I keep trying to go back to the wonderment that kids have about this magical ballet.
Interviews by Darrah Carr, Khara Hanlon, Wendy Perron, and Kina Poon