Who Is Sugar Plum?

Delving into the character behind this iconic ballerina role.
Published in the Dec 2009/Jan 2010 issue.

Snagging Sugar Plum is a coup for any dancer: Portraying this vision of beauty and benevolence is a dream lots of little—and not so little—girls cherish. Yet while the role might look like a breeze, it requires expert technique as well as stamina. And more: To bring her to life and keep her sparkle intact for countless performances, dancers must ask themselves, who is the Sugar Plum Fairy?

With more than 500 Nutcrackers performed across the country each year—and who knows how many renditions of Sugar Plum—how do you start to define the character? “Sugar Plum is the epitome of beauty, love, tenderness, sweetness and all good things,” says Bene Arnold, interim chair of the ballet department at The University of Utah. Start with that foundation, then make it your own. “Each dancer has to give the character her own sense of beauty and graciousness. That’s part of the creativity.”

To get comfortable enough to portray a fairy, National Ballet of Canada’s Bridgett Zehr had to first address the technical challenges. While Zehr thinks the more contemporary James Kudelka choreography NBC performs is easier than the traditional version, Sugar Plum has a pas de deux Zehr describes as nonstop. “You need to be calm,” she says. “Be right on your leg or you throw yourself off.”

Like many dancers, Zehr looks to Gelsey Kirkland’s performance of the variation as the supreme interpretation. “It’s like she never touches the ground,” Zehr says of American Ballet Theatre’s celebrated Baryshnikov production, long a holiday staple on TV. To achieve that quality, Zehr uses imagery. “I have a coach who said Sugar Plum enters walking on a cloud, so light, so fresh. I work on being as light as air.” But technique isn’t everything, cautions Zehr, who began dancing Sugar Plum in 2006. “Remember that she’s still a character,” she advises. “A lot of times, people get distracted by this classical pas de deux and forget she plays a part in the story.” 

Integral to that part is Sugar Plum’s relationship with Clara. “It’s important to connect with Clara,” says Angela Whitehill, co-author of The Nutcracker Backstage and founding artistic director of Burklyn Ballet Theatre. “I remember one dancer I had, and the love she had for Clara. It was absolutely beautiful.”

Which makes perfect sense to BalletMet dancer Emily Gotschall, who first danced the role last year. “Sugar Plum is not an untouchable mystical fairy,” says Gotschall. “She’s Clara’s idealization of her mother.” To project Sugar Plum’s most important quality—warmth—Gotschall goes for gracious port de bras and eyes that are “open and bright.” No fake stage smiles for this dancer. “I try to dance her as real,” she says. “The Sugar Plums who move me the most are not necessarily the most technically proficient, though you have to have that, but someone who’s authentic. You can tell when someone’s enjoying that role.”

While Ballet West Principal Christiana Bennett sees Sugar Plum as more ethe­real than human, she also focuses on interacting with Clara. “Sugar Plum is a warm-hearted creature,” says Bennett. “She’s so grateful that Clara has saved the Prince that she creates the whole second act for her. She’s almost like a Fairy Godmother.” There are those all-too-human moments, of course, when it can be hard to stay in character: Seats start to squeak and she hears, “Mommy, it’s Barbie!” Bennett says, “I try to block it out and be ever more gentle and soft.”

While there is no Sugar Plum in Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker, Christine Winkler dances her variation as Dew Drop Fairy. For her, the glorious music alone is enough to maintain the magic—even though she’s heard it a million times. “All dancers roll their eyes when they hear Nutcracker music at the mall,” she says. “It’s about show 28, you’re trying to do Christmas shopping, and you have to run out of the store.” Nonetheless, Winkler is able to inject her role with newness each year because Artistic Director John McFall lets the dancers tweak the production. “We get to take liberties,” Winkler says. “John knows it can get tedious.” McFall allows principals and soloists to tailor his steps—turning on a different leg, for instance—and play with the interpretation. “He gets the best possible outcome because you’re more comfortable,” Winkler says. An added benefit? “You feel more part of the process. You take part ownership.”

Many dancers are motivated by the thought that their performance might inspire future dancers. Nutcracker brings ballet to the public, and savvy Sugar Plums get that. “You can obsess over technique, but at the end of the night, the most important thing is to connect with the audience,” says Gotschall. Zehr adds, “So many people see Nutcracker and want to dance. I have to remember that somebody might discover ballet at Nutcracker.”

Susan Chitwood is a frequent contributor to Pointe.