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A conversation with our Sugar Plum Fairies

It’s not easy being Plum.

As a fairy, she’s required to be both breezy and regal, to make her movements look both effortless and intricate. No easy feat for any and every dancer.

But it’s Plum, and her music, that seem to most charm the audience during The Nutcracker. So we sat down with three of our fairies to get their take on performing this iconic and rewarding role.

When did you first perform the role of Sugar Plum?

Caitlin Valentine-Ellis: I was in Orlando, so it was over 10 years ago. The first time I performed it was with my now-husband. We were young dancers at Orlando Ballet, and we got to work with Fernando Bujones and his wife. It was pretty amazing.

Grace-Anne Powers: I think I was 16. It was a guesting, so I was pretty much on my own, which is hard. But it also led to a guesting with that same school to do Giselle.

Madeline Skelly: This is my first time performing it. I think it’s intimidating. I’ve seen the strongest dancers I know struggle with it. It’s intimidating but special.

What makes it intimidating?

C: It’s probably the most classical thing in Nutcracker. You’re in a tutu, which is always a little more exposing. I’ve been Clara and Sugar Plum, and Clara’s more fun and free. You have to be more precise as Sugar Plum, and it’s iconic music—everyone recognizes it, so you feel like people are waiting for it during the show.

G: It’s just very meticulous footwork. It may not look like much, but it’s really hard. And the pas is quite long, and it’s slow and controlled. It takes more energy than you’d think.

M: Yeah, I think the struggle for me is trying to be delicate and soft. I don’t breathe the whole time. I feel a little more comfortable with something freer.

What do you love most about it?

All: The music.

C: Especially the pas music is just so gorgeous. You can get sick of Nutcracker, but that music…

G: I think having the live music as well makes it. It helps, but the tempo isn’t always exactly the same, so you have to be in the moment.

C: Yeah, you have to be “on your toes.” (laughing)

What does having that live music bring to the performance for you as a dancer?

C: It brings more life to it. You’re all more aware of everyone on stage and certain cues. It’s these two art forms coming together on stage.

G: The conductor [Luis Biava]—he’s the go-between. He can work with the dancers and observe tempos with them, if you balance longer…

C: He’ll come backstage between acts and ask the dancers, “For this variation, do you like this slower or faster?” He goes above and beyond.

How do you prepare for the role?

G: I wear pink tights to class every day. (laughing)

C: The junk comes off—stop wearing big pants and leg warmers. You have to be focused. It’s the only thing in a tutu in this ballet, so you have to be precise and clean. Coming from the productions we were just doing, it’s a big shift.

Talk more about that shift—how has that affected rehearsals?

M: For me, because we’ve been in soft shoes and socks, my feet were in pain [when we first started rehearsing]. It’s lower-leg stamina, from the knee down. That’s the hardest thing for me—my lower legs get tired. The rep in the beginning of the year was much more leg heavy, which was nice because we stayed in shape, but it’s a shift.

G: It’s just a different way of using your muscles. The programs before were very grounded. Everything with Sugar is very light and airy. You just have to get your muscles to work differently.

M: That’s why right now we’re just doing repetition.

If you’ve performed the role before, how do you make sure you’re bringing something new to it?

C: I think the live music helps. We’ve rehearsed these things, but the intent behind them feels new every night. That might be because of the audience—you get a feel for them in act one, or the kids in the production are a big inspiration.

G: This is my third year doing it here, and each year I’ve had a different partner. It’s just like any relationship; it’s not going to be the same. Finding what works with each partner I’ve had is definitely a fun discovery every year. I also feel like I target different things I’ll work on each season. You grow as a dancer, so you’re not the same dancer you were when you did it last year.

What’s that thing for you this year?

G: More generosity, especially with my upper body. When she walks on stage, I want my Plum to have this generous energy.

C: Yes, because for a classical pas de deux, you can feel a little more stuck up, but Sugar Plum has to be giving. She’s inviting Clara to this land, but she’s still regal and precise.

How does the audience affect what you bring to the performance?

G: I don’t think the audience realizes how much of an impact they have on us. They can be a black hole, where you’re putting out energy and nothing’s coming back, or you feel them out there and they’re excited, so you feel like you have more energy and more to give.

C: As dancers, we tend to laugh at the “trick” moments when everyone claps because a lot of times that’s the easy part of the pas.

M: But we love it!

C: Yes! We secretly love it. And it can help energize a show if the audience is reacting to what they’re seeing.

What’s one thing you think people might not realize about the Sugar Plum Fairy?

M: It’s hard! The amount of strength you have to have to do it.

G: After you finish, it’s very rewarding. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.

C: We’re trying to make it look as effortless as possible, but there’s a lot of effort going into it. Maybe the audience thinks it’s relatively easy, but we’ve been trained and are rehearsing to make it look that way. It’s still incredibly difficult and tiring.

Kids are a big part of The Nutcracker—from the 100+ academy dancers performing with you to the kids in the audience. How does that affect the process?

G: Sometimes we don’t realize how much they look up to us. Last year, Sue Porter [executive director of BalletMet] came back stage because they had sold out of the Nutcrackers we signed in the lobby, and one mother was saving up to get her daughter a Nutcracker signed by me for Christmas. It was such a special feeling. You don’t realize how much of an impact you have on the kids. Hopefully that extends to the kids in the audience.

M: In rehearsal the other day, we did our first run-through, and I wasn’t happy with it. This little girl came up and said, “That was so beautiful and magical!” I just wanted to keep her in my mind. This is for her. It’s the truth—I want to do it for the kids.

Outside of The Nutcracker, what’s your favorite holiday tradition?

C: My husband and I watch “Love Actually” every year.

M: We watch “Holiday Inn.”

G: When I was growing up, I loved putting up the Christmas tree. I was always the one who instigated it. Moving around so much, we haven’t continued that tradition, but maybe we will this year.

Dancer: Caitlin Valentine-Ellis
Photo: Jennifer Zmuda