'Nutcracker': Visions of Sugar Plums

By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 1, 2006

For weeks, budding ballerinas around the Beltway have been dreaming of dancing Sugar Plum fairies. For as the leaves turned golden in October, ballet students and ballerinas began rehearsing for their annual rite of passage: "The Nutcracker."

"The Sugar Plum Fairy should appear as every little girl's dream of a ballerina," says Pamela Moore, artistic director of the Bowie-based National Ballet Company. Moore should know; she performed in her first "Nutcracker" in 1957 under the tutelage of George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet. Moore was a bonbon; her brother, the Nutcracker prince. Later, with her own company of professional and student dancers, she danced many versions of the Sugar Plum before retiring from the stage in 1998. "The Sugar Plum Fairy is very elegant, very light, and it should look like there's no effort to what she's doing," Moore explains.

For Pamela Bjerknes, artistic director of Rockville's American Dance Institute, the essence of the Sugar Plum Fairy is also the essence of ballet: a steely central core and arms of chiffon. "It takes an incredible amount of control and strength in your core to keep that lightness and that ethereal quality in your upper body and your arms," she points out, recalling her own experience learning the role from one of the early 20th century's great ballerinas, Alexandra Danilova, whose impeccable comportment and coaching Bjerknes strives to pass along to her own students.

Danilova trained at St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet School, linking her to Marius Petipa, the great ballet choreographer responsible not only for "The Nutcracker" but for much Western classical repertory, including "Swan Lake" and "The Sleeping Beauty."

"The thing about Petipa that I think is beautiful is . . . the tip of the upper body [forward], a length of the line that extends up and over the tutu," Bjerknes explains. "That gives you a pure classical line."

"The Nutcracker" didn't become an American holiday tradition until midway through the 20th century, when first the San Francisco Ballet and then the New York City Ballet performed popular versions. Today, ballet schools and companies have made "Nutcracker" into a veritable industry each December.

The Washington Ballet's version by Septime Webre is based in Georgetown, circa 1882, while the Joffrey Ballet's version, which recently visited the Kennedy Center, featured an American Victorian-era setting. But very few alter the Sugar Plum variations or the pas de deux the Fairy dances with the Cavalier. In fact, many programs state that the choreography is "after Petipa."

"For the majority of people, 'after Petipa' means that it's as close -- with slight variations -- to the original choreography as possible," explains Maureen Miller, artistic director of the Loudoun Ballet Company. Miller, an Australian native, learned the duet from her Royal Ballet-trained teachers, who, she says, were faithful to the Petipa original. Today each artistic director or teacher passes down the steps in an oral tradition that stretches back generations to the roots of 19th-century Russian imperial ballet and Petipa.

For two decades, Patricia Berrend staged the Washington Ballet's old traditional "Nutcracker" created by its founder, Mary Day, who died in July. Now artistic director of Olney Ballet Theatre, Berrend is bringing Day's ballet back. But the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier still perform the Petipa choreography. "For Sugar Plum," Berrend says, "we try to follow traditionally where the choreography has come from. I always think the traditional one is the best one."

The essence of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Moore emphasizes, resides in her manner: "Sugar Plum dances with quiet, stately, fluid movement. The technique is precise, but you're never aware of it. She can bring out beautiful lines, not overdone. A lot of young dancers today like to overdo."

"Sugar Plum is really physically challenging," Washington Ballet dancer Brianne Bland admits. "Part of the challenge is to make it look delicate and to make it look sweet, while at the same time your calves are gripping and you're tired." This is Bland's sixth year in the role that she began eyeing as a 10-year-old ballet student. "That challenge to create a magical world where nothing's hard," the petite ballerina adds, "that's the whole nature of ballet."

For a list of local productions of "The Nutcracker," see Page 29.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company