The nuts we would crack
Picking the best of the Sugar Plum Fairy's assignments.
For the little ones, being Clara’s tiara-topped tour guide through the Kingdom of the Sweets is the dream that trumps even the most promising thump from a shaken gift box. Few fantasy archetypes can approach the Sugar Plum Fairy’s purity—devoid of history and stripped of narrative, she’s quintessentially benevolent with a theme song that adds just a slight touch of mystery. For a century, this blank slate has been sketched upon by hundreds of choreographers, each seeking either to reinvent the character or create a visual vessel for Tchaikovsky’s most inescapable five minutes of work. (Videos of all the following performances can be found on YouTube.) We’d love to be…
…Mikhail Baryshnikov’s little girl
The pastel, picture-book version of the holiday classic Misha debuted in 1976 was an unqualified hit: Receiving its stage premiere at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, it was telecast by CBS the year after and has become a staple of holiday tube time ever since. As in a handful of Nutcrackers, Baryshnikov’s doesn’t include a Sugar Plum at all: The solo is danced by Clara herself, the girl in a nightgown who dreams herself queen of an empire made of candy. His choreography for her is a shy skip through nascent adulthood, a physical aria filled with lovely turns of phrase. Role originator Gelsey Kirkland dances impeccably in the TV version—her risky approach remains one of the piece’s most excitingly musical interpretations. YouTube title: Gelsey Kirkland – Nutcracker
…a Russian classic
In the late ’50s, tutus were short and worn high on the waist, hair buns hung loosely at the top of necks, and a teenager from Moscow was becoming a star. Legendary Soviet ballerina Ekaterina Maximova, a member of the Bolshoi—literally “big”—Ballet, floated through her solo as though the floor were paper-thin and 200 degrees. It’s a purist’s interpretation that from 2009 looks as modern as a rotary phone, but her effortless take stunned audiences just getting to know her winsome touch and high-powered jump. Spontaneous and meticulous in equal parts, Maximova—whose passing in April at the age of 70 signaled the end of an era—linked midcentury sweetness to ballet’s ever-increasing obsession with technique. YouTube title: THE NUTCRACKER - Sugar Plum Fairy (Maximova, 1958)
…Balanchine’s leading lady
The pink-and-green Karinska tutu worn for George Balanchine’s Nut doesn’t say “plum” to us, but the steps performed in it are pure sugar. Famed for rebuilding classical ballet for American audiences, the prolific dance maker struck gold in 1954, when the New York City Ballet premiered a production now licensed by companies around the globe. (It was also the basis for the 1993 Warner Bros. film starring Macaulay Culkin.) The second-act solo shares two things with Balanchine’s other compositions: It’s fiendishly difficult to dance and, once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to imagine the music interpreted any other way. YouTube title: Sugar Plum Fairy from user pangnotta
You can see four more Sugar Plums in productions of The Nutcracker now open all over town:
Ballet Chicago: The Nutcracker Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N Southport Ave (773-935-6860, athenaeumtheatre.com). El: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Diversey. Bus: 9, 11, 76. 7pm; $20–$30, children $12, seniors $16–$24.
Dance It Yourself Nutcracker Dance Center Evanston, 1934 Dempster St, Evanston (847-328-6683). El: Purple to Dempster. Bus: 93, 206. Noon, 2pm; $5, families $10.
Joffrey Ballet: The Nutcracker Auditorium Theatre, 50 E Congress Pkwy (800-982-2787, auditoriumtheatre.org). El: Red, Blue to Jackson; Orange, Brown, Pink, Purple (rush hrs) to Library. Bus: 7, 10, 145, 146, 147. 7pm, $25–$100.