On Facebook, a friend posted a You Tube video of a Glass Armonica recording of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This music is unavoidable this time of year and in many bad renditions, but this one, played by rubbing wet fingers across spinning half globes of glass, caught the magic, the delicacy, and the precise optimism of the music.
I’m always brought back to the deeper threads of the Nutcracker at this time of year. Last week, watching our Nutcracker, I paid special attention to the progression of Fairies in the piece. First the Snow Fairy, in her crisp white tutu, surrounded with dancers in Romantic tutus—calf-length, floating with each movement. The music swirls them along, and the pas de deux is energetic and full of anticipation. Everything sparkles as Clara watches, and snow filters down on the bare backs of the swirling snowflakes.
The Snow Fairy is pristine, innocent, hopeful, glamorous—a young girl’s naïve dream of her adult self. The Cavalier is gallant, lifting his white-tutued partner in shoulder-sits and jetes. The choir joins in—angelic, anticipatory—and the Snow Fairy leads the group on through the spangled winter scene to all that lies ahead.
Then, after intermission, the Snow is gone, and we are in springtime—warm light, dancing flowers, and the busy flitting about of the Dew Drop Fairy. I once heard Norman, directing a Dew Drop Fairy, say that she is his favorite role in the ballet—she is liquid, bursting with life, bringing the flowers to bloom. And, at least in our version, she dances alone, touching the flowers as she passes, diverting their motion by her touch. She welcomes Clara to the Land of Sweets with her newly humanized Prince (who’s no longer a wooden grotesque, the Nutcracker), and she introduces them to the Sugar Plum Fairy and her court.
For Clara, Dew Drop represents a path she could, but ultimately does not take—a solo female role, powerful in all the traditionally female attributes (the ballet is rooted in the 19th century, after all)—nurturing, creating order, displaying beauty in the flowers and in her own gorgeous tutu. In our ballet, her tutu is a rich dark green with tear drop pearls and sequins on the crisp flat skirt. She is self sufficient, but alone. But Clara already has her bond with the prince and the puzzle of the second act is how she will fulfill the potential of this gift of a partner.
The Sugar Plum holds the key, and she presents Clara and the Prince with a series of alternatives: the sultry Spanish dance, with its intimations of the bull ring as the dancers pass and parry; the erotic Arabian dance, with its exploration of power and allurement and ultimate submission; and Mother Ginger, drawn from the Commedia del Arte image of the comic prostitute, the Old Woman in the Shoe, who has so many children she doesn’t know what to do—a cynical vision of adult womanhood that is comic in its cross-dressing exaggeration. Clara and the Prince watch all this play out, and we move through these phases with them, the music subtly working on us to prepare us for the final choice—the Sugar Plum.
We are ready for her when she appears, having been soothed by the Waltz of the Flowers and the Dew Drop’s ability to restore order to the scene after the chaos of Mother Ginger’s appearance. There is a pause in the music, and the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier appear. The music darkens; at least it darkens beneath the upper registers, which still seem sparkly. There is a longing, a poignancy to the music. You sense that the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier have earned their moment in the ballet through some past series of sorrows and joys. The lifts, turns, carries are done to rising themes in the music, as if they have triumphed, and the consequence of the triumph is the trust they display in their pas de deux. They are both the feminine and masculine of experience—the sparkling, twirling Sugar Plum and the leaping, lifting Cavalier. When the dance is finished, they present themselves to Clara, as if to say, “Here’s what a fully developed human life is like—incorporating the opposites of joy and sorrow, strength and delicacy, passion and restraint.” The company dances the celebratory apotheosis, and Clara and the Prince stand together ready to accept the kingdom of Sweets as their own territory, ready to step into adulthood.
And we, the audience, watching the ballet in the coldest, darkest time of year, can be rejuvenated, as well, and sent back into the path of our own lives reminded of the possibility of living them so well that we incorporate the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier—sweetness and strength—into our own lives. In the crisp, unforgiving cold and the perfect whiteness of snow, we remember spring and all there is to long for and nourish in the days to come.