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Behind the scenes with the Sugar Plum Fairy

December 12th, 2016

Jillian Vanstone in The Nutcracker. Photo by Karolina Kuras

Remember when we worked with our friends at The National Ballet of Canada last summer?  The Dreamers Ever Leave You was an immersive ballet inspired by the works in our hit exhibition The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris. Performed in a gallery space here at the AGO, it was a pioneering mix of visual art and dance – and it was a hit!

Summer’s long gone, but now we have the magic of holiday season to get us feeling festive – and the Ballet has just the ticket. Its annual production of The Nutcracker opened at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts this past weekend, and it’s a feast for the senses.

We were lucky enough to sit down with one of the stars of the show, Principal Dancer Jillian Vanstone – otherwise known as the Sugar Plum Fairy – to hear what it’s like being the de facto queen of holiday spirit.

AGO: Tell us what it’s like to prepare for a role like this. How far in advance do you start rehearsing?
Jillian: The National Ballet has a very tight turn-around from our November season into The Nutcracker every year. Often we only have two weeks to put it together. Because almost everyone in the company has danced in the show before, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds – but because this production is very detailed and also technically challenging, it’s still quite tough to bring it together so quickly.

I’m often asked if after all these years I could dance the Sugar Plum Fairy with my eyes closed. I never feel that way. On stage I’m aiming to channel the ultimate fairy princess, but behind my outward artistic performance I am concentrating very hard. Although I’ve danced the role for many years, it is particularly difficult technically and involves a lot of strength and control.

AGO: Being a Principal Dancer clearly takes the strength of an Olympic athlete. What do you eat for breakfast on a show day?
Jillian: Sweet potato or plantain, and eggs with sautéed spinach…and coffee. But let’s tell the kids I eat at a decadent, sugary buffet covered in maple syrup in The Land of the Sweets. Just like Elf.

AGO: Do you like plums?
Jillian: No. That’s why my job as a fairy entails covering them in sugar.

AGO: What do your feet look like after a performance?
Jillian: Bruised plums.

AGO: In The Nutcracker, the toys magically come to life. Are there any household items you wish would do the same?Jillian: I’d like to say anything that could cook and clean for me, but I’d be worried about my appliances becoming self-aware.

AGO: In one of the most entrancing scenes, the Sugar Plum Fairy emerges from a Fabergé egg. What’s it like living in there?
Jillian: It’s a little small, but minimalist living is in right now. Marie Kondo really helped me organize it! Now if I could only get someone to help me with my satellite radio…it only pulls in one station that keeps playing the same song over and over. I’ve heard there are other composers aside from Tchaikovsky, but I’m beginning to think that’s a myth.

Jillian Vanstone. Photo by Aleksandar Antonjevic

AGO: What does the Sugar Plum Fairy do on her day off?
Jillian: Sleep in, read, watch my favourite shows, go for a walk. Most importantly I try to see friends from outside work. It’s hard to make that happen when I spend my weekends performing.

AGO: Let’s be real. That costume is to die!  What’s it like to wear it?
Jillian: If my eight-year-old self could see me in it, she’d lose her mind!!!

AGO: In an ‘80s movie dance-off between the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cinderella (another one of your roles), who would win?

Jillian: SPF! No mortal can compete with a magical being.

AGO: It must be bittersweet to close a run of The Nutcracker. What’s the first thing you’ll do?
Jillian: Eat something naughty.

The Nutcracker runs until December 31 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Watch for Jillian emerging from her magical condo – erm, Fabergé egg!

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