Backstage in the Park View High School auditorium, Tullia Johnston, 16, stands motionless with her head tilted toward the floor, waiting for her cue to take the stage.
The hot-lights that bathe the stage leak in between the long black curtains, falling on her pink tutu and the crown that sits perfectly balanced on her head.
In the audience, Louisa Ireland, 17 and Allison Perhach, 16, watch patiently as the Loudoun Ballet Company’s dress rehearsal of the 20th annual Nutcracker moves forward.
Unlike other members of the audience, Ireland and Perhach have a special understanding of the thoughts moving through Johnston’s mind, moments before she dances from corner to corner of the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
When the first few notes of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy began, the dress rehearsal audience, which was made up of parents and other support staff, clapped and then became silent in anticipation of the ballerina’s performance.
The Sugar Plum Fairy is a special role within the ballet. The magnetism of her performance locks everyone’s attention. Eyes are following her from the moment she leaves the dressing room. Not every role in the Nutcracker calls for such scrutiny. “Everyone is really watching, it is a really big deal” Johnston said.
The common bond that unites these young women is their shared role as the Sugar Plum Fairy. The three dancers will rotate in the role throughout the ballet companies’ six performances of the Nutcracker.
With the pressure involved with this role, having other dancers with the same responsibilities helps the ballerinas as they prepare for their parts. Having two other dancers learning the same choreography and sharing some of the same concerns “helps me be a better Sugar Plum” Perhach said.
The dancers say that there is no competition between them and that they are very supportive of each other as they try to perform the role to the best of their ability.
The Sugar Plum Fairy is the “spice of the second act” according to Loudoun Ballet company creative director Maureen Miller. The character is the Queen of the Land of Sweets and she performs a dance for Clara and the Prince, who are the main characters of Nutcracker.
The road to this role as a Sugar Plum Fairy began for the young ladies when they were very young. It is a role that Johnston has been waiting to play since she was 6-years-old. “I remember loving it and looking at the Sugar Plum Fairy and thinking I want to do that one day,” she said.
For years, the young women have been developing the skills to play the advance roles in the Nutcracker. With each character they played the dancers moved a step closer to the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
“Everyone has that dream role” Perhach said, “each year you have to push to complete not only that role, but then prove that you can perform the role that you really want next year.”
Solid technique, stage presence and intelligence are all attributes that Miller believes a dancer needs in order to succeed as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She also points to the importance of the dancers having a deeper connection and understanding of themselves.
Each dancer has a different way of coping with the nervousness associated with performing such an important role. Ireland, a Sugar Plum Fairy veteran, finds comfort in the music.
“I don’t really like talking. If I had to do a speech in front of people that would scare me so much more, but in dancing you are just moving and the music tells you what to do and it calms you down,” she said.
Backstage, smiling faces illuminated by the stray hot-lights peak from out the shadows as Johnston dances. In that moment, she is oblivious to the attention that her role commands. Her mind is focused on the task at hand.
Johnston said, “When I hear the music come on that is really what sets me off. Before, it is all nerves, but when the music comes on you relax and you get in holiday spirit and you just dance.”
Click here for slideshow.