The Sugar Plum Fairy: An Enigma Wrapped in a Beautiful Dance

Few characters in ballet are more renowned than the Sugar Plum Fairy. People who’ve never been to any ballet, let alone “The Nutcracker,” have heard of her. Yet who is she? And why does she dance? When she enters to dance a grand pas de deux with her cavalier, what’s going on between them? Is he her consort or her squire? Is this supposed to be love? Why is Tchaikovsky’s music for their grand adagio so unsugary, so imposing, so colossal? What choreography can catch its essence?

Answers could fill a book. In one version, she’s a presiding dignitary who doesn’t dance. Several versions simply have no Sugar Plum, and the music that Tchaikovsky wrote for her is taken by one or more other people. In more or less traditional versions of “The Nutcracker,” however, she’s the ballerina of Act II. And that’s what happens in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” since 1954 a central institution of New York’s annual Christmas fare, and beginning its 2016 season this week on Friday.

Before we meet her, Act I is all narrative, all change. We start with a family Christmas party in 19th-century Nuremberg, Germany, where a girl, Clara (in Balanchine’s version, she’s Marie), has a godfather, Drosselmeyer, who performs magic; she adores the Nutcracker doll he gives her. Then the Christmas tree grows as tall as a redwood. There’s a battle with toy soldiers and her Nutcracker fights mice and their mouse king. When the mice are defeated, the Nutcracker is transformed into a handsome human, who leads her through the realm of Snow where snowflakes dance.

In Act II, however, virtually nothing happens. At the start, the children arrive at the Kingdom of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy, its monarch, receives them as valued guests. At the end, the children leave (whither?) and the citizens wave them bon voyage. Before their departure, the Fairy rewards them…