To transform Principal Dancer, Sophie Martin, into a sparkling fairy in a tutu on stage there’s plenty of preparation beforehand. Maria Croce takes a look at a day in the life of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
With five weeks to go before the curtain is due to go up on the production of Peter Darrell’s version of The Nutcracker, dancers are set to work rehearsing the moves in front of a huge mirrored wall.
Acclaimed dancer and choreographer Peter Darrell was the founder of Scottish Ballet and, though he died 30 years ago, his legacy lives on from inside the Peter Darrell Studio where today dancers rehearse to bring Scottish Ballet’s productions to the stage.
His version of the festive favourite The Nutcracker premiered more than 40 years ago but this new adaptation will still stay true to his original choreography
Artistic Coordinator Maria Jimenez refers to pages of Benesh Movement notation and talks the dancers through their moves, starting with the dream sequence at the beginning of Act Two.
Petite French Principal dancer Sophie Martin, with her dark hair tied back, is in the centre at the front. She goes through a routine with four male dancers. Martin is lifted high above the other dancers’ heads with ease, as though she’s as light as a feather.
She practises the steps gracefully watching herself in the mirror before repeating again to music as the pianist at a grand piano in the corner of the bustling studio begins to play Tchaikovsky’s score.
Sophie copies each move she is shown skilfully. Off to the side of the room, other dancers go through the same routines – preparing to play the roles on different nights.
Later on, Sophie rehearses with fellow Principal Christopher Harrison who lifts her up and turns her around with precision while counts are relayed by the Artistic Staff so that every movement, every stroke of an arm or leg, is in perfect time.
After the morning’s rehearsal, during her lunch break, Sophie explains how she came to dancing as an energetic five-year-old when she joined her older sister in a class.
It wasn’t long before she was winning competitions. “I think I’ve never really put pressure on myself to think ‘I’m going to do ballet as a job’,” she explained. “When I went to the Conservatoire of Paris at 13 I kept doing my normal studies as well. I think if I hadn’t got a job in ballet I’d still be dancing for fun if my schedule allowed me.”
Now, it’s her life as dancing fills much of her day. She’s living the dream, but it’s also incredibly demanding physically. “When we start getting ready for a new ballet there’s a long rehearsal process. We have a ballet class every morning at 10am for an hour and a half. Then, we start rehearsing – two hours in the morning, a lunch break for an hour then it can be over four hours more rehearsal in the afternoon,” she explained.
“The Artistic Staff try to rehearse the technically more demanding things in the morning, like the pointe work. But I think everyone’s en pointe for this production so we’ll just be doing the hard stuff all day long!”
She sticks to regular small portions and healthy snacks during the day, avoiding anything too salty that would make her drink too much water, then a cooked evening meal.
“In the evening I have what I can’t have during the day when I’m dancing up close with dancing partners – like garlic!” she chuckled. The schedule continues when the dancers are performing and on tour, where healthy food and enough sleep are essential.
Sophie first performed in a production of The Nutcracker when she was nineteen years old, just a few months after joining Scottish Ballet over 12 years ago.
“The first time I danced in The Nutcracker I was dancing in the Spanish dance, and I was also a mouse and a snowflake – lots of different roles,” she explains.
“I did the role of Sugar Plum the following year when I was 20, so this will be the fifth time I’ve performed it.”
Sophie explains how she enjoys working on such an iconic piece. “I think it’s always nice to revisit an old production,” she said. “My partner for the Sugar Plum, Christopher Harrison, was in the production as a little boy. He was also in the cast when he was training to be a professional.”
Although Sophie, like all the dancers rehearsing today, is casually dressed – she’s gearing up for a glittery costume for the performance.
‘“I’ve had one fitting for the Sugar Plum Fairy tutu so far. It’s pink and white, with lots of glitter.” ’Sophie Martin
“I have two costumes. In Act Once I’m an entertainer with a longer dress and a mask; in Act Two I become the Sugar Plum Fairy wearing a tutu and a headdress as well. With just two costumes I get to change in the interval, so there’s no panic in the wings!
“It’s very common in a winter season production that we learn different roles. I’m learning the Snow Queen as well as the Spanish dancer. There are so many performances so we need to make sure that we’re up to speed on several roles as there’s plenty of us to perform them.
“It’s not difficult to remember so many roles. We have enough time to rehearse, and it’s not just in your head it’s in your body as well.”
On the night of the show she will usually return to the theatre around 90 minutes before the performance starts. “I have a shower, relax and do my hair and make-up,” she explained.
“The Sugar Plum Fairy has natural stage make-up and a high bun. Because we will have been working and dancing during the day I only have to quickly warm up before the show. It’s as much about getting physically ready as well as being mentally prepared for the night.”
And she revealed she usually sneaks onto the stage behind the curtain to prepare half an hour before the show starts.
“I like to try my pointe shoes on stage a little bit before I go on,” she said. “Some people warm up with an iPod on, some people try movement from the show. Some people need to be on stage without necessarily doing much, just to feel the lights and the atmosphere which you don’t get when you’re in the rehearsal studio.”
She’s excited about playing the Sugar Plum Fairy again. “It’s such an iconic role where you really get the chance to shine. Everyone knows the music, I think even if you’ve never seen The Nutcracker you’ve definitely heard that music somewhere, in an ad or in a shop. It’s very famous
“The costumes and the music are great. It’s a show that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. It’s set at Christmas and there’s a whole dream section with a King Rat, soldiers and mice. It’s like a big dream – or a nightmare!
“In this production Clara, the little girl who receives The Nutcracker, is actually played by a child. We have lots of children in the cast dancing with us on stage. To think that little ballerinas around the country will be watching this – thinking and seeing that it could happen to them, being on stage with the company – that’s quite amazing.”
There are bound to be plenty of Sophie’s adoring young fans in the audience – mesmerised by her moves, and of course all of the glitter, and perhaps they’ll be inspired to follow in her ballet shoes one day.
Maria Croce is a feature writer at the Daily Record.