Sugar Plum Fairy Exposé: Dissolving The Sugar Coating

Sparkling tulle and satin pointe shoes, a music-box melody, and the status of ballet royalty–the Sugar Plum Fairy is the ultimate tutu and tiara role.

But let’s take a look at the REAL story behind The Nutcracker’s most famous and enchanting character…


Sugarplum fairy

Photo by
Gabriel Saldana. Licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic. [Changes to photo: filters added]


An Inspired Infiltration of Sweets

Ironically, the Sugar Plum Fairy is not found in the original E.T.A. Hoffman story Nutcracker and Mouse King or in Alexandre’s Dumas’s The Tale of the Nutcracker, the retelling on which the ballet’s first libretto was based.

However, the lush descriptions of the realm of sweets in both versions could inspire many different balletic personifications of candy. Here’s a snippet from Dumas:

“All the surrounding houses were sugar candy, with galleries upon galleries. And at the center of the square, in the in the shape of an obelisk, there was a gigantic brioche, in the midst of which four fountains bubbled away: lemonade, orangeade, orgeat, and currant syrup. As for the basins, they were filled with whipped cream […]” (1)

Additionally, during the era in which The Nutcracker ballet was developed, the term “sugar plum” referred not only to a specific sweet, but, as author Samira Kawash points out, was also “the universal signifier everything sweet and delectable and lovely.” She further explains that the actual “sugar plums” of those days were, in fact, mostly sugar and no plum. They were treats in the category of “comfit”– candy created by layering sugar coating over a seed or nut center. She cites Jordan Almonds as a modern-day parallel.

Although the original Nutcracker production cast students in the lead roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince (a sticking point for many critics at the time), the ballet nonetheless required a way to showcase the talents of a leading ballerina.

And so, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the embodiment of a sugary sweet and all that is delectable in general, was born.


The First Sugar Plum Fairy Schemes For More Stage-Time

Antonietta Dell’Era, an Italian dancer guesting from a company in Berlin, debuted as the first Sugar Plum Fairy at the Marinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in December of 1892. Strange though it may seem now, The Nutcracker initially received very mixed reviews. Dell’Era’s technique and pointework were lauded by many critics (2), but she received an infamously harsh review from one writer who described her as “ponderous”, “unbeautiful”, and “ungraceful” (3). However, according to author Jennifer Fisher, his opinion may well have reflected his distaste for non-Russian dancers more than anything (4). Apparently, the audience gave Dell’Era five curtain calls (5).

Dell’Era, however, seemed to have wished that the Sugar Plum Fairy had more stage time. So, in a later performance of The Nutcracker, she added an extra dance for herself– a gavotte by Hungarian composer Alphonse Czibulka (6). Though a cringe-worthy move from a modern perspective, supplementing a ballet’s score was not unheard at the time. It’s also worth remembering that Tchaikovsky’s score for The Nutcracker was certainly not yet considered a masterwork and initially received mixed reviews as well. Still, as dance critic Jack Anderson aptly wrote, “Surely Czibulka’s gavotte did not harmonize with Tchaikovsky, however effective it may have been as a showpiece for dell’era” (7). Again though, in Dell’Era’s defense, the Sugar Plum Fairy does indeed have significantly less stage time than leading ladies in other story ballets, though this would eventually prove a negligible issue.


Photo by Rachel Hellwig.

Photo by Rachel Hellwig.


Is Plum’s Cavalier A Flirt?

Though the title is rarely used today, in earlier productions of The Nutcracker, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance partner bore the name of Prince Koklush or Coqueluche, which, oddly enough, translates to “whooping cough”. Yes, you read that correctly! But, it most likely was not referring to an illness. George Balanchine suggested that it might “represent a lozenge or cough drop” (8). Jack Anderson says that the term can also have the connotation of a flirt or a dandy (9). At any rate, perhaps it’s best that the character just goes by Cavalier or Prince now!

The original Prince Coqueluche was performed by Russian dancer Pavel Gerdt. Though in his late forties and no doubt past his technical prime, he was an acclaimed star with a long history on stage. Interestingly, for the history of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Gerdt was also the original Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and Prince Siegfried in the successful 1895 revival of Swan Lake.


Sugarplum and Cavalier

Photo by
Gabriel Saldana. Licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic. [Changes to photo: filters added]


A Hidden Homage

The Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo or variation is perhaps the most recognizable selection from The Nutcracker’s score. The use of the celesta, a new instrument in Tchaikovsky’s time, plays a significant role in the music’s otherworldly sound. John Snelson, in an article for the Royal Opera House’s website, writes,

“Petipa asked here for music that sounded ‘as if drops of water were shooting out of fountains’, and Tchaikovsky matched this description superbly to the sounds of the celesta […]”

In contrast, the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier has a distinct solemnity, if not somberness or ache, underneath its soaring grandness. This music may also be intended to be otherworldly, but perhaps in a different sense than the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation.

Tragedy struck Tchaikovsky while he was composing The Nutcracker. His sister Sasha died. The event impacted both his work and his perspective of it. A 2011 article from The Guardian by Gavin Plumley explains, “After Sasha’s death, the composer embraced the ballet. In Clara, he found a parallel for his sister. Memories of their childhood and the last Christmas they spent together, in 1890, fueled the music. The whole ballet was transformed by his change in attitude, with Tchaikovsky imagining himself as the magician Drosselmeyer.” How does this color the pas de deux? Jennifer Fisher writes, “Musicologist John Roland Wiley has suggested that Tchaikovsky actually left a coded message in the rhythm of the adagio’s principal melody, a descending scale of notes that is repeated “with prayer-like insistence.” Because the phrase bears a close rhythmical resemblance to a line in the Russian Orthodox funeral service (which translates as “As with the saints give rest”), Wiley believes it might have been Tchaikovsky’s hidden homage to his sister” (10).


"Kansas City Ballet, KCB Company Dancer Tempe Ostergren Photography by Rosalie O'Connor" by KCBalletMedia. Licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic. [Changes to photo: cropped, filters, and background added]

Kansas City Ballet, KCB Company Dancer Tempe Ostergren
Photography by Rosalie O’Connor” by KCBalletMedia. Licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic. [Changes to photo: cropped, filters, and background added]


Sugar Plum’s Enduring Appeal

The widespread success of The Nutcracker in North America during the twentieth century, propelled in large part by the triumph of George Balanchine’s version, afforded the Sugar Plum Fairy an unprecedented rise to power, especially after ballet companies coupled The Nutcracker to the holiday season. Dance critic Judith Mackrell attributes this acquired aura of the “promise of Christmas”, along with Tchaikovsky’s marvelous music, to the enduring appeal of the character, despite her lack of stage time and technical demands when compared to principal female roles in other ballets.

Furthermore, because of The Nutcracker’s family-friendly, holiday tradition status, it’s often the first ballet that children see and perform in. Naturally, the Sugar Plum Fairy is the first role that many young ballerinas-to-be aspire to. She is not only a symbol of seasonal splendor and hope, but the symbol of childhood dreams, and, for some dancers, the first childhood dream-come-true in their ballet lives.


Photo by Rachel Hellwig

Photo by Rachel Hellwig



(1) E. T. A. Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas, Nutcracker and Mouse King and the Tale of the Nutcracker, Translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Introduction by Jack Zipes, (United States of America: Penguin Classics, 2007), p. 145

(2) Jennifer Fisher, “Nutcracker” Nation, (New Haven and London: Yale University, 2003), p. 15

(3) Roland John Wiley, Tchaikovsky’s ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, (Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 144

(4) Jennifer Fisher, “Nutcracker” Nation, (New Haven and London: Yale University, 2003), p. 15

(5) Ibid

(6) Jack Anderson, The Nutcracker Ballet, (Hong Kong: Mayflower Books, 1979), p. 53

(7) Ibid

(8) Solomon Volkov, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine, Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, (Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1992 Anchor Books Edition, originally published in hardcover by Simon and Schuster, 1985) p. 153

(9) Jack Anderson, The Nutcracker Ballet, (Hong Kong: Mayflower Books, 1979), p. 50-51

(10) Jennifer Fisher, “Nutcracker” Nation, (New Haven and London: Yale University, 2003), p. 10

What The Nutcracker Is A Mirliton, Anyway?

In The Nutcracker’s second-act calorie bomb, The Kingdom of Sweets, we’re introduced to a parade of characters. Not all of whom seem to make much sense when you think about it – an assortment of hot drinks, Russian dancers (they’re only sometimes listed as candy canes), and a bouquet of flowers? And right in the middle, Tchaikovsky throws in a tune about… mirlitons?

What in the world is a mirliton?

Google the word mirlitons and your first hits are all about a squash native to Mexico and popular in New Orleans cuisine. Hmm, somehow I don’t think our beloved Russian composer spent much time in The Big Easy.

Mirliton instrument
Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that a mirliton is also a simple tube-shaped instrument, sometimes known as a eunuch flute or onion flute. Humming through the tube causes a thin membrane (of animal skin or onion or paper) to vibrate. These little “flutes” have been popular children’s toys for centuries. In America we call them kazoos. Take one listen to the flute-based melody of Danse de Mirlitons (which is of course sometimes called Dance of the Reed or Pipe Flutes) and, eureka, things are coming together in The Land of Sweets. Except what does a toy instrument have to do with candy?


A child playing a mirliton

By Anonymous (Carte-postale ancienne) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | (Sketch by F. Marin Mersenne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


cigaretterussesIt turns out that Tchaikovsky (or Petipa and Ivanov) may have been employing a double-meaning within Dance of the Mirlitons. Mirliton du Pont-Audemer is a French pastry that is rolled into a tube, filled with chocolate praline mousse, and dipped in chocolate, not unlike Cigarettes Russes cookies (see recipe), or the mirliton flute. Clever.

Interestingly, there are other kinds of mirlitons, too. Mirlitons de Rouen are almond-topped puff pastries, tarts, or cakes. Maybe all this almond and praline business is how we’ve made the gargouiallade leap to marzipan, which is an almond paste that can be formed into just about anything and is also a popular Christmastime treat.

Now, why are the Mirlitons/Marzipan dancers sometimes costumed as shepherds or shepherdesses? Well, maybe it’s because shepherds are often depicted in folklore playing a flute to herd their flock!

Paulus Potter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Paulus Potter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


How The Other Comfiture Fit In The Kingdom of Sweets

In this day and age, hot chocolate, coffee and tea may not qualify as exotic confections but in 19th century these imports were increasingly in demand in Europe. Sugarplums, which are simply candy-coated nuts or seeds, probably filled the sweetmeat dishes at gatherings. And the story on Mother Ginger is that a Russian confection company sold a metal tin shaped like a woman with a large skirt. Lift her “skirt” (the lid) and there were bonbons inside!



The Trepak dance was titled Danse des Bouffons in the Imperial Ballet’s 1892 Nutcracker program. That’s Dance of the Buffoons… jesters, clowns. It was common for court jesters to perform Russian folk dances for czars but in regards to the choreography, in Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World, author Jennifer Fisher writes,

“Petipa’s written instructions called for: ‘”Trepak, for the end of the dance, turning on the floor,’ referring to the athletic feats of Russian character dance. But evidently Ivanov didn’t like the variation he came up with in rehearsal, and when someone suggested a hoop dance instead, the dancer Alexandre Shiryaev choreographed his own solo.”

Balanchine carried on the tradition of the hoop dance for his New York City production but “sweetened” the deal by calling his jesters Candy Canes. (See Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet)

Then, we get to… Waltz of the Flowers? Flowers and dew drops seem more at home in an enchanted wood than in Candyland.

In The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov: Choreographer of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, a review of the first performance of The Nutcracker reveals that “The grand ballabile of the gilded sweetmeats is not bad as regards groupings, but the excellent soloists are completely lost in the mass.” (Yeah, the first reviews weren’t so great). Interestingly, the book notes that this line about gilded sweetmeats refers to The Waltz of the Flowers, in which the dancers were costumed in gold, not the pinks, purples, oranges, or blues that we often see onstage today.

Sweetmeats is just a word for any sweet delicacy of the confectionery or candy kind – candied fruit, sugar-covered nuts, sugarplums, bonsbons, etc. Gilded sweetmeats are something of a mystery – the term is used elsewhere in literature and prose but it’s never fully explained. It could be a term that describes any particularly decadent candy but if you know for sure, share it in the comments.

Maybe the original waltzing dancers represent sugared flowers, which are edible flowers dusted in sugar. Perhaps they mimicked the gold floral designs that delicately intertwine along the edges of ornate candy dishes. Or maybe they’ve nothing to do with flowers at all and just depicted gold-wrapped candy.

Whatever the original intent, maybe the mirlitons, flowers, and other inhabitants aren’t so out of place in The Nutcracker’s Kingdom of Sweets after all.


Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, With A Twist

You may think you’ve heard every version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite available. The holiday classic has been covered many times. You won’t find any dog barking in this collection but I’m sure you’ll find something new to add a bit of sugarplum, spice, or humor to your classes this holiday season.

Miyako Yoshida and Steven McRae as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince in the Royal Ballet production of the Nutcracker on Wednesday 2 December 2009.

Royal Ballet dancers Miyako Yoshida and Steven McRae

Electronic and Remix

The Nutcracker Suite (Baz Kuts Breaks Mix): Christmas Remixed – Holiday Classics Re-Grooved

The Nutcracker Suite (Baz Kuts Breaks Mix) - Christmas Remixed - Holiday Classics Re-Grooved

The Nutcracker Suite (Operatica’s Nutcrackeratica Mix): Holiday Chill – The Christmas Remixes

The Nutcracker Suite (Operatica's Nutcrackeratica Mix) - Holiday Chill - The Christmas Remixes

Sugarplum: Bond – Explosive – The Best of Bond

Sugarplum - Explosive - The Best of Bond (Bonus Track)

Sugar Plum (short and long version): The Nutcracker

Sugar Plum - EP - The Nutcracker

A Little Jazzy

Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies: Harry Connick Jr. – What a Night! A Christamas Album

Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies - What a Night! - A Christmas Album

The Nutcracker Suite: Brian Setzer – Boogie Woogie Christmas

The Nutcracker Suite - Boogie Woogie Christmas

The Nutty Cracker Suite: Thoroughly Modern Millie

The Nutty Cracker Suite - Thoroughly Modern Millie

Three Suites – Duke Ellington

Three Suites - Duke Ellington

Vocal Virtuosity

The Sugarplum Dance (Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy): Take 6 – The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

A pop à cappella take on the classic.
The Sugarplum Dance (Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy) - The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Crack the Nut: SoVoSo

Another à cappella but with less pop sensibility. The Arabian variation is especially unique.
Crack the Nut - SoVoSo

A Little Different

Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy: Baby Einstein – Baby Santa

If you’re familiar with these CDs, you’ll know that this sounds a little like an electronic toy piano.
Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy - Baby Einstein: Baby Santa

Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite & Other Works by Delibet, Fauré, Llobet & Vivaldi: Modern Mandolin Quartet

I particularly like the Russian, Arabian, and Chinese variations.
Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite & Other Works by Delibet, Fauré, Llobet & Vivaldi - Modern Mandolin Quartet

Waltz of the Flowers: Christmas Music / Metal Madness – The Best of Rock Guitar Collection

There are other Nutcracker selections on this album. The arrangements aren’t all that innovative but if you’re looking for screaming guitar riffs, give this a try.
Waltz of the Flowers - Christmas Music / Metal Madness: The Best of Rock Guitar Collection

Selections from the “Nutcracker”: Overture Miniature/Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies/Valse Des Fleurs: The Carpenters – Christmas Portrait

Selections from the

Waltz of the Flowers in 6/8: N2k – Nutcracker 2000

Waltz of the Flowers under the Big Top? That’s what it sounds like. The other selections on this album aren’t that notable.
Waltz of the Flowers in 6/8 - N2k - Nutcracker 2000

Do you have a favorite, fun, or twisted version of the famous Nutcracker Suite selections?