Spun Sugar: Birmingham Royal Ballet's Céline Gittens on Dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy

Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence in "Nutcracker." Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Our company's Nutcracker was choreographed by Sir Peter Wright, and it's very traditional. We usually only have two weeks to prepare after the end of the autumn season, so my partner and I start going over the grand pas de deux on our own time before rehearsals start. I like to do my own research through social media or by watching how other company dancers interpret the role, drawing from what I like best and trying to apply that to myself. I also video my rehearsals and later critique them, to try to get my performance up to another level.


In some versions, Clara dances the pas de deux in Act II, but in ours she is a different character. After "Waltz of the Flowers," Drosselmeyer shows her a doll in a pink tutu. Then Clara slips behind Drosselmeyer's cloak and disappears, so it looks like she's transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy.

At the beginning of the pas de deux, everything is so quiet. The prince and I walk around the stage before it starts, and I use that as an opportunity to connect with the audience. They may not know the technical steps, so the most important thing is to express the character you're playing. In my interpretation, I like to think that I'm still Clara—I try to keep her sense of wonder and amazement, as well as her gratitude to Drosselmeyer for transforming her into this beautiful ballerina doll.


Gittens' pro tip: "In the studio, technique comes first. But once you have your first stage rehearsal, you need to transition your focus to the performance aspect and be very free." Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The music can get quite powerful during the pas de deux, so I try to find a fine line between being delicate, classical and upright, yet also strong and in charge. I've been coached by Sir Peter Wright, and he always talks about moments of stillness, which are really important for the dynamics of a performance, especially in my solo—where you're playing with the music, but still on the music. It helps draw in the eye of the audience; otherwise, it's monotone. And he encourages me to really attack the steps.

After the performance, when I'm walking home, I'll see little girls dressed up in beautiful dresses and long tutus twirling outside the auditorium. It's really nice to see that we've inspired them, that we've taken them away to a world of magic and mystery and excitement. They leave with their hearts lifted.


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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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