‘Nutcracker’s’ Sugar Plum Fairy a sweet role for aspiring dancers

Colette Tilinski (left) and Corrick Jones rehearse their roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier at Metropolitan Ballet Theatre in Alpharetta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Colette Tilinski (left) and Corrick Jones rehearse their roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier at Metropolitan Ballet Theatre in Alpharetta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM


“Nutcracker” productions

"Atlanta Ballet's Nutcracker." Dec. 9-24. $20-$128. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 855-285-8499, atlantaballet.com.

Ballethnic Dance Company. "Urban Nutcracker." Nov. 17-19. $40 adults. Riverside EpiCenter, 135 Riverside Pkwy, Austell. "Urban Nutcracker Act II." Dec. 17, 3 p.m. Dec. 18. $15-$20. Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center, 3181 Rainbow Drive, Decatur. (404) 762-1416, ballethnic.org

The Georgia Ballet. "The Nutcracker." Dec. 2-4. $30-$50. Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, Cobb Civic Center, 548 S. Marietta Parkway S.E., Marietta. 770-528-8490, georgiaballet.org.

Georgia Metropolitan Dance Theatre. "The Nutcracker," 60th anniversary season. 7:30 p.m. Nov. 25-27. $10-$25. Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, Cobb Civic Center, 548 S. Marietta Parkway S.E., Marietta. 678-287-9020, georgiametrodance.org.

Gwinnett Ballet Theatre. "The Nutcracker," 35th anniversary. Dec. 2-18. Infinite Energy Center, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. 770-626-2464, infiniteenergycenter.com. For info on school and sensory friendly shows, call 770-237-0046.

"Hip-Hop Nutcracker." Nov. 27. $22-$72. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.

Metropolitan Ballet Theatre. "Nutcracker." Dec. 16-18. $20-$25. Sugar Plum Story Time, 12:30 p.m. Dec. 17-18, $10. Blessed Trinity Catholic High School, 11320 Woodstock Road, Roswell. 678-297-2800, metropolitanballet.org.

Moscow Ballet. "Great Russian Nutcracker." 7 p.m. Dec. 9-11. $28-$178. Rialto Center for the Arts, 80 Forsyth St NW, Atlanta. 404-413-9849, rialtocenter.org.

For additional Nutcracker listings, visit AccessAtlanta.com.

The Sugar Plum Fairy is often a person’s first glimpse of a live ballerina. A harbinger of holidays, she ushers new audiences into the ballet’s realm of theater and fantasy in countless productions of “The Nutcracker.”

History’s great ballerinas have danced her since Antonietta Dell’Era, who originated the role in 1892. For those who submit to the rigors of classical training, the role’s nuances and technical challenges can draw out even greater personal strengths as the art form is passed from one generation to the next.

This transfer is taking place in dance studios across Atlanta, as mentors teach young dancers to embody the Sugar Plum Fairy and the ideals she represents.

“Drop your chin a little bit. Just a tad,” says Maniya Barredo, a prima ballerina and former star of the Atlanta Ballet. She is coaching Colette Tilinksi, 18, a member of Barredo’s Metropolitan Ballet Theatre in Alpharetta, in the role.

Partnered with Corrick Jones, Tilinski balances en pointe, reaches her leg forward and whips it to the side, initiating several nearly friction-less turns. In even beats, her eyes catch Barredo’s with each rotation until her last turn unfurls into an expansive arabesque.

“You host parties all the time. You do it with ease,” Barredo advises Tilinski on her character. “Beautiful. Sweet. But not too much sugar, either.”

It will be Tilinski’s fourth year as Sugar Plum with Metropolitan, where she has risen through the ranks. Tilinski danced the child lead role of Clara when she was 9. When she was 15, Tilinski tried out for Sugar Plum. She arrived at rehearsals early and stayed late for two months until she was cast in the coveted role just two weeks before the performance. Excited but scared by the gravity of the role, she knew she’d have to carry the production’s second act.

On Sundays and during school breaks, Tilinski practiced strength-testing balances, complex turns and lifts in the adagio section, then darted around the stage with fast footwork in the famously difficult solo variation. Her stamina was tested by the manege, a succession of quick turns circling the stage near the end of her solo. The legs can become fatigued, even before executing 16 whip turns in the faster coda section. When Tilinski felt she couldn’t go on, she learned to work through her exhaustion.

On the other side of the city, in Ballethnic Dance Company’s East Point studio, sounds of celesta, strings and woodwinds play Sugar Plum’s delicate melodies. Laila Howard springs lightly across the floor, punctuating her phrase with a demonstrative curtsy.

“Spread a little magic dust,” says Ballethnic co-founder Nena Gilreath. Howard rises onto her toes, hips accentuating her side-to-side motion as her shoulders undulate with the light, languid elegance of a feather boa.

Her character is Brown Sugar, a Sugar Plum Fairy with a dash of showgirl spice, adapted for Ballethnic’s “Urban Nutcracker” set in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood in the 1940s. This ballerina is a village leader, says Gilreath, “the most gracious and accepting person in the community.”

Like Tilinski, Howard, 28, was singled out in childhood for the role of Sarah — a Sweet Auburn Clara. As a child, Howard was awed by Brown Sugar. She aspired to dance the role but feared she didn’t have a traditional ballet body and couldn’t embody the character. In Howard’s self-critical eyes, Brown Sugar was unattainable.

A quiet, shy child, Howard expressed herself most fully through dance. She earned a dance degree from Spelman College in 2011 and joined Ballethnic as a professional company member. When she was offered the role of Brown Sugar in 2013, Howard was stunned. She was afraid she wasn’t ready for it. But at Spelman, she had learned techniques for embodying a character. Journal in hand, she envisioned a story for each step and made the character her own.

“(Brown Sugar) became like my alter ego,” Howard said. “She was gracious, and she was royal, but she was humble. And she could relate to everybody in her court, and everybody loved her, and she loved everybody.”

Tilinski and Howard are continuing a tradition playing out around the world as countless productions of “The Nutcracker” are staged this holiday season. And it is their rigorous behind-the-scenes transformations that give the Sugar Plum Fairy her magic as she once again ushers audiences into an enchanted domain.

‘NUTCRACKER’ PRODUCTIONS

"Atlanta Ballet's Nutcracker." Dec. 9-24. $20-$128. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 855-285-8499, atlantaballet.com.

Ballethnic Dance Company. "Urban Nutcracker." Nov. 17-19. $40 adults. Riverside EpiCenter, 135 Riverside Pkwy, Austell. "Urban Nutcracker Act II." Dec. 17, 3 p.m. Dec. 18. $15-$20. Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center, 3181 Rainbow Drive, Decatur. (404) 762-1416, ballethnic.org

The Georgia Ballet. "The Nutcracker." Dec. 2-4. $30-$50. Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, Cobb Civic Center, 548 S. Marietta Parkway S.E., Marietta. 770-528-8490, georgiaballet.org.

Georgia Metropolitan Dance Theatre. "The Nutcracker," 60th anniversary season. 7:30 p.m. Nov. 25-27. $10-$25. Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, Cobb Civic Center, 548 S. Marietta Parkway S.E., Marietta. 678-287-9020, georgiametrodance.org.

Gwinnett Ballet Theatre. "The Nutcracker," 35th anniversary. Dec. 2-18. Infinite Energy Center, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. 770-626-2464, infiniteenergycenter.com. For info on school and sensory friendly shows, call 770-237-0046.

"Hip-Hop Nutcracker." Nov. 27. $22-$72. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.

Metropolitan Ballet Theatre. "Nutcracker." Dec. 16-18. $20-$25. Sugar Plum Story Time, 12:30 p.m. Dec. 17-18, $10. Blessed Trinity Catholic High School, 11320 Woodstock Road, Roswell. 678-297-2800, metropolitanballet.org.

Moscow Ballet. "Great Russian Nutcracker." 7 p.m. Dec. 9-11. $28-$178. Rialto Center for the Arts, 80 Forsyth St NW, Atlanta. 404-413-9849, rialtocenter.org.

For additional Nutcracker listings, visit AccessAtlanta.com.