I marched under Zhang Huan’s steel sculpture Rising on a crispy cool afternoon, quickly bowing before a flock of enthusiastic steel birds before spinning myself through revolving door and spilling into the quiet calm of the Shangri-La Hotel Toronto’s Lobby Lounge. I glanced down at the shiny white keys of the Fazioli piano which stands stoically in the centre of the space before plopping myself on a comfy couch. Staring longingly into a crackling fire one appreciates the Christmas jingles which prance through the room, joy filled solitary as you wait for your guest to arrive.
Enter Toronto’s prettiest pixie, The National Ballet’s Jillian Vanstone. We spent the next two hours chit chatting about holiday excitement, Toronto’s Nutcracker tradition and the beauty that is ballet. From our comfy couch we were but a stones throw from The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts where Ms. Vanstone will inspire audiences this season as The Sugar Plum Fairy.
Inspired by the Nutcracker ballet, Toronto’s own Shangri-La executive chef Damon Campbell and team have created a Nutcracker High Tea menu which pays homage to the collection of dances that appear in Act 2. A perfect pre-theatre sweet treat the festive offering features Nutcracker themed pastries which include a “Russian Dance” Candy Cane peppermint macaroon and “Dance of the Reed Flutes” Danish Marzipan Cake featuring citrus sponge and marzipan glaze. Jillian and I sunk into our seats while sipping a hot pot of fragrant Star Anise Chai while nibbling our way through mid afternoon decadence.
I’d never been on a date with a ballerina before, let alone a Sugar Plum Fairy so thought it best to start the conversation by asking Jillian about her passion for ballet, an obvious winner of an icebreaker, which had me soon learning the ins and outs of fierce footwork and the gracious sway of the upper body. Welcome to Ballerina 101. While slathering her scone with thick Devonshire cream Jillian recounted her first encounter with Toronto’s favourite ballet, “My first experience with The Nutcracker was actually not in the audience but as a dancer. I was eight years old and played a rat in the battle scene!”
From ragamuffin rat to elegant Fairy Queen, Jillian has wowed audiences after dedicating over ten years to the National Ballet. She describes The Sugar Plum Fairy as, “a ruler of the Land of Sweets, a kind and benevolent leader.” When asked how she prepares before prancing on stage in Act 2 she hilariously describes her “face warm up” which involves contorting every muscle under her nose so she can perfectly hone the positive energy of her character throughout her entire body.
Toronto’s own Sugar Plum Fairy calls the Distillery District home and raves about SOMA Chocolate where she can often be found indulging in the cafes spiced hot chocolate. When sussing out festive fun she enjoys strolling through the neighbourhoods Christmas Market with a glass of warm mulled wine and spiced nut nibbles. For her own family feast she serves the typical turkey while enthusiastically sharing her passion and penchant for roasted butternut squash which she prepares with a touch of sage and whisper of maple syrup.
We then joke about the dancer film genre, “if I have to see another tight-bunned ballerina that needs a hot hip hop dancer to show her how to find her rhythm…” #eyerolls One can assume that she will not be inviting Julia Stiles over for a screening of Save the Last Dance any time soon.
When I press her on the details of her diet she exclaims, “I always have a square of chocolate before going on stage for that extra energy boost.” She hilariously blurts, “I’m not talking about Mars Bars here…” The Sugar Plum Fairy is keen on quality over quantity, Fair Trade for the win.
I woke up in Canada’s little city on the Lake feeling as though I was living within a freshly shaken snow globe. Toronto apprehensively welcomed its first blizzard of the season the same day The National Ballet premiered its annual holiday ritual, The Nutcracker. While some may have griped and complained about hauling through slush and sleet I was enthusiastic as I jolted along Queen Street on a tram entirely fogged in from the cold. I brushed away heavy snowflakes which clung to my eyelashes moments before arriving at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. One can’t help but flash a smug mug on a snow filled day moments before prancing into Tchaikovsky’s whimsical celebration of Christmas.
I first saw The Nutcracker when I was just a wee one. My father who is a doctor had a patient in the National Ballet who offered us a behind the scenes tour which had both my sister and I jaw dropping. Fancy costumes, thick makeup, tiaras and glittery fairy wings. We both instantly fell in love with the spectacle of live theatre and from that moment on began a family theatre-going tradition which still lives to this day. My mother purchased Tchaikovsky’s iconic Christmas melodies on CD (remember those?) which we play on loud speakers throughout our home during the holidays. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy whispers through the Living Room as my mother and father trim the tree, twirling into the kitchen as my sister and I decorate thousands of festive cookie cutter shortbread.
After University I spent two Christmas’s abroad and while feeling a bit glum and lonely during the holiday season I’d always be sure to blast The Nutcracker anthem in an attempt to keep my spirits bright. I hosted a Christmas Party when living in Seoul, greeting guests with the cheery chime of The Russian Dance. The following year I found myself sitting on one of the worlds most beautiful beaches, Sipidan in Borneo relaxed and plugged in to my iPod with eyes closed willing the Overture to help me tap into the Christmas spirit moments before I plunged for another fish filled snorkel.
It had been years since lil moi had seen The Nutcracker live so when I discovered I’d have the opportunity to catch the premiere last week I was eager to find the perfect plus one to share the experience with me. When I heard that my friend Evan had never had the opportunity to see the ballet I immediately invited him to join. Once we arrived at the theatre I learned it would also be his first visit to The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts so figured we were hitting a few birds with one stone.
The snow outside cast a thick white blanket across University Avenue and while pedestrians appeared determined to pound the pavement, inside the warm glow of the theatre was as cheery as ever. Excited toddlers dressed in their Sunday best had adorned their freshly curled bobs with tiny red bows and tinsel. The lights dimmed, the audience roared and Toronto’s tiniest theatre fans chirped with glee from the comfort of their booster seats.