Sugar and sweat: The sweet payoff of one Sugar Plum Fairy’s hard work

In the Kingdom of Sweets—the world we are guided through by the Sugar Plum Fairy in the second act of The Nutcracker—life is decadent and sugary, filled with confections and flowers and fun-loving characters like the illustrious Mother Ginger.

But while the Sugar Plum Fairy’s world may be candy-coated, that sweetness shouldn’t be confused with simplicity. Dancing the role requires discipline and a strict adherence to classical ballet technique.

For Yaman Kelemet, a senior in the high school classical ballet program, who is dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy for the second year in a row, that focus on classic ballet was what drew her to UNCSA. 

Kelemet as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Kathryn Lovejoy as the Snow Queen before the 2016 Campus Night performance of "The Nutcracker."

Growing up in Chicago, she and her sisters started ballet classes at a very young age. “I was always shushing them in class,” she laughs. “I took it very seriously.” By third grade, she was attending classes five or six times per week. A documentary she watched around the same time helped introduce her to American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and she heard about UNCSA through a teacher during a summer intensive with the Boston Ballet.

She also knew that some of her favorite dancers, like UNCSA alumna Gillian Murphy, were ABT dancers. The fact that UNCSA is the exclusive educational affiliate school of ABT added to the appeal. Plus, she wanted a school with strong academics to complement her dance studies.

“There are a lot of companies with schools attached,” she adds, “but I also wanted one with great academics.” She confesses that her favorite school subject is calculus—she does math homework to unwind after a long day of rehearsals.

She came to UNCSA as a sophomore, determined to work hard and grow as a dancer. She hasn’t been disappointed. The ABT technique, she says, has let her become a more well-rounded dancer through its consistent and clear focus. “It strengthens your internal awareness,” she adds, “and lets you push your boundaries.”


Kelemet in "Napoli" at the 2015 Spring Dance Concert. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

The curriculum at UNCSA has also allowed her to explore other areas, like contemporary dance and composition. She danced in Helen Pickett’s “Petal” during the 2016 Winter Dance Concert. “I’ve never had the opportunity to move that way,” she says.

Dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy for the second year in a row has allowed her to evolve as well. “Last year, I was focused a lot on the technique. This year I get to build on that and create more of a person on stage.” It’s the balance a dancer must find in all roles, she says, between both the artistic and the technical.

“This school is really, really amazing,” she says. “I have improved in ways I couldn’t even imagine.”

It’s that improvement and ability to learn that struck the attention of Dean Susan Jaffe and helped Kelemet become the recipient of the Gillian Murphy Endowed Scholarship for the 2016-17 school year—the first current student to earn the prestigious scholarship usually reserved for recruiting new students.

The honor, Kelemet says, has been both motivating and humbling, “It’s such a nice recognition of the work I have done here,” she says. “It’s not just about me as an individual student,” she adds, saying she serves as an example of ways in which the school can recognize hard work and growth.

Yaman has grown up through this school over the past three years. We’ve done a lot to form her, but she has done a lot for herself ... She takes charge of her own destiny.

Susan Jaffe, Dean of Dance

Jaffe echoed that idea. “Yaman has grown up through this school over the past three years,” she says. “We’ve done a lot to form her, but she has done a lot for herself. She researched this school when she was younger and told her mom that she would go to UNCSA.”

It’s that ability to turn her decisions into reality that impressed Jaffe. “She takes charge of her own destiny, that’s who she is,” she says. “She’s got such intensity and a lot of soul. I’ve never seen a student implement a correction as quickly and fully as her.”

Her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy demonstrates, in part, the kind of student and dancer she is. The role (nor any part of the ballet, for that matter) is not scaled down for students and is “pure classic ballet.” It requires a solid technique and a strong classicist.

“This is a Christmas ballet that brings in about 15,000 people each year,” Jaffe says. “It’s a magical story for families to share and I try to remind students of that, that they inspire and do a great service by sharing their love of their art … it requires a very generous spirit.”

A spirit, Jaffe says, that Kelemet embodies with humility, grace and grit.

by Corrine Luthy

December 15, 2016