By Frances LaBianca/El Inde
The Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux from The Nutcracker is one of the most well-known ballet variations and many young children’s introduction to the art form. The Sugarplum Fairy rules the Land of Sweets, which young heroine Clara enters in a dream. Clara enjoys a plethora of candy-themed dances from all around the world and in the end is treated to a performance by the Sugarplum Fairy herself, and her Cavalier.
This season at Ballet Tucson, which was once the Ballet Arts Foundation founded in 1986, the dancers playing the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier will have an especially noticeable connection. They are Danielle and Liang Fu, the two newest principal dancers in the company and husband and wife for the past six years.
The Nutcracker ballet is not only known for its Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux, which means dance for two in french, it is also known for its numerous children’s roles. Many of these roles will be danced by children from the School of Ballet Tucson, the school affiliated with the Ballet Tucson company. This year, as the children watch from backstage as the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier dance gracefully, it will be especially significant for them. Many of these children will be Danielle and Liang’s own students.
Along with joining the company as principal dancers, the Fus are taking on the role of co-directors of the ballet school together. This means that in addition to dancing lead roles in the Nutcracker, the couple also has to lead the children of the Nutcracker cast in their rehearsals and performances.
Back in December 2021, Margaret Mullin, the artistic director of Ballet Tucson, reached out to the Fus with this opportunity. She had worked with them before at a different company and had invited them to teach at the School of Ballet Tucson summer intensive. The offer was that they would both be principal dancers in the company, dancing with each other more than they ever had before, as well as co-directors of the ballet school.
“For some reason, for me, it just clicked,” said Danielle, who had been dancing soloist roles at Kansas City Ballet prior to the move to Arizona. But she understood that the move could be different for Liang, who is four years older and at that point was dancing as a principal in Kansas. “His story was very different,” she said.
But Liang, who had family in Arizona and understood the impermanence of a career in ballet, was on board. “Not only can we be the school director, but we can continue to dance with the company,” said Liang, “that’s a great transition.” So the couple moved down to Tucson in 2022 and the rest is history. The school began classes on August 15, 2022, while the company did not begin rehearsals until this October, so the Fus have had time to adjust.
One thing that is new to the couple is handling the administrative side of things and taking charge in a way they have never had the chance to before. Suddenly they were not just in the room, they were leading the meetings. Danielle commented on how, in the past, she was looked down on for sharing her opinions as a dancer. Now, her opinions were not only valued, they were needed to keep the school going.
“As a dancer, you’re not all you’re not in a place of authority, you’re usually following directions,” said Danielle, “but now I’m in a position where people are actually like, listening to what I have to say.”
The lack of advocacy from dancers allowed in the ballet world is one of its more controversial aspects. Scandal after scandal of those in positions of power in ballet companies and schools abusing that power have come to light.
Mullin is hoping to see a positive shift in the dance world, towards a more encouraging and nurturing environment. She chose Danielle and Liang for this job because they are “very aligned with her on that.” She is focused on better prioritizing mental and physical health of her dancers as well as improving body image and positivity.
Now that the school is fully in the swing of things Danielle and Liang have started to figure out what works for them and what doesn’t, creating a system for themselves. “We kind of divide up who teaches what nights and who has time with the dog at home,” Liang said, trying to describe the Fus’ incredibly busy schedule.
When asked how they manage this schedule with married life, Danielle explained it all has to do with keeping work away from home. “We both call each other on the way home to talk about our day or our teaching. But then the minute we get home, it’s like, husband and wife,” said Danille, “we never leave our work there.”
As the company director, Mullin oversees the school as well. She chose to have co-directors, while traditionally there is only one, because she believes in teamwork and not having one “king or queen.” “No one person has to have all the answers, you can find the answers by having someone to work with that you respect,” she said.
Mullin described the Fus as two people who can have a discussion when hard things come up. “The foundation of our relationship is a friendship,” said Danielle, “we have that level of respect… especially in the work environment.”
“For me, at least, it’s great to have two together,” said Liang, “I have my wife.” The couple met in 2006 when they were both dancers with the Cincinnati Ballet. What started as just a friendship became more and they decided to move to Kansas City Ballet in 2014 and were married there.
Kansas Ballet is a bigger company and the couple had less of a chance to dance together, in Tucson that will not be the case. This year they will have the opportunity to dance together more and grow their relationship not only as dancers, but also as a married couple.
“At first, you know, start to kind of bring that marriage relationship in the studio,” said Danielle, “and then we realized, okay, we can’t do that, we have to treat each other like we’re co workers.” With the extra time before the company begins, Danielle said that her and Liang have been focusing on their partner work and getting used to dancing with each other more. She said that they have begun to trust each other more and more and communicate better.
And it looks like this communication has transferred into their work with the school. Mullin reported that she has already seen higher levels of enrollment in the school since the Fus have come on. She sees that they have full energy and commitment in every class that they teach.
The Fus are asking themselves the same thing. When asked what they are most excited about working with the school this year they both answered that they cannot wait to learn and see the students grow.
During the pandemic the arts were hit especially hard. Without the ability to rehearse or perform in-person, the ballet world was heavily impacted. “Our mission and our vision is to build the school back,” said Liang, referring to the impact that Covid-19 had on the school and the ballet world in general, “we’re trying to bring back that excitement for the students.”
The school has already begun rehearsals for The Nutcracker, a huge performance combining both the company and students from the school. A combination of Danielle and Liang’s two worlds.
Mullin believes it will be a great opportunity for the students to see their directors perform, and sees the Fus as “wonderful examples as artists.”
“I’ll be backstage, checking and making sure the kids are doing what they’re supposed to do,” said Danielle, “and then to have the idea that you still have to go out there and perform yourself, it’ll be a very interesting different dynamic.” Danielle and Liang first performed the Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux together three years ago, when they were at Kansas City Ballet, but this will be an entirely new experience.
Soon enough, Danielle will be there, pacing backstage in the beautiful Sugarplum Fairy tutu, preparing to perform the technical and challenging pas de deux. But Liang, her devoted cavalier, partner onstage and in life will be by her side. Their students, their biggest fans, will be rooting for them.
*Ballet Tucson’s Nutcracker is December 22 through 24 at Tucson Music Hall with music by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. Tickets are on sale now at https://ballettucson.org/the-nutcracker/