Having performed The Nutcracker only once last year due to COVID-19, Yui Sugawara looks forward to her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy in this year’s production. “I’m excited to bring such a traditional ballet back to Montreal again,” she says. “It’s an important Christmas ritual for many people, and I’m so happy to be able to bring back the Christmassy vibe to the theatre.”
When she first started, Sugawara never imagined dancing outside of her hometown, Hokkaido, Japan. She had studied ballet from the age of four after seeing her preschool friends perform, then when Sugawara was 16, her mother convinced her to take her ballet career to the next level. In 2012, this push from her mother brought Sugawara to the Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York, where her passion for the delicate yet powerful dance grew even stronger.
When Sugawara first arrived in New York, her limited English made it difficult for her to blend in, although she quickly understood how important this big move wasl to her career. “The first time I moved to New York, it was kind of like a dream,” she says. “I found a new version of me in the U.S.—I felt free. Something about it changed my perspective. It helped me to dream bigger.” With those bigger dreams, came bigger moves. In 2014, Sugawara joined the Hong Kong Ballet as a corps member. When a guest professor in Hong Kong saw Sugawara perform, she recommended the artist join Les Grands Ballets in Montreal.
Montreal and Les Grands Ballets immediately won Sugawara’s heart. “Moving here was the best decision for me,” she says. “All the dancers were so unique; every dancer was so different. For me, it was nice to learn so many things from everyone.”
In the exacting world of ballet, her biggest competitor remains herself. “She doesn’t see how beautiful she is. I feel that sometimes she puts herself down too much,” says Sugawara’s friend and fellow dancer, Célestin Boutin.
Rehearsing from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. together every day, Sugawara and Boutin have extended their friendship beyond the studio. “My best friend and colleague is my biggest inspiration,” Sugawara says. “He’s really helped me through some of my lowest moments.” Even after they both retire, Boutin says he and Sugawara will still be together somewhere. “I like the future idea of her sitting in a chair doing her little crochet things, and me next to her with a drink in my hand, both of us laughing,” he says.
Watch Yui Sugawara in Les Grands Ballets’ production of The Nutcracker, from December 9 to 30.