Former Sugarplum Fairies Storm the Stage

Tara Butler and Kathleen Rea danced in Ballet Jorgen Canada’s first production of The Nutcracker on tour in 1996. They shared the role of the Sugarplum Fairy, an exacting and technical role that requires performing with ease, joy, and grace. It involves the famous ballet technical litmus test of 32 fouettés (spinning in place with a flourished finish).

Roll forwards 25 years and Tara and Kathleen discovered they were planning to each dance in self-produced productions that are premiering new works in the same month. They met up with me to go over old times and talk about being mature dancers and mothers, and of course their work.

Jeff: Kathleen and Tara tell me about your sugarplum experience.

Nervous Sugarplum fairies in the dressing room pre-show, 1996
Kathleen Rea in her early Ballet days

Tara: I have so many great memories of Kathleen and I touring with the first production of The Nutcracker. We would do a show every night and travel every day to the next venue. Both Kathleen and I would confide in each other how nervous we were for each show. One venue that we arrived at had no dressing rooms! So Kathleen, being her creative self, built an area out of stacked costume crates.  It was here that we set up our make-up stations and created a sheltered area that we could change and prepare for the show. 

Kathleen: Yes! I put a “do not enter sign” on our crate-dressing-room. I remember when we arrived, we were both so tired from the travel and when we found out that we had no dressing room we both broke down in tears. I think we both had to build our confidence up so much to get in those tutus and dance the lead role, that we needed a private space to go through preparation.

And the tears! I remember there was always one of us breaking down and the other building the person up and it would switch from night to night as we exchanged roles. We were an emotional tag team. It was the pain, the bloody toes, the fatigue, the pressure. It was a lot for us, young 20-something dancers. All this pressure was happening with the destabilizing situation of being on tour away from our family, friends, and home. There was no one to teach us how to handle that amount of pressure. But I also remember for however many tears there were just as many laughs!

Jeff: what “sugarplum learning” do you bring to your upcoming shows?

Tara Butler in Bengt Jorgen’s Nutcracker, 1996.

Kathleen: The obstacle against me having a classical career which was that my body was curvier than the ballet world wanted. But Bengt Jorgen, the director of Ballet Jorgen Canada, was going against convention by hiring me. He saw my technique and artistry and was okay with my curvy body. This taught me that not everyone is going to like what you have to offer, and part of making a career happen is about going out there and finding the people that do.

Jeff: What have the past 25 years brought to your upcoming shows?

Tara: The biggest difference between those sugar plum days and now is confidence. I have a true sense of who I am and my values in general. I am more relaxed. That being said, I have a lot more responsibility now. Creating and presenting my own shows, raising my kids, managing my teaching schedule, and trying to balance it all can be a challenge. I think this only adds to my performances. The fullness of my experiences as a woman really adds more layers to the artist and performer.

Kathleen: Now that I am older, I just don’t care as much about what people think of me. Arriving at that point brings creative freedom. In Five Angels on the Steps, I change on stage and for one section dance in my underwear. My “Sugarplum Fairy me” would have been mortified with body shame. But here I am with my stretch marks from my pregnancies and I am totally fine to be seen on stage that way because I feel it shows a beautiful truth about older mothering bodies.

Kathleen Rea in Five Angels on the Steps Photo by David Hou, 2021

I put more hours into self-care to ensure my body feels good. It is about working smarter and more efficiently, and knowing what my body needs and when.  I should have done this a long time ago because my body was ironically in more pain in my Sugarplum days than now. But it is hard to teach young dancers these lessons when they feel that their youth makes them invincible. They grow up in a culture where pain is an expected outcome of doing one’s art form.

Tara: As a mature dancer I find both the preparation and performance have deeper meanings. I have learned to slow down and really savour the creative process, the rehearsals, and all those moments on stage. I feel in some ways I can enjoy it all more now. I can also recognize having a bad rehearsal or an off day as just that, with no more meaning to it. It’s part of the process to have ups and downs. I also really love that my kids get to see me doing something I love and am passionate about.

Jeff: That takes me to my next question. You each have two sons. Tara, you spoke about how parenting influences you. Kathleen, how does being a mother affect you as a performer?

Kathleen: It certainly isn’t easy. The stage world is not built for parents. It takes a scheduling genius to eke out enough rehearsal and childcare. A lot of marketing emails and social media posts get sent at 4:00 am even though I need to be in tip-top shape the next day for rehearsal. So I strive to find a balance of self-care and good mothering and creative drive. And there are things that do not get done. I have learned to let go of perfectionism and embrace good enough. Also like Tara, I feel that parenting has brought different perspectives which inform and enrich my creative work. Also, my “mom skills” (multitasking, staying calm under stress, caring for others) all carry over to being a producer.

Jeff: Tell me about your shows.

Tara Butler – Photo by Michael English, 2021

Tara: Dance Takes Berlin is a mixed program performance featuring four original works by Allen Kaeja, David Earle, Nickeshia Garrick, and myself. These pieces are linked by our desire and instincts to gravitate back towards each other and to reconnect with one another and one’s self.  This is the first of an annual original contemporary dance performance that I will offer my community here in Kitchener under the newly formed name Dust and Soul Dance Projects

 Kathleen: Five Angels on the Steps is choreographed by Newton Moraes, who is a Toronto-based Brazilian choreographer. The work is an imagistic and irreverent tapestry based on a near-death experience I had when I was bitten by a wasp. Newton incorporates ballet moves but they are distorted. My favourite moment is when I do the famous fouettés but with floppy feet! Also, I feel that as an older woman it is an act of social rebellion to get on stage with all the signs of the living my body has done. And then to frame it as something truly beautiful. It counters the youth culture that permeates the dance world.

Show information

Dance Takes Berlin
An evening of original contemporary dance featuring new work by award-winning choreographers David Earle, Allen Kaeja, and Nickeshia Garrick. Performers include Nickeshia Garrick, Nomi Wiersma, and Tara Butler. This performance has been generously funded by The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund.
The Registry Theatre in Waterloo, Ontario.
November 5th and 6th, 2021 
Box Office:
Facebook Event:
Web site

Five Angels on the Steps
A solo dance work created by choreographer Newton Moraes for Kathleen Rea. The inner working of Kathleen’s life experiences are masterly woven into an imagistic tapestry of human expression. The title derives from Kathleen’s near-death experiences in which she floated out of her body and met five angels. They are forever present in the work represented through five large octagonal cylinders. Along for the ride is Skelly, Kathleen’s anatomical skeleton that that is part of her work life teaching functional movement.
Wychwood Theatre, 601 Christie St. Toronto, Wheelchair Accessible.
Fri, Nov. 19 at 8:00 pm (in-person only)
Sat, Nov. 20 at 8:00 pm (Live stream and in-person options)
Sun, Nov. 21 at 2:00 pm (in-person only)
Box Office:
Facebook Event
Web Site:

Photo at top of post:
Tara Butler by photographer LauraMcBride
Kathleen Rea by photographer Sarah-Jones

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s