restricted access 5. What does the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" Mean?
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5. What does the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" Mean? A phrase from the dance in Labanotation. © /957 Dance Notation Bureau, Inc. Aliaa Markova is a classically elegant sugar plum fairy. Photo by Maurice Seymour. Courtesy Dance (Collection, The New York Public Library. 82 HISWASTHE question I once asked in the course of an article, and a learned gentleman wrote to tell me that indeed he thought it did mean something, so I wrote back to ask him what did he think it meant. That was several years ago, and I'm still waiting for his answer. Of course, the dancer in Ivanov's The Nutcracker "represents" a sugar plum fairy; we know this because that is what she iscalled in the program. Would we know it otherwise? How does the dancer resemble such a creature? Visually she is not like a real sugar plum. She is not round, and furthermore she moves, which candy does not. Does she portray, embody, certain qualities associated with sugar plums? Gooey? No. Sweet? Perhaps, but not in quite the same way. Is she just a vision of "everything nice"? If so, her qualities are vaguely similar to those of just about all other "nice" fairies. What is distinctive about a sugar plum fairy? Would we know one if we saw her in the street? Perhaps we had better try another kind of approach. What clues does the story provide for us? Asleep under the Christmas tree, little Clara dreams that she and her Nutcracker Prince are guests of honor at a party in the Kingdom of Sweets, the domain of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This charming hostess provides an entertainment for her guests: dances by Chocolate, Tea, Coffee, and Marzipan are climaxed by the "Waltz of the Flowers." The hostess now does her solo variation and then, with a cavalier who has conveniently appeared, she does a lovely pas de deux. Finally a sleigh arrives to carry Clara back to the real world. Does this help? Not much. The qualities of character needed by the plot are minimal; as long as the fairy is generally amiable in her manner she would fit the requirements. Can we discern any more from the choreography? To the bell-like sounds of the celesta, the dancer starts to cross the stage on a diagonal path, taking gently accented steps on her 83 T 84 / Next Week, Swan Lake toes as her free leg softly bends and straightens. She then does a little run on her toes, beats one foot lightly and quickly several times against the other, and does a quarter of a turn, ending with one leg extended to the back. This is repeated to the other side (in fact, most of her phrases are done first to the right and then to the left, creating a neatly symmetrical pattern). Other movements include small jumps, never covering very much space, and steps that take her into a variety of poses on the toes of one foot, all closely marking the staccato accents and phrases of the music. Though requiring considerable strength and control, these movements look soft but their yielding quality is balanced by a sharp clarity of focus; the dancer seems always aiming at a particular position in space, which, once attained, is held just long enough for the viewer to take it in and admire it. She does not force her way to the position; her movements are unhurried. She seems poised and confident, yet gracious. But surely these qualities could be depicted in a briefer dance. There seems to be no need for all the repeated phrases, for all the measures of steps that appear to say no more than the ones already performed. Why so much movement to say so little? We are reminded of Beardsley's "overflow of expressiveness"; there is simply more action than can be logically justified as necessary to portray the very elementary situation. Furthermore, almost any generally gracious dance would seem to serve the plot and the character of the hostess as well. Is the title purely arbitrary? Does the dance really represent a specific kind of creature? Does a dance have to represent anything? True, Aristotle noted that the dancer "imitates men's characters as well as what they do and suffer." But since his time other possibilities have been proposed. The most prominent suggestion has come from Susanne Langer. For her the art of dance is "a free symbolic form, which may be used...


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