How It's Done: Strong Is Beautiful

Sara Mearns on dancing the Lilac Fairy
Published in the August/September 2012 issue.

Mearns as the Lilac Fairy. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Princess Aurora may be the heroine of The Sleeping Beauty, but the Lilac Fairy is its spiritual conscience. She intervenes at every turn of the ballet’s plot to bestow grace and mitigate the pain of destiny. She softens Carabosse’s curse at Aurora’s christening; she oversees the court’s century-long slumber; she leads the Prince to the vision of Aurora; and finally she blesses Aurora’s wedding.

When New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns dances, she tells a story with her whole body—the drama isn’t segmented into pirouettes or poses. She has been performing the Lilac Fairy in Peter Martins’ version after Petipa’s choreography ever since a School of American Ballet workshop in 2003. NYCB’s production streamlines the ballet’s action, and the choreography’s tempos are much brisker than in more traditional stagings. The Lilac Fairy, however, maintains a steady, unhurried presence  throughout the ballet. With her powerful, dynamic technique, Mearns embodies the guiding force of the Lilac Fairy.

Define the Character
“I tend to think of the Lilac Fairy as a fairy godmother or a goddess,” says Mearns. “She’s so ethereal, unlike anyone else, even the other fairies, because she has powers they don’t.” Mearns says the Lilac Fairy has a way of calming people, letting them know that everything will be all right in the midst of daunting obstacles: “She lets things happen, but she’s there to pick up the pieces.”

Connect Movement and Music
Tchaikovsky’s orchestrally rich score lays out motifs for all the characters. The Lilac Fairy’s music, a slow waltz, is romantic, grand and lush, never small or delicate. “It’s commanding music, but also gracious,” says Mearns. “There are elongated phrases. The music doesn’t make you want to throw the movement away at the audience.” The dancing should follow the rise and fall of the luscious score. “There should be no harsh movements whatsoever,” says Mearns. “The Lilac Fairy is very giving in her kindness and generosity.”

Make the Mime Dance
The role’s pantomime can be tricky. When countering Carabosse’s anger and forcefulness, the Lilac Fairy has to be soothing but firm in her gestures. For example, when Carabosse mimes Aurora’s pricking of the finger, then agressively crosses her wrists as a symbol of death, the Lilac Fairy moves softly in contrast. She gently shakes her head and mimes that Aurora will not die, merely sleep for 100 years. “I don’t have that much trouble with the pantomime, because I approach it as dancing,” says Mearns. “It’s as if I’m creating a dance with my hands and my arms.”

Technical Troubleshooting
The Lilac Fairy’s variation in the prologue represents her essence. Within roughly 90 seconds, a dancer has to convey her majesty with absolute authority. Throughout the variation, the Lilac Fairy should project a sense of confidence with lyrical strength. Remember, lyrical dancing requires energy and attack—it’s not anemic.

Beginning in the upstage right corner, the first sequence involves a grand rond de jambe of the left leg, followed by a tombé to step into a piqué on the left leg. “You basically have six piqués to travel across the entire stage,” says Mearns. “And you have to really bend with the movement from side to side.”

In the second section, a piqué in attitude extends to arabesque and culminates in a double piqué turn ending in tendu ecarté devant in plié. “You have to remember to spot where you are coming from to complete the tendu,” advises Mearns. Keep the torso and port de bras alive during the transitions from one phrase to the next—there are no unimportant steps.

The final section requires three buoyant sissonnes in arabesque, the last of which moves through fourth position into a pirouette. This being NYCB, the back leg is straight before the pirouette, “so the weight on the sissonnes should already be centered and ready to move into a turn,” says Mearns.  

Grand Finish
Keep in mind that Balanchine reportedly said that pointe shoes are “the jewels of the body.” So enter and leave the stage each time with proper articulation through the entire foot as you project your weight forward in your walk.