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The Architecture of the Waltz

A comparison of the Waltz of the Snowflakes with Architecture by Kevin Korpela (© 2003 observatorydrive.com)

Many pointed snow crystals, windswept snow swirling about the forest floor, and young voices combine for an architectural trip through the Waltz of the Snowflakes. The Waltz of the Snowflakes is one of several pieces composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchiakovsky for the Nutcracker Ballet (1.) The Waltz of the Snowflakes (the Waltz) is one of the dances in the Nutcracker Ballet (2) and the Waltz is filled with architectural attitude. Architecture can be described in many ways, but for the purpose of this essay, architecture includes: theme, form, and details.

The theme is an overall presentation, feel, or message that a viewer/user experiences. The form represents the theme in broad gestures. The details infill the form and reinforce the theme on a more personal level, provide shade and shadow, and give presence to the work as a whole. Theme, form, and details give life to a work of architecture or ballet. The Waltz is the last scene of Act One. Prior to this last scene, Uncle Drosselmeyer magically brought to life the toy nutcracker he had given to his niece Clara for Christmas. The life-size Nutcracker saves Clara from the attacking throngs of huge mice and shepards Clara on a journey through a snow covered forest, the scene for the Waltz, and eventually they arrive in the Land of the Sweets which begins Act Two. The Land of Sweets contains the more popular pieces of the ballet such as the Arabian or Coffee dance or the Waltz of the Flowers. The musical pieces in Act Two are the usual works found in most recordings of the Nutcracker Ballet while the Waltz of the Snowflakes is usually absent from many of the recordings.

The Waltz includes sixteen dancers working in concert to present a unified dance and music experience. The dancers work together weaving about to create a huge rotating ice crystal on the forest floor. Sometimes they split into groups of eight or four making smaller snow crystals, or they fly across the stage in solo leaps. Twirling and swirling and twisting and turning as the snowflakes fall to the earth or as the solo dancers move around the stage. In the last third of the Waltz, the sixteen dancers work solo and flash across the forest floor in a repetitive barrage of leaps. The dancers enter from a back-stage corner and move to the opposite front corner. Each dancer following another as the previous exits stage right or left. They leap or perform jetés midway through the stage. Jetés are one of many ballet jumps (4) and are derived from the French word “jeter” meaning “to throw” (Clarke, Page 333.) The dancers throw themselves into the air and fly across the stage. They spring from one leg, lift into the air with arms raised, place both legs nearly parallel to the stage floor, and then land on the other leg. The dancers leap is free and flowing much as the wind tosses stray snowflakes from the top of a fence post piled high with newly fallen snow.

This leaping across the stage compares to the filigree (5) found on the entablature (6) of Greek and Roman temples. The small articulations of form located within the frieze of the entablature are not needed for structural support but are decoration that recall the earlier use of wood timbers (7.) The filigree carved into the stone provides depth and shadow, and brings subtle changes in surface texture giving a fullness of form and theme to the stone temple. Similar to how the solo performances give fullness of form and theme to the overall presentation of the Waltz. The purity and peacefulness of newly fallen snow stacked on top of fence posts and tree limbs matches well with the young voices of the choir. The choir infills the orchestration and highlights the lightness of the dancer’s steps as they group together or leap solo for a variety of snow crystal shapes and sizes twisting about the stage.

The Waltz ends with the sixteen dancers lined along one side of the stage, much like a mound of new snow aligned along the edge of a freshly plowed driveway. The plowed path allows Clara, her Nutcracker Prince, the Snow King, and Snow Queen to pass along the forest floor unimpeded by deep snow. The aligned dancers recall the tall, slender, tightly fluted Corinthian columns (8) topped by intricate capitals framing the four sides of an ancient temple. The columns frame a majestic backdrop for the procession of the Roman Emperors.

While the sixteen slender snowflakes, their toned bodies, and their delicate costumes frame a path for the final procession of the King, Queen, Clara, and her Prince as the curtain falls to close Act One. The theme, forms, and details of the Waltz of the Snowflakes includes sixteen dancers accompanied by a chamber orchestra and a choir. The three working together to present a composition of falling snow both twirling and swirling around the forest floor.


(1) This essay is based on the December 2002 performances of the Nutcracker Ballet performed in the Oscar Mayer Theater at the Madison Arts Center by the Madison Ballet, Inc. with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Madison Boys Choir.
(2) The ballet was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia on December 17, 1892. The story is based on “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman and adapted to its present form by Alexander Dumas. Tchiakovsky was commissioned in 1891 to compose the music (Clarke, Mary and Clement Crisp. The Ballet Goer’s Guide. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981, Page 189.)
(3) The fluted columns of the Greek and Roman buildings may recall the bundle of reeds wrapped together that was used centuries ago to support a building prior to the development of stone column construction.
(4) Other ballet jumps include the batterie. A batterie is where the legs beat against each other and the jump is vertical, thus positioning the legs perpendicular to the floor versus horizontal as with the jetés (Clark, Page 328.)
(5) The filigree is delicate ornamentation on clothing, objects, and buildings.
(6) The column rests on a stone plinth and includes the base, shaft, and capital. The entablature sits on top of the capital and includes the architrave, frieze, and cornice. While the roof sits on top of the cornice. (Kostof, Spiro. The History of Architecture - Settings and Rituals. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985, Page 766.)
(7) Examples of filigree on an ancient stone temple include the alternating triglyphs and metopes that present a rhythm across the frieze of a temple. The triglyphs provide sharp vertical lines of shadow and light, and may recall the ends of wood timbers that were used in the construction of temples prior to the use of stone. While the metopes provide flat spare spaces located between the triglyphs (Kostof, Page 126.)
(8) Several types of columns were used in Greek and Roman temples from 600 B.C. to 200 A.D: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The tallest, thinnest, and most delicate of these is the Corinthian which best represents natural foliage versus other columns. The capital of the Corinthian depicts spreading leaves of an acanthus reed. This water-borne reed when cut in stone provides a fine-grained pattern of light and dark areas. The flutes of the Corinthian column are vertical gouges or depressions that run the full height of the column shaft. These depressions give deep-lines of shadow and light, and provide a delicacy to the columns and temple (Kostof, Page 165.)

© Kevin Korpela, www.observatorydrive.com™