Dance Script with Electric Ballerina

by Alice Fulton
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 644

“Dance Script with Electric Ballerina,” at eighty-four lines, is one of Alice Fulton’s longer poems; it is an important one because it provides insight into Fulton’s artistic objectives. Written in four stanzas of varying length, the free-verse poem presents the persona of a ballerina dancing and discussing her theory of dance. At times the ballerina seems to be addressing the ballet’s audience, but at other times she seems to be speaking to a sympathetic co-conspirator, perhaps a fellow ballerina.

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The poem begins with the ballerina “limbering up” before going on stage while explaining that she will not be performing the familiar, conventional ballet the audience might be anticipating; she warns, “If you expected sleeping/ beauty sprouting from a rococo/ doughnut of tulle, a figurine/ fit to top a music box, you might want/ your money back.” As opposed to these visions of stylized female beauty, Fulton’s ballerina wants to be “electric,” with a “getup/ functional as light:/ feet bright and precise as eggbeaters,/ fingers quick as switch-/ blades and a miner’s lamp for my tiara.” In this way, the “electric ballerina” suggests the goals behind her rather unorthodox “dance script”—not grace, beauty, and lightness but power, daring, and illumination.

Fulton’s ballerina is aware that her unusual aesthetic choices might not be well received. She notes that although ballet audiences like to discuss “brio” (vigor) and “ballon” (the lightness of a jump that seems to make the ballerina float in the air longer than possible), “spectators prefer/ gestures that don’t endanger/ body and soul.” In contrast, Fulton’s ballerina seems to value what endangers, because the spectators’ fear or surprise might shock them from passivity and cause them to reevaluate beauty. An excerpt from Fulton’s journal, published in The Poet’s Notebook (1995), sheds some light on this poem. Fulton discusses the Scottish dancer/choreographer Michael Clark. Clark has his dancers “gasp for breath above the music” in order to make an audience “aware of the effort.” Clark sees “the hint of disequilibrium as a gain,” and so does Fulton’s ballerina, who is not interested in presenting a smooth, seamless ballet. Instead, she wants her “leaps angular and brief” to have the same disjointed and startling quality that Clark’s choreography has.

As the poem progresses, the ballerina begins dancing. Predictably, the dance critics who watch the ballet do not understand what she is striving to accomplish. The second stanza ends with an italicized section which presents the criticisms that they will, presumably, publish in their reviews. The critics mistake her deliberate attempt to present the “strain” which is “a reminder/ of the pain that leads to grace” as ineptitude. They fault the ballerina for being “ragged barbaric hysterical” and say that she lacks “authority fluency restraint,” among other things.

As the ballerina nears the end of her dance, she “can sense the movement/ notators’ strobe vision/ picking the bones of flux into/ positions.” Like a strobe light, the critics have only flashes of illumination, and their dependence on naming recognized positions shows how they are trapped by the conventions of time and space, absolutes which she battles to overcome as she dances. Instead of passively watching and labeling, the ballerina wants them to enjoy the gaps, to “see the gulf/ between gestures as a chance/ to find clairvoyance.” Ultimately, however, the critics are too limited by their own conventions to understand her particular brand of iconoclasm. The ballerina wishes for a metaphor or model with which she could make the critics understand her; she seems to feel that such an understanding may one day be possible, but “till then” she is at a “stand-/ still” as she strikes her final position. She notes that “my chest heaves,/ joints shift, eyes dart—” rather defiantly reminding the reader that even then, despite appearances, she is still dancing.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

In this poem Fulton does not heavily rely on some of the traditional poetic devices available to a poet, such as rhyme and meter, but other devices she uses with great skill. Fulton’s choice of line breaks makes an interesting study, for example. On the page, “Dance Script with Electric Ballerina” looks somewhat ragged because the lines are of varying lengths and are not cordoned off into even-length stanzas. Here form reflects theme, because the ballerina is arguing in favor of ragged edges and “disequilibrium.” In addition, Fulton uses her line breaks to create a rhythm that can pull the rug out from under the reader’s feet. After strongly end-stopped lines, she might break a hyphenated word in half; this sudden enjambment leads to a halting music. Often Fulton, like the poet Marianne Moore before her, uses line breaks to underscore wit or puns. When Fulton cautions that the audience might want a refund if they expected “sleeping/ beauty,” her line break reveals what audiences are really after when they choose such sugary, harmless concoctions—a type of reassuring stupor in which no one is changed because no one is challenged.

Another way that the poem seeks to disrupt equilibrium is by presenting sudden and shifting metaphors and rapidly juxtaposed images. The dancer asks, “You’ve seen kids on Independence Day, waving/ sparklers to sketch their initials on the night?” She continues, “Just so, I’d like to leave a residue/ of slash and glide, a trace-/ form on the riled air.” The ballerina’s language does “slash and glide” through the poem, shifting from one metaphor to another; moreover, the metaphors are all located in different worlds. Fulton follows her “strobe” metaphor with one from the world of geography, “fissures,” followed by a “footage” metaphor from the film industry, in turn followed by mention of an “electrocardiograph,” from the world of medicine. In this way the poet reproduces for the readers the unsettling effects of the ballet, hoping that the readers now have enough insight into her methods to rise above the critics’ shortsightedness. Instead of requiring familiar “positions,” the readers should enjoy the “flux” and leap the gulfs with the ballerina. As Fulton noted in an interview (TriQuarterly, 1995), gaps and gulfs are important to her concept of poetry; she questions “continuity and unity.My notion of poetry itself suggests quick cuts—those moves that used to be called poetic leaps. They allow the readers to fill in the gaps and participate by recreating the poem’s meaning in their own minds.” Fulton, in relying on what is not on the page as well as what is written there, is influenced by Emily Dickinson; Fulton’s admiration for Dickinson continued to deepen in her books that came after Dance Script with Electric Ballerina, such as Sensual Math (1995).

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