Jump to content


French Baroque: history or relevant today?


  • Please log in to reply
12 replies to this topic

#1 GNicholls

GNicholls

    Member

  • Member
  • PipPip
  • 51 posts

Posted 06 September 2010 - 12:19 PM

As a newbie I've done some background reading on ballet history, mainly the periods of ballet de cour and opera-ballet. A few basic points that seem simple:

1. Ballet is a particular form of art, originating in Renaissance Italy, codified as the French danse d'ecole, developed and modified thereafter.
2. It is based in classical and humanist ideals of the 16th and 17th centuries.
3. Ballet incorporates dance, music, theatre, and visual arts but has its own aesthetic and critical tradition, distinct from the other arts.

Though obvious, it seems to me that we often forget these basic ideas. In my opinion, the terms ballet and "dance" are mixed together too much nowadays. Ballet of that time is discussed for historical significance and details of performance practice, not as a vital art form. What we call ballet now too often stresses virtuosity and shock effect, not balance and empathy. Ballets are still talked about in terms of musical scores and operas rather than choreography. (I know a lot of the choreography is lost, but we know quite a bit too.)

Also have viewed on YouTube French ballet scenes from this period. I find many of them stunning and affecting too, full of genuine sentiment, grandeur, humour, and moments of genius. The issue: is this a specialist genre mainly of historical interest, or is it as I believe an art form relevant today, from which we can learn a lot?

#2 Alexandra

Alexandra

    Board Founder

  • Administrators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 9,242 posts

Posted 06 September 2010 - 01:57 PM

Thank you for such a thoughtful question. I think you're definitely on the right track. You might enjoy the DVD "Le Roi Danse" about Louis XIV and the musician Lully. It shows the politics, but also the aesthetics of that period. Ballet still has a whiff of the ancien regime -- the hierarchies, the precision, thevpatterns (which once had a multitude of philosophical meanings). Most important was the idea of the ideal, the horizontal, as Volynsky wrote, that in ballet we reach to the Heavens.

Sadly I doubt thatvmany dancers or company leaders or people who write about dance know or care about this. I've heard teachers say that ballet is a philosophy, but I think they expect students to understand this without explanation.

There are several Renaissance and historical dance scholars now, as well as performing groups.

Sorry forvsuch a quick answer to such a good question. I hope others will join in.

#3 leonid17

leonid17

    Platinum Circle

  • Foreign Correspondent
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 1,413 posts

Posted 06 September 2010 - 03:14 PM

As a newbie I've done some background reading on ballet history, mainly the periods of ballet de cour and opera-ballet. A few basic points that seem simple:

1. Ballet is a particular form of art, originating in Renaissance Italy, codified as the French danse d'ecole, developed and modified thereafter.
2. It is based in classical and humanist ideals of the 16th and 17th centuries.
3. Ballet incorporates dance, music, theatre, and visual arts but has its own aesthetic and critical tradition, distinct from the other arts.

Though obvious, it seems to me that we often forget these basic ideas. In my opinion, the terms ballet and "dance" are mixed together too much nowadays. Ballet of that time is discussed for historical significance and details of performance practice, not as a vital art form. What we call ballet now too often stresses virtuosity and shock effect, not balance and empathy. Ballets are still talked about in terms of musical scores and operas rather than choreography. (I know a lot of the choreography is lost, but we know quite a bit too.)

Also have viewed on YouTube French ballet scenes from this period. I find many of them stunning and affecting too, full of genuine sentiment, grandeur, humour, and moments of genius. The issue: is this a specialist genre mainly of historical interest, or is it as I believe an art form relevant today, from which we can learn a lot?


Thank you for you post.

I know you will find others on the forum who have considered the same things that you have expressed and will be kindred spirits in their views as to the high art status of Academic Classical Ballet(ACB).

There has for instance, been a recent thread on virtuosity which you may find interesting.

Regrettably there are too many critics writing about ballet who are afraid to write in a manner that would confirm ACB as a high art for fear of being seen to be elitist and often bring populist ideas into their criticism of "dance" performances as being more correct and approachable for todays audiences.

It is the very high status of ACB that offends such people who presume that it separates sections of the population where in fact I believe it speaks with a clearer language to the uninitiated,than a good deal of modern dance choreography.

Like yourself, I admire baroque opera and its dances so much so, that I find myself lost in listening and watching performances of the 18th century for days at a time. (I can hear the echoes of some saying, we wish you would stay there.)

#4 atm711

atm711

    Platinum Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 1,422 posts

Posted 07 September 2010 - 03:33 AM

I don't know how relevant they are today but I would love to see another one performed. I have fond memories of a ballet that one of my teachers, George Chaffee, choreographed; 'Les Characters De La Danse' which was described as an Anacreontic (Cheers!) ballet set to music by Jean-Ferry Rebel. The characters (Cupid, Venus, Zephyr,etc.) wore masks and performed ancient dances--Courante, Bourree, Passepied, Rigaudon, Sarabande, etc. Slow moving, but what charm.

#5 Mashinka

Mashinka

    Platinum Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 1,164 posts

Posted 07 September 2010 - 05:25 AM

Regrettably there are too many critics writing about ballet who are afraid to write in a manner that would confirm ACB as a high art for fear of being seen to be elitist and often bring populist ideas into their criticism of "dance" performances as being more correct and approachable for todays audiences.


That's true, but there are a few brave souls that still keep the faith and I suspect Leonid that you are one yourself.

I recommend a CD by William Christie & Les Arts Florissants entitled Musique de Ballet with music by Lully and Rameau, it gives a real taste of the period and they danced allegro rather than legato back then.

Jean-Ferry Rebel was I believe a contemporary of Lully's but nowhere near as well known: a pity as the small amount of his music that I've heard is quite impressive though very little of his work seems to have been recorded.

#6 leonid17

leonid17

    Platinum Circle

  • Foreign Correspondent
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 1,413 posts

Posted 07 September 2010 - 05:45 AM

I don't know how relevant they are today but I would love to see another one performed. I have fond memories of a ballet that one of my teachers, George Chaffee, choreographed; 'Les Characters De La Danse' which was described as an Anacreontic (Cheers!) ballet set to music by Jean-Ferry Rebel. The characters (Cupid, Venus, Zephyr,etc.) wore masks and performed ancient dances--Courante, Bourree, Passepied, Rigaudon, Sarabande, etc. Slow moving, but what charm.


I was so interested to read about George Chaffee staging a ballet to the music of Jean-Fery Rebel(1666-1747) as I have only really got interested in his music in the last 20 years with the appearance of recordings, although his name was known to me through his association with many famous ballerina's.

George Chaffee introduced me to earlier ballet works through "The Romantic Ballet in London" published in a Dance Index of 1943, a copy of which I acquired from Cyril Beaumont's shop in London around 1961. Chaffee can be said to have aroused my interest in the history of dance from the baroque to the present day. I would also mention that Chaffee's study preceded Ivor Guest's well-known book on the same subject, by eleven years.

Though not to be compared to his teacher Lully, Rebel's music has many felicitous moments and paints his scenes clearly in such works as "Les Elemens."of 1672, a work which helped to sustain a forward movement in ballet production.

Of course Twyla Tharp introduced many people to Rebel's music for 'Les Elements' through her dance work of the same name.

#7 bart

bart

    Diamonds Circle

  • Board Moderator
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 7,320 posts

Posted 07 September 2010 - 07:53 AM

Wonderful and thought-provoking topic. I'm looking forward to learning from the posts. Thank you, GNicholls, for presenting it.

I wonder whether we should think of "history" and "relevance" as though they are some how antithetical.

The issue: is this a specialist genre mainly of historical interest, or is it as I believe an art form relevant today, from which we can learn a lot?

.
Well ... yes AND yes.

Baroque dancing is the original source of many steps and gestures that survive in classical and contemporary ballet. I cannot imagine a good chunk of Balanchine, for instance, without these references and allusions. Even when the steps have been altered -- and when the elaborate superstructure of story-telling and hierarchy have been revised or eliminated -- the elegance and aristocratic quality of baroque dancing remain. For example, I never watch the modernist Balanchine/Stravinsky Agon without thinking of baroque dance.

As to Baroque performance -- Baroque music is still flourishing in sophisticated arts communities -- ditto, Baroque opera and ballet. There is a serious, if small, audience for baroque dance, as the New York Baroque Dance Company and other organizations in North America and Europe demonstrates.
http://www.nybaroquedance.org/

#8 GNicholls

GNicholls

    Member

  • Member
  • PipPip
  • 51 posts

Posted 07 September 2010 - 10:44 AM

I really appreciate these replies and references -- every one of which has pointed out things I didn't know. Concerning history, I'm following Alexandra's lead in the Ballet Eras thread, gradually moving over to using dance not music terminology. Love the idea that "in ballet we reach for the Heavens." Having worked as a classical musician for a large part of my life Leonid's raising of the elitism issue evokes arguments I make in support of classical music, which are serious but not as convincing as a fine performance of a beautiful piece! On the question of virtuosity, when I joined Ballet Talk it was a big interest. But having had a change of heart, now I'm looking rather for artistry in choreography and dancing. I agree with Bart that in viewing modernist work it helps also to know the past very well, and at the same time period performances can be wonderful (the playing is so much better than it was when I was a music student, and historical dance wasn't even on the radar where I lived).

The French Baroque ballet wasn't all danse noble. There were demi-charactere and grotesque roles, and I've read of freak show stuff that wouldn't be allowed on stage today. And politics at the court of Louis XIV were unsavoury. But the best work reaches up to the artistic heights and indeed sets up its own world, both like and unlike the everyday one, which I like Leonid find enthralling.

#9 volcanohunter

volcanohunter

    Platinum Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 1,868 posts

Posted 07 September 2010 - 11:28 AM

As to Baroque performance -- Baroque music is still flourishing in sophisticated arts communities -- ditto, Baroque opera and ballet. There is a serious, if small, audience for baroque dance, as the New York Baroque Dance Company and other organizations in North America and Europe demonstrates.
http://www.nybaroquedance.org/

[size="3"]I believe that GNicholls is a Torontonian and as such is undoubtedly familiar with [/size][size="3"]Opera Atelier[/size][size="3"]. They're not strict traditionalists, but they are very much committed to presenting opera-ballets as a cohesive theatrical experience. In recent years France's [/size][size="3"]Le Poème Harmonique[/size][size="3"] has attempted to present baroque works as traditionally as possible, right down to using candles instead of electrical lighting.[/size]

#10 GNicholls

GNicholls

    Member

  • Member
  • PipPip
  • 51 posts

Posted 10 September 2010 - 05:17 AM

As well as Opera Atelier there is a baroque dance organization in Toronto, La Belle Danse.
For me Baroque ballet seems to convey sheer joy in human presence – as persons, as dancers, as actors – bringing all together skilfully, immersed in the roles. Ballet of other eras does this too of course. In my opinion the classical and humanistic principles articulated by the Florentine Camarata (invoking the drama of ancient Greece), in which the ballet of Beauchamps and Lully was grounded, are still highly relevant – not academic or dead! The whole idea was expression of feelings within an order both based on and straining against reason.
To me the video clips at the NY Baroque Dance Company web site reach a very high level of artistry. In La Danse from Rameau's Les fêtes d’Hébé, Catherine Turocy leads the ensemble in her complex yet attractive choreography, her tambourin linking the dancing and offstage music. In Feuillet's choreography for the Entrée d'Apollon from Lully's Le Triomphe de l'Amour, Thomas Baird strikes me as noble and at the same time very musical, not stiff at all. His feet connect to fine details of the music without imitating it predictably.

#11 GNicholls

GNicholls

    Member

  • Member
  • PipPip
  • 51 posts

Posted 20 September 2010 - 05:13 AM

A note about Rebel's score for Les elements: in the Chaos scene the stringed instruments each play a different note forming sustained tone clusters, that sound like Penderecki or Ligeti in the 1960's -- nearly 300 years ahead of their time!

#12 Quiggin

Quiggin

    Gold Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 826 posts

Posted 21 September 2010 - 12:53 PM

This thread started me looking at some old references. My only exposure to Baroque performance, except through Chaconne and Agon as with Bart, was the William Christie and Les Arts Florisaants production of "Atys" with its quick wonderful dancing in a continuous flow. Anyway I found this cite which I thought was interesting because of the confluence of the actors of court and dancers of the Opera. From Rebecca Harris-Warrick on "La Mariee" in "Jean-Baptiste Lully and the music of the French Baroque."

These different kinds of balletic performances - the occasional ballet de cour, other small ballets, the Carnival mascarades, and the balletic entrees added to plays - countinued at court throughout most of Louis XIV’s reign. In many of them, dancers who earned their living on the stage of the Opera could be seen dancing side by side with nobles. Even those ballets that were danced only by courtiers were choreographed by a professional such as Pecour, and the mascarades danced entirely by professionals were produced in the context of a social event, that is, of a ball.

The dancers from the Opera were not mere figures whom the courtiers watched from the other side of the footlights; they were the people who taught them, choreographed dances for them, and danced beside them. Because the ballroom provide the setting for many of the prepared mascarades, the distinction between the theatrical and social dances is difficult to define.

footnote: “Madame la Dauphine danced some entrees of chaconne with Comte de Brionne and the chevalier de Sully.” Marquis de Dangeau, 26 January 1688


I may have quoted this before but Mme de Sevigne usually has an interesting side view. To her daughter:

After dinner Messieurs de Locmaria and de Coetlogon, with two Breton ladies, danced wonderful passepieds and minuets with an air that our good dancers do not have by a long way; they do gypsy and Low Breton steps with a delicacy and precision that are delightful. I am alway thinking of you... I am sure that you would have been delighted to see Locmaria dance...It is quite extraordinary; they do a hundred different steps, but always with a rhythm that is quick and absolutely right [que ce quantite de pas differents et cette cadence courte and juste]. I have never seen a man dance this kind of dance as he does.


The Due de Saint-Simon goes in great detail of the dance season of 1700, the types of dances, the formations and rooms they took place in - only a small part of which has been translated:

From Candelmas to Lent there was a continual succession of balls and entertainments at the Court. The King gave several at Versailles and Marly, with wonderfully ingenious masquerades and tableaux, a form of diversion that vastly pleased him under the guise of pleasing Mme la Duchesse de Bourgogne ... Mme de Saint-Simon, who was always in Mme la Duchesse de Bourgogne's retinue (a great favor), and I never saw the light of day in the last three weeks before Lent. Certain dancers were not allowed to leave the ballroom before the princess, and once at Marly when I tried to escape early she sent orders for me to be confined within its doors.


But yes, ballet depends almost entirely on dance of the Baroque era it would seem.

#13 GNicholls

GNicholls

    Member

  • Member
  • PipPip
  • 51 posts

Posted 27 September 2010 - 10:44 AM

The above quotes give the flavour of the times. Mingling of dancers and nobles at the court of Louis XIV must have benefited all; the importance of these occasions made much funding possible! Descriptions by Mme de Sevigne and the Duc d’Orléans illustrate the rich social milieu of social dancing, enhancing appreciation of ballet. Concerning what I have learned from the 17th-18th-century French ballet so far:

1. a sense of harmony in the horizontal patterning, perhaps connecting to the motions of celestial bodies and the perspective of eternity… Verticality came to be emphasized more when ballet moved from court to theatre, in consideration of the audience point of view. But maybe there was still a balance of vertical figure and horizontal ground? – I think so.

2. Beauchamps was one of Lully’s colleagues of genius, along with dramatists Molière then Quinault, and the engineers Torelli and Vigarini followed by the designer Bérain. They were good at more than one thing – Molière and Lully danced, Beauchamps and Quinault composed. Louis XIV danced and gave his patronage to long-lasting institutions.

3. a succession of artists, often with close family and teacher-student connections. It is not just a dry series of names in a book, but a wonderful sequence of creators, giving a sense of the richness and depth of ballet’s traditions. In another post, I referred to the value of using the year of birth of important composers to keep track of contemporaries and generations – here will try the same with major French dancers and choreographers in the ballet de cour and opéra-ballet eras, grouped by quarter century with birth year:

1625-49
Pierre Beauchamps – 1631

1650-74
Guillaume-Louis Pécourt – 1653
Mlle de Lafontaine – 1655
Marie-Thérèse Subligny – 1666
Claude Ballon – 1671

1675-99
Michel Blondy – 1677
Françoise Prévost – c.1680
Louis Dupré – 1690

1700-1725
Marie Sallé – 1707
Marie Camargo – 1710
Jean-Barthélemy Lany – 1718

Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Dance (2001), edited by Debra Craine Craine and Judith Mackrell.

4. as for artistry, ironically dance – the key element in ballet – is the most ephemeral. So we have the score, the libretto, the design, but dance notation only in certain cases. Much as this situation limits accurate ballet reconstruction, it is salutary to remember the fleeting nature of time, which is also the nature of dance: never to be frozen, opening up a space for creative imagination whether as reconstruction or reinvention, and as dancer or choreographer or viewer. I like to visualize the succession of artists as an actual long and stately procession, or to imagine myself going back in time, pausing as each artist steps forward with an entrée, ready to applaud at the right moment. We don’t know their work enough to make artistic judgements, yet I sense that even today there is something in French baroque ballet that makes us want to "complete" it, that warrants the eager co-participation of everyone from dance scholar to dancer to viewer.


0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users


Help support Ballet Alert! and Ballet Talk for Dancers year round by using this search box for your amazon.com purchases (adblockers may block display):