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A Baroque Ball Nourishes Fantasy

June, 2002

If, at first glance, the concept of a Baroque Ball at St. Marks Church-in-the Bowery seems like an oxymoron, think again. During eight evenings over two weekends in March the New York Baroque Dance Company, directed by Catherine Turocy, celebrated its 25th anniversary by recreating an 18th century atmosphere in the large, soaring, balconied room that is both an Episcopalian church (the pews of which are removable) and a performing area for the Dancespace Project. A rectangle with permanent step-like bleachers on the two long sides and one short side, the church, standing on the site of a 17th century chapel built on Peter Stuyvesant’s farm, was a perfect venue to both watch and participate in the ball.

Those who chose to come an hour prior to the start of the fete were able to take "class" and learn a pavane, which opened the event, and a contredanse, which closed it, thus becoming active participants in the celebration. The space was set up as it would have been for a genuine ball, with a few small chairs scattered around and the beautifully garbed dancers chatting and socializing. Musicians of Concert Royal (James Richman, Artistic Director) played a Baroque violin, a Flauto traverso, a Baroque cello and the harpsichord.

The Baroque Age in France started with Louis XIV, the greatest royal dancer of all. Composers wrote whole suites for the dances of the court and Louis took a daily class with his dancing master. He also established the French academies – in language, painting and sculpture, music and dance. In 1713 the Ballet School at the Paris Opera opened, making it the oldest ballet conservatory in the world.

The 18th century was the period during which dance developed and it is the most immediate precursor to ballet as it is known today. During this time dancers became better trained, and, due to the use of the proscenium stage, extended their technique and expressive capabilities, thereby challenging emerging choreographers.

Responsibility for teaching and choreographing for social events was assumed by dancing masters, who also taught manners, mores and social behavior, often making them powerful individuals in upper society. All art of the time had to do with meaning and there was a referral back to the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The concept of motion and gesture is observable in all art forms of the period.

Restraint is perhaps the word that best describes the 18th century. It involved purposefully controlled energy, elegant good manners, a cultivated refinement and a passion that was carefully subdued. The concept of an ideal order, that led eventually to a standardization and conformity, also produced nobility, precision, grace and lightness. The fan, the snuff box, billowing lace sleeves were all accoutrements of a highly class-conscious society where status was conveyed by an individual’s carriage, walk, manners and dress. Dancing was the most admired exercise and the minuet considered the perfect dance. Someone was once quoted as saying, "Do everything in minuet time," and one of the main goals in life was the pursuit of pleasure.

Catherine Turocy, in her research on Baroque dance, has revealed a period with a wide variety of dance forms, subjects and style. By means of her interpretive reconstructions and new choreography based on the steps and style of the era, she has tried to expand the ideas of the 18th century aesthetic. Under her guidance the company has been seen widely with orchestras, with the Paris Opera and at such festivals as Mostly Mozart and Spoleto. She was knighted in 1995 by the French government, as was Mr. Richman for his contribution to music.

There was a marked difference between ballroom dancing and the virtuosity of theatrical dancing. The latter was entirely professional and the former, practiced by carefully trained amateurs, sometimes included dances by professionals. Ms. Turocy notes in the program that she carefully chose to combine both for her ball.

The evening began with a meticulously dressed host, identifying himself as one of the outstanding cultural figures of Baroque Paris, welcoming a young man from the American south, hence allowing some explanatory dialogue along the way. To the sound of the harpsichord, couples gradually entered. After the opening dance, for which the audience participants were told, "If you can walk you can do the pavane," there was a minuet to Handel’s music, reconstructed from a 1711 publication. This was followed by two sarabandes, separated by a demonstration of fan language, which was so much a part of the expressive gesture of the time. A solo called Entrée Espagnole included the use of castanets. Another use of the Spanish theme was the premiere of Folias de Espana, a contemporary work by Carlos Pittante to music by Corelli played on the violin and accompanied by a flamenco singer. Spanish dances were the rage in Paris during the Baroque, thus their inclusion is most logical.

Two theatrical dances, Among The Blessed Spirits, choreographed in the late 18th century style to Gluck’s music and dealing with Orfeo’s search for Eurydice, and Passacaille d’Armide, a reconstruction of the 1713 choreography by Louis Pecour, shared the feeling of the actual theater of the era. Two pieces based on Commedia dell’arte, that influential and popular genre relating to the foibles and vulgarity of ordinary humans, created an atmosphere of comedy, as did a contemporary parody, L’Apres midi d’un cyclop, with its reference to the more familiar faune. These and other works used period steps as their starting point and are excellent examples of the way period dance can develop into something very contemporary.

Each evening had a different guest of honor and shared a variety of genres – some graceful, some majestic, some vigorous and some grotesque and exaggerated. Others used the convention of the mask, which was not eliminated until the end of the century. The great variety of dance in the period, as beautifully demonstrated by Ms.Turocy’s ball, was related to the fact that dance was crucial to the telling of a story, but different stories required different kinds of dance. By the end of the ball many in the audience pondered the possibilities of returning to Baroque Paris.

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