Overview of Dance

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By the beginning of the Baroque era considerable development had already occurred in the art of dance throughout Europe, and dance was both a form of social entertainment and an art that was widely used to accompany theatrical productions. The staging of balls was a common diversion at European courts and among the wealthy societies of the Continent's cities. At the same time dance played a vital role in the many spectacles that were staged at Renaissance courts. During the sixteenth century these festivities had grown ever more complex, and kings and princes had come to hire an increasing number of professionals to dance and perform acrobatics in them. In larger courts dance masters were frequently hired to stage these spectacles, and the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had produced a number of new manuals of dance theory. While much of the information contained in these treatises was practical in nature, Renaissance dance theorists also searched through the corpus of antique writers in search of ideas to support their art's rising status. From Aristotle, they acquired the notion that graceful deportment and the measured, careful performance of steps were a representation of the Golden Mean; moderation in one's outward appearance, in other words, played a vital role in demonstrating one's virtue and one's mastery of the body. The rise of Platonism as a philosophy during the later Renaissance also left its mark on dance during the sixteenth century. Since Plato's philosophy taught that a higher realm of ideals governed the human mind as well as life on earth, dance was re-interpreted at this time as an expression of the movements of planets and of the celestial harmony that prevailed in the Heavens. A key component of Renaissance Platonism's ideas toward dance celebrated the art as a "school for love," seeing in the ideal motions of couples on the dance floor an experience that might teach men and women the arts of refined and compatible living.

Toward the Baroque.

No immediate changes in dance theory or in dances themselves are evident in the period around 1600 as styles in art and architecture in Europe began to change from those of the late Renaissance to the early Baroque. Dance continued to play the role that it had for the previous two centuries in courtly entertainment and spectacles, although the rise of the opera in the last decades of the sixteenth century was to be a decisive development for the subsequent transformation in dance that occurred during the seventeenth century. The Opera, a form of art that mixed sung recitatives with arias, had originally begun to emerge out of the discussions of the Florentine Camerata in the 1570s. The members of this group desired to revive the performance practices and theatrical genres that had existed in ancient Greece. From their studies of the ancient dramatists, they discovered that ancient tragedies and other dramatic forms had been delivered in a declamatory style of chant, and the new art of recitative, in which singers proclaimed their texts on rising and falling notes, was an attempt to recapture this lost art. Musical theorists of the time, too, came to realize that ancient tragedy had mixed dance, song, and other forms of music, and so in the developing operas of early Baroque Italy, dance eventually played a vital role. Another venue for theatrical dance in both Renaissance and Baroque Italy was the intermedio, an interlude that occurred between the various acts in a comedy or tragedy. The performance of songs and elaborate dances was a common feature of these intermedi. By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, scores of performers were necessary to stage the most sophisticated of these diversionary entertainments in Italian court productions. In France, England, and elsewhere in Europe similar types of dance entertainments had appeared in the sixteenth century, and many of these were, as in Italy, also touched by the new scholarship of the Renaissance and the early Baroque. In late sixteenth-century France, for example, the ballets de cour, an elaborate type of royal entertainment, appeared that mixed song, dance, poetry, and pantomime together, while in England the masques, a form of court pageant introduced by the Tudor monarch Henry VIII, underwent a dramatic expansion and elaboration under the new Stuart kings. Both the masques and the ballets de cour treated loose themes or myths that served to link the various dances, songs, and tableaux together, but they were not usually integrated dramas that presented a single plot or story line. Rather loose ties and motifs served to bring together the hours of dancing and songs that these productions presented. Masques and ballets de cour, too, were ephemeral productions, that is, they were performed once to satisfy a desire for spectacle and entertainment. Once staged, they were not revived, although music and dances from one production were sometimes adapted to later productions. The performers in these theatricals, too, were largely drawn from the members of the court, although professional dancers and acrobats sometimes were hired to augment their participation. In France, the Bourbon kings Henry IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV danced in these spectacles, usually performing in the concluding ballet that drew the evening's entertainment to a close. While the Puritans were largely to outlaw masques in England during the period of the Commonwealth (1640–1660), the ballets de cour survived in France, and had become by the late seventeenth century a popular art form in royal circles.

Ideals of Grace.

Baroque forms of intermedi, masques, and ballets de cour made use of the popular social dances of the day, including forms like the sarabande, courante, passepied, and in their later forms the popular minuet. While new dances were created for these productions that were performed by solo dancers as well as couples, the dance masters who created these special dances did so using a repertory of steps that was well known to the amateur performers who participated in them. In France and England, masques and ballets de cour had originally been staged in large halls rather than on a proscenium stage. Thus the emphasis of those who choreographed was on creating elaborate figural compositions. Dancers frequently moved through a series of steps that inscribed certain signs and symbols on the dance floor. In France, bleachers placed around the room allowed those who watched the performance to read these signs and to relate them to the evening's overarching themes. The dances of the Baroque were also performed in clothing that greatly restricted and reduced the possibilities of free movement. The emphasis of choreographers and dancers was thus on refined foot-work, while the upper body was kept largely stationary and highly controlled. This idea of deportment was considered a fundamental social grace, and courtiers who were not able to master the refined movements of the dance floor faced ostracism and mockery.

The Age of Louis XIV.

During the later seventeenth century France emerged as the dominant absolutist monarchy in Europe, and trends at its court of Versailles were widely copied and imitated throughout Europe. In these years the country proved to be the major source of inspiration for new dance forms, as well. An example of the country's fertility in the arena of dance can be seen in the rise of the contredanse throughout Europe. Originally, these "country dances" had been performed in England. By the mid-seventeenth century the French aristocracy's appetite for new kinds of dance brought them into French ballrooms where French tastes refined the simple square dance into an elegant expression of cultivated living. Reinterpreted through the lens of French culture, then, the contredanse spread throughout Europe, becoming by 1700 one of the most popular forms of dance throughout the Continent. Another example of France's influence on European patterns of dancing can be seen in the foundation of the Royal Academy of Dance and the Royal Academy of Music, both of which were founded in the second half of the seventeenth century. The absolutist ambitions of Louis XIV affected many areas of life and arts in seventeenth-century France. Louis and his ministers, for instance, divided up all the arts—visual, plastic, dramatic, and literary—into new academies that were charged with setting standards in their various disciplines and with training those who were gifted in a particular art form. The Royal Academy of Dance was founded in 1661, and its thirteen professional dance masters trained dancers and produced ballets for the entertainment of the court. Its role came increasingly to be subsumed into the Royal Academy of Music, an institution founded in 1672 and placed under the direction of the court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687). The Royal Academy of Music soon became known merely as the Opera, the chief institution in France for staging this art form. By this time Lully had already collaborated with many dramatists to produce music for comedy-ballets and other light productions that mixed song, dance, and drama. During the later years of his life, though, Lully satisfied the growing tastes of the king and his circle for more serious and elevated entertainments. In a series of thirteen tragedies he produced before his death, Lully forged a union between music, dance, and song that was hailed by contemporaries as a brilliant expression of French culture. These productions made frequent use of complex ballets, and to stage them the Opera formed a professional troupe of dancers. While membership was originally open only to men, women soon joined the troupe's ranks. In the decades after Lully's death, his operas as well as new productions in his mold continued to be staged by the company. The rising popularity of ballet in these productions meant that more and more time had to be devoted to dance in the operas of the early eighteenth century. In many cases the ballets that punctuated the evening were joined only by the loosest ties to the main operatic dramas' plots, but in the hands of figures like Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) the union of dance and song achieved a great degree of artistic finesse and unity.

Professionalism Spreads.

The successful development of a courtly operatic theater and ballet in Paris soon was imitated elsewhere in Europe. During the eighteenth century Vienna, Stockholm, Dresden, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, and Berlin were just a few of the many European cities in which similar institutions emerged. The foundation of a city opera company at Hamburg in 1679 was another important development. This opera company was paid for and administered by the town's government, rather than by a royal court. While Hamburg became a force in North Germany for the development of opera and dance, other towns did not immediately follow suit and imitate Hamburg's example. Opera and ballet remained in much of northern Europe a phenomenon largely nourished and paid for by monarchs and aristocrats. In the course of their development the new operas formed professional ballet troupes, which were invigorated with the French examples of Lully, but also by trends in Italy. There, a different pattern of adaptation had arisen between the tastes for opera and ballet. During the eighteenth century dance masters from Italy and France toured Europe and accepted posts in the new institutions. The rising affection for professional dance can be seen in the steadily increasing numbers of performers that were hired in many opera houses. To stage the diversionary ballets that were increasingly used in operatic productions, many opera houses founded schools which, like the Paris Opera's academy, existed to ensure a steady stream of talent. Great dancers achieved celebrity throughout Europe, and the cultivated urban audiences closely followed their careers. In France, the prima ballerinas Madame de Camargo and Marie Sallé became fashion trendsetters, responsible for new styles in hair, shoes, and hats.

Development of Ballets d 'action.

Dancing also acquired an increasing theoretical sophistication. Figures like Camargo and Sallé mingled with the most prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment, and new dance authors like Jean-Georges Noverre and Gasparo Angiolini considered the deeper meanings of dance and the aesthetics that should govern its performance. Noverre and Angiolini responded to the criticisms that French Enlightenment thinkers made of the contemporary art. In the mid-eighteenth century, for instance, the French philosophes frequently observed that contemporary dance was badly in need of reform. Figures like Voltaire and Diderot observed that the art had degraded into nothing more than a form of gymnastic athleticism. To remedy this situation, dance masters like Noverre and Angiolini insisted that dance had great dramatic force and that it should be merged with pantomime to produce new narrative ballets, works that soon became known as ballets d'action. By the 1750s and 1760s the centers for much of this innovation in dance had moved from France eastward into Germany and Austria, where the opera ballets at Stuttgart and Vienna were producing some of the most daring forms of the new pantomime ballets. Although these departures were originally resisted at the Paris Opera, even that venerable company began to produce works in the new genre by the 1770s. In this way ballet acquired a new force and independence by virtue of its abilities to narrate stories and to lend these stories even greater emotional depth than might have been possible with words.

The French Revolution.

The political upheavals and transformations that began in France in 1789 had far-reaching effects on the practice of both opera and ballet. Throughout Europe, opera had long been an art form that had flourished in close connection to the hereditary aristocracy and royal governments. In the fiscal crisis that had preceded the rise of the Revolution in France, King Louis XVI was forced at first to scale back his support for the Paris Opera and its ballet, and then, eventually to curtail his expenditures on the company altogether. The ballet was transferred to the control of the city of Paris, but the popularity of the company's productions continued to ensure its survival. In the course of the French Revolution, too, political leaders sensed in the ballet a force of support and promotion for their republican pretensions. As the new government solidified its hold over Paris and the country, many new festivals were proclaimed and celebrated with the commissioning of ballets and elaborate celebratory dances. Performed to the strains of revolutionary hymns, these productions ensured professional dancers of a new audience, as opera and ballet were cut off from their patronage links to the now increasingly proscribed nobility. The relatively new form of ballet d'action also provided a ready medium with which to praise the democratic principles of the political movement. In this way ballet was assured of a continued audience, despite the enormous political upheavals that occurred in France and throughout Europe at the end of the eighteenth century.

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Overview of Dance

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