Theatrical Dance

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Theatrical Dance


Dance played a vital role in Renaissance theater. In Italy, troupes of Commedia dell' Arte performers relied on songs and dances to break up the action of their improvised comedies. Dances and musical interludes became a feature of the intermissions of the early professional theaters common in Europe's largest cities during the sixteenth century. The surviving sources, though, give little information about the kinds of dances that were performed in these circumstances. In aristocratic society, by contrast, dance flourished as an important component of court spectacles and was well recorded in the documents of the period. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw a steady increase in the theatricality of these entertainments, as kings and princes competed with each other to create ever more elaborate spectacles. Such entertainments were almost always undertaken with the purpose of demonstrating a prince's power and wealth to foreign visitors. Diplomatic visits, dynastic marriages, and ceremonies of royal entry were just a few of the many important political occasions for which elaborate spectacles were mounted. Dance played a key role in these celebrations, and its popularity in the Renaissance provided a constant source of employment for the prominent dance masters of the day who choreographed these productions.


During the fifteenth century Europe's nobles marked important occasions with "theme" banquets. The rise of these great feasts can be traced to the Duchy of Burgundy, which influenced aristocratic tastes throughout Europe in these years. Philip the Good, who served as Duke of Burgundy between 1423 and 1467, established a court life notable for its lavish display and intricate rituals. In 1430, Philip founded an order of nobility on the occasion of his marriage to Isabella of Portugal. This Order of the Golden Fleece was intended to promote chivalry and to mediate disputes between nobles. With the fall of Byzantium to the Turks in 1453, however, Philip devised a plan to use the order to promote a new crusade that might wrest the Holy Land from Islamic control. At his famous "Feast of the Pheasant," held in 1454, Philip announced his vow to undertake the campaign and encouraged other members of the Golden Fleece to follow suit. The evening's festivities soon became famous throughout European aristocratic society and set a bar that later Renaissance princes tried to surpass. As Philip's disguised guests arrived in the hall, they encountered elaborate entremets or sculpted concoctions of food that adorned the tables. Originally, such platters had consisted of nuts and other lighter fare that guests consumed between the feast's courses. Philip's ingenuous chefs, though, had created entremets in which ships sailed, a working pipe organ played music to accompany a celestial choir, and animals engaged in combat. As the banquet proceeded, living entremets, consisting of acrobatic acts, dances, and musical performances, also entertained the guests between the feast's courses. At the end of the banquet Philip announced his vow to retake the Holy Land in a highly staged manner, and he encouraged his fellow members of the Order to follow suit. A ball concluded the festivities.


Pantomime, dances, and songs performed in the space between a banquet's courses flourished in the wake of the Feast of the Pheasant. In Italy these interludes, known as intromesse (the origin of our modern English word "intermission") or intermedi soon came to be used not only in banquets but in theatrical performances in the space between the acts of plays performed in Italian courts. The dancing of a moresca was among the most common type of interlude used at the time. The moresca was an exotic dance that took its name from the Italian word for "moorish." Often participants blackened their faces and attached bells to their clothing in imitation of the North African and Spanish Moors. Morescas often had a loose plot narrative in which a Moor threatened a fool dressed as a woman. Sexual overtones and whirling, seemingly ecstatic movements were common to the morescas, and for this reason, the dance was often entrusted to professionals, who would not be embarrassed by performing such exotic actions. In his Book of the Courtier, for instance, Baldassare Castiglione recommended that no prince be seen dancing a moresca in public since its suggestive movements and themes were incompatible with his dignity. By 1500, the popularity of the moresca as a form of theatrical dance was well established throughout Italy, and the rising fashion for Antiquity prompted dancers to adopt the seductive imagery of the moresca to story lines that they drew from ancient mythology and pastoral poetry. At Ferrara, these dance interludes first flourished in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. At the time the D'Este family who ruled the city favored five-act comedies written in the style of the ancient Latin dramatists Plautus and Terence, thus providing four opportunities between the acts for dancers to perform. These interludes usually bore little relationship to the plays themselves, and the dances and other entertainments that occurred between the acts were intended to be mere diversions while the actors prepared for the next act. Over time, intermedi were sometimes added before and after the performance and there were attempts to rely upon the interlude to establish an atmosphere for the play itself. The purpose of the intermedi, though, was always to entertain, and their popularity soon rivaled that of the plays themselves. During 1499, for example, 133 actors performed four plays staged at the court of Ferrara, while 144 performers danced the sixteen moresca interludes that occurred between these plays' acts. During the sixteenth century the great popularity of dance in court life encouraged the custom's rapid adoption in palaces throughout Italy and Europe.


The dancing of moresca continued to flourish in the interludes popular in sixteenth-century Italy, but a great variety of musical forms and pantomimes also developed. The singing of madrigals was soon to be adopted in these interludes, and in Florence and other Italian cities the most extravagant stagings of intermedi were usually reserved for the celebration of important dynastic weddings. For the marriage celebrations of Cosimo de' Medici to Elenore of Toledo in 1539, specially composed madrigals and dance music were used to stage six interludes for a comedy: four for the spaces between the acts and one each at the beginning and end of the play. Each of the interludes was carefully crafted to enhance the evening's overarching message: that the union of Cosimo and his bride Elenore was to give birth to a new Augustan Golden Age in Florence. That evening, though, the play came to a quiet and serene ending, and the producers of the entertainment feared that its conclusion might disappoint the audience. Thus the final concluding intermedi of the performance consisted of 20 performers who entered the stage to sing and dance an elaborate Bacchanalian rite. Experiments with interludes like these, then, contributed to the development of the modern musical theater, and they continued in Florence during the rest of the sixteenth century. The genre had an important impact on the development of opera, a form that emerged in the city during the final years of the sixteenth century. Concluding "ballets," similar to that staged at the performance marking the marriage of Cosimo de' Medici, became a popular feature of these early performances.

Ballet de Cour.

In France, the popularity of these interludes combined with a native tradition of court fêtes or festivities that had long been staged around a central theme. Together the two forms of the intermedi and fête inspired a new genre that came to be known as the ballet de cour or "court ballet." The ballet de cour became a popular dance entertainment in the royal court during the final decades of the sixteenth century. Members of the royal family commissioned the poetry and music for these events, and the productions made use of elaborate stage machinery and sumptuous costumes. The court ballet was very much influenced by the ideas of the French Academy of Poetry and Music, which had been established in 1570 by Jean-Antoine de Baïf. De Baïf was interested in reviving the powerful union he believed had existed in the ancient world between poetry and music. Members of the academy strove to write poetry and music that made use of the ancient metrical modes, thus hoping to deepen music's power to influence the human spirit. The curiosity the academy bred also inspired investigations into ancient dance, and members of the academy soon experimented with performances staged to their rhythmical songs. Catherine de' Medici, the regent of France and later Queen Mother, supported these innovations, and frequently included choreographed dances in the festivities she staged at court. Under her influence and patronage, the ballet de cour flowered in the years around 1580. The genre wedded fantastic stage effects with instrumental and vocal music, poetry, and dancing. The first ballet de cour to rely on an integrated and dramatically effective libretto was Circe, or the Comic Ballet of the Queen, which was produced in Paris in 1581. The story retold the ancient tale of Circe, daughter of Perseus and the Sun, who lured men to ruin through their passions. In the end, though, human reason triumphs over the weaknesses of passion, and rationality succeeds in destroying Circe's power. It is because of this plot, a story in which order is brought out of chaos, that the ballet was termed a "comedy." The subject matter—the relative power of reason and the passions—was to recur many times in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century French literature. Yet as it was conceived in the Comic Ballet of the Queen, the triumph of reason was also intended to glorify the French monarchy. The work's poetry and art drew frequent parallels between rationality and its French champion, the reigning monarch Henri III, and it glorified the harmony his rule bred in France. In the coming years the optimism of such sentiments proved misplaced as France descended ever deeper into the malaise of religious civil war at the end of the sixteenth century. Despite these troubles, ballets de cour remained popular in these years, but none of the successive works rose to the artistic level of the early Comic Ballet of the Queen. As the seventeenth century approached, though, the conventions that governed these ballets' performances became ever firmer. Members of the court danced in the productions and played characters in the various scenes, while in the final choreographed dance, the grand seigneurs or "peers of the realm" participated. At least once each year the king danced in the finale of a ballet de cour, establishing a tradition of royal performance that lasted into the early years of the reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715). The genre, with its mixture of music, poetry, and dance, had a profound impact on the emergence of both opera and ballet as independent art forms in seventeenth-century France.


introduction: In the Tudor and Stuart court in England masques often marked the Christmas celebrations, especially the final concluding or "Twelfth Night" of those festivities. Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones mounted the most sumptuous of these masques in 1605, The Masque of Blackness. Jones, an architect, designed the sets for the masque, which made use of innovations in stage machinery and set design of the French ballet de cour. Jonson included this description of the sets in his prologue to the printed edition of the masque. The masque is notable for its rich mixture of poetry, song, and dance, a development inspired by the revival of antiquity that the Renaissance initiated.

First, for the scene, was drawn a landscape consisting of small woods, and here and there a void place filled with huntings; which falling, an artificial sea was seen to shoot forth, as if it flowed to the land, raised with waves which seemed to move, and in some places the billows to break, as imitating that orderly disorder which is common in nature. In front of this sea were placed six tritons, in moving and sprightly actions, their upper parts human, save that their hairs were blue, as partaking of the sea-color: their desinent parts fish, mounted above their heads, and all varied in disposition. From their backs were borne out certain light pieces of taffeta, as if carried by the wind, and their music made out of wreathed shells. Behind these, a pair of sea-maids, for song, were as conspicuously seated; between which, two great sea-horses, as big as the life, put forth themselves, the one mounting aloft, and writhing his head from the other, which seemed to sink forward; so intended for variation, and that the figure behind might come off better: upon their backs, Oceanus and Niger were advanced. Oceanus presented in a human form, the color of his flesh blue; and shadowed with a robe of sea-green; his head gray, and horned, as he is described by the ancients: his beard of the like mixed color: he was garlanded with algae, or sea-grass; and in his hand a trident. Niger, in form and color of an æthiop; his hair and rare beard curled, shadowed with a blue and bright mantle: his front, neck, and wrists adorned with pearl, and crowned with an artificial wreath of cane and paper-rush.

These induced the masquers, which were twelve nymphs, negroes, and the daughters of Niger; attended by so many of the Oceaniæ, which were their light-bearers. The masquers were placed in a great concave shell, like mother of pearl, curiously made to move on those waters and rise with the billow; the top thereof was stuck with a chevron of lights, which indented to the proportion of the shell, struck a glorious beam upon them, as they were seated, one above another: so they were all seen, but in an extravagant order.

On sides of the shell did swim six huge sea-monsters, varied in their shapes and dispositions, bearing on their backs the twelve torch-bearers, who were planted there in several graces; so as the backs of some were seen; some in purfle, or side; others in face; and all having their lights burning out of whelks, or murex-shells.

The attire of the masquers was alike in all, without difference: the colors azure and silver; but returned on the top with a scroll and antique dressing of feathers, and jewels interlaced with ropes of pearl. And for the front, ear, neck, and wrists, the ornament was of the most choice and orient pearl; best setting off from the black.

For the light-bearers, sea-green, waved about the skirts with gold and silver; their hair loose and flowing, garlanded with sea-grass, and that stuck with branches of coral. These thus presented, the scene behind seemed a vast sea, and united with this that flowed forth, from the termination, or horizon of which (being the level of the state, which was placed in the upper end of the hall) was drawn by the lines of perspective, the whole work shooting downwards from the eye; which decorum made it more conspicuous, and caught the eye afar off with a wandering beauty: to which was added an obscure and cloudy night-piece, that made the whole set off.

source: Ben Jonson, The Masque of Blackness, in The Works of Ben Jonson. (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Co., 1853): 660–661.


Dance figured prominently in a final category of court entertainments popular in England, which became known as "masques." The development of masques was long and complex. In late-medieval England professional actors and dancers known as mummers regularly visited the houses of the nobility in disguises to perform for members of the household. These mummers performed elaborate dance pantomimes, and while festive social dances sometimes concluded these events, the professionals did not mingle or dance with the noble audience. In 1512, Henry VIII introduced a new kind of masquerie into England that was inspired by Italian examples. The king and revelers—all in disguise—surprised members of the court, danced and sang, and, in a break with tradition, recruited volunteers from the audience to participate with them. In the course of the sixteenth century, these masques at court grew increasingly formalized. One force that aided in their rising popularity was the establishment of the Master of the Revels in 1545, the chief Tudor official responsible for supervising entertainments at court. The Master appointed the poet George Ferrars to serve as the court's official "Lord of Misrule," and during his tenure, Ferrars staged a number of fantastic masques with odd-sounding titles, including The Masque of Covetous Men with Long Noses and The Masque of Cats. Mounting such productions was costly. At first, masques only required an elaborate pageant wagon, which served as their principal set. The performers rode atop this wagon as it was wheeled into the hall in which the masque was to be performed. Over time, though, English spectacles adopted the expensive costumes and elaborate stage machinery typical of Italian intermedi and French ballets de cour. Despite Queen Elizabeth I's thriftiness, she doled out large sums for the celebration of the masques, and she participated in them on many occasions. They often marked Twelfth Night, the concluding festivities of the annual Christmas celebrations. During Elizabeth's reign (r. 1559–1603), the English court masque also adopted the unified themes and high quality literary texts that were typical of the intermedi and ballets de cour. Masques were also celebrated, not only at court, but in the Inns of Court, the four legal societies in London. The greatest English masques—notable for their high literary quality, fusion of music and dance with poetry, and elaborate architectural stage effects—were mounted in the first decades of the seventeenth century during the reign of Elizabeth's successor James I (1603–1625). The playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637) and the architect Inigo Jones (1573–1652) joined forces in these years to produce high-quality works that influenced all court entertainments during James's reign. Jones served as set designer, importing innovations in stage machinery from the continent and adapting them for use in the masques. The production that Jones and Jonson mounted in 1605, The Masque of Blackness, influenced the style of a number of other Stuart-age poets who wrote for the masque, including Thomas Campion, Thomas Middleton, and William Rowley.


S. Howard, The Politics of Courtly Dancing in Early Modern England (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998).

M. M. McGowan, L'art du ballet de cour en France, 1581–1643 (Paris: CNRS, 1963).

J.-P. Pastori, La Danse (Paris: Gallimard, 1996).

C. M. Shaw, 'Some Vanity of Mine Art': The Masque in English Renaissance Drama. 2 vols. (Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1979).

R. Strong, Splendor at Court; Renaissance Spectacle and the Theater of Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

see also Theater: Theater in the Later Middle Ages ; Theater: The Renaissance Theater in Italy