Monday, March 2, 2009



by Elizabeth Cooper


In late Renaissance society, dance was not considered merely a source of light-hearted entertainment or physical recreation, but a profoundly intellectual experience for both participants and spectators. Sixteenth century dance, like the arts of poetry, music and painting, was infused with new meaning and innovations as a direct result of the findings of humanist scholars as they poured over ancient Greek texts in an attempt to recreate the powerful and effects of ancient Greek drama.
The court ballets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were intended to enlighten and edify audiences. As the art of choreography developed it became increasingly informed by humanist ideals and imbibed with layers of meaning that were moral, philosophical, and political, in nature. It was the task and the delight of the educated viewers of these court spectacles to decipher the "truths" underlying the dances.

Le Balet Comique de la Reine
Let us take one of the most illustrious of the Valois court spectacles, Le Balet Comique de la Reine, as a model for a more detailed examination of the sixteenth century court spectacle.
Le Balet Comique de la Reine represents a significant moment in Western theater dance history. As the first known work to intentionally combine dance, verse and music into a coherent dramatic statement, it is considered the first ballet de cour. In addition, we are extremely fortunate to have a complete libretto for the production, including verse, music, allegorical interpretations and illustrations of the scenic elements and costume. It is therefore possible to reconstruct the event with a certain degree of accuracy, enabling us to examine its artistic significance and ponder its reception by the court audience.

Renaissance Dance: Some Questions
Focusing on this production, should help to elucidate some key questions surrounding the development and practice of late Renaissance court dance:

o What are the philosophical underpinnings of Renaissance dance?
o What were the prevailing attitudes towards dance in the Renaissance?
o How are these attitudes indebted to classical Greek sources?
o How might the court spectators interpret the various meanings of dances seen in a court spectacle, and was there a commonality of interpretation among this elite group?
o What parallels, if any, exist between the role of dance in ancient Greek society versus Renaissance court society?

The Occasion
Le Balet Comique de la Reine was performed on Sunday, October 15, 1581 in either the Louvre's Great Salle or in the Salle de Bourbon of the Petit Palais, and lasted from ten in the evening to three o'clock in the morning. It was commissioned by Queen Louise as part of a series of lavish and extraordinary events held to celebrate the marriage of her sister, Marguerite de Lorraine to the King's favorite, Anne, Duc de Joyeuse.
The festivities, which lasted several days, included mock tournaments arranged in allegorical settings, a water fete, a horse ballet, and an impressive display of fireworks. This collection of magnificences established the court of Henri III as the most refined, artistic and musical in all of Europe.

An Artistic Collaboration
In Le Balet Comique de la Reine, Balthazar Beaujoyeulx states that, promptly after Queen Louise requested his services in devising a scheme for the wedding festivities, he was forced to leave the "noisy court" and go into seclusion for a few days in order to find "peace and freedom of mind". After several days, Beaujoyeulx returned to court to read a description of his subjects and inventions to Queen Louise and her ladies-in-waiting. Beaujoyeulx's plans for the production were composed of three parts:

o "verse which must be recited;
o different musical compositions which must be sung;
o a variety of things which must be presented in painting."

Realizing that it was beyond his artistic capabilities, Beaujoyeulx requested that Queen Louise enlist the services of other talented members of the court.
Lambert de Beaulieu was chosen to compose the music and Jacques Salmon, maitre de la musique de la chambre du Roi, for the performance of it. The Sieur de la Chesnaye, the King's poet and almoner, wrote the text, and Jacque Patin, the King's painter provided the scenery and perhaps the costumes. Beaujoyeulx assumed the roles of inventor of the ballet's plot, stage manager and choreographer.

The Plot
The plot for Le Balet Comique de la Reine is based on the Circe fable from Homer's Odyssey. The Circe story, as revealed in the ballet, is concerned with the taming of man's innate emotions and with the establishment of order and harmony by means of enlisting reason and moral virtue. In the production, the evil enchantress Circe is pitted against the powerful and virtuous King of France, for whom she is ultimately no match. As the plot unfolds, the gods Mercury, Pan, Minerva and Jupiter are summoned to vanquish Circe and force her to release the performers from her spell, but a lasting peace and order can not be restored until the King himself is called to aid in the struggle.
Plots involving a powerful and malicious sorceress who causes mayhem and brings disorder to all aspects of life were extremely popular in Renaissance court spectacles. These stories inevitably concluded with the performers beseeching the monarch to intervene, restore order and liberate his subjects from the chaos of the enchantress's spell.
Mythological plots of this type provided the court dance organizers with a pretext for including a diversity of characters and actions while offering an overriding rationale for their existence.
Perhaps more importantly, plots of this type were suited to address contemporary social and political concerns, to reaffirm the existing hierarchical power structure, and to glorify the monarch, his subjects and his kingdom.

Choreography in Le Balet Comique de la Reine
Balthazar Beaujoyeulx choreographed and staged the three geometrical dance entries in Le Balet Comique de la Reine. Unlike earlier spectacle choreography, which served as decorative divertissements between dramatic acts, these dances were carefully woven into the plot of the production. They functioned as a part of the action and provide continuity between periods of poetic declamation, song and instrumental music.

Classical Antecedents
According to the libretto, the dances in the production were inspired by the ancient Greeks. Billard, in a poetic dedication to the choreographer, praised Beaujoyeulx for his scholariness and his creativity:
Beaujoyeulx, you who first bring back from the ashes of Greece the plan and accomplishments of the ballet,who ever outdo yourself in divine spirit; mathematician, inventive, alone in your knowledge, if ever honor is deserved, your is assured. Beaujoyeulx's indeptedness to the ancient Greeks was primarily of a theoretical or philosophical nature. The influence of Pythagorean and Platonic concepts pertaining to universal harmony and order is manifested in Beaujoyeulx's attention to the rhythm and proportion of the choreographed spatial patterns and, in establishing a synchronicity between the ballet's artistic components.

The actual dance steps, however, are not related to ancient Greek forms, of which very little is known. The steps are borrowed from Renaissance social dances familiar to the members of the Valois court. Beaujoyeulx's task as choreographer was to expand, embellish and diversify the known dance steps to make them appear as new additions to the dance repertoire.

The Dances
The first dance in Le Balet Comique de la Reine was performed by twenty-four dancers, twelve naiades(water nymphs) and twelve pages. Unfortunately, Beaujoyeulx provides more description regarding staging and scenic decor, then he does choreography. We know that these dancers performed twelve geometric figures, each different, before they are immobilized by an angered Circe. The first figure was in the form of a triangle, recalling the triangular head ornaments worn by the naiades:

The nymphs [Naiades] moved dancing up to the King and the Queen Mother, in the following pattern. At the first passage of the entrée there were six abreast in one line across the hall and three in front in a broad triangle, of which the Queen marked the apex, and three others behind her did the same. Then, as the music changed, they also moved in and out among each other, now in one direction, now in another, and then returned to their first position.

The triangle is extremely important in Plato's model of the Cosmos based on geometric solids. It seems plausible that the naiades were representing, through their measured dance, the concept of a universe based on number and proportion.
Mercury intervened to rescue the dancers and musicians from their petrified condition. The dance resumed after Mercury has sprinkled the juice of the Moly root over the heads of the performers. However, Circe returned almost immediately restoring the dancers to their immobilized state. Beaujoyeulx does not include any mention of the choreographic patterns in this segment of the ballet.

Entrèe of the Grand Ballet
The next choreographed sequence is the entrée of the Grand Ballet. As the violins began to play an entrée, the dryads (wood nymphs) left their niches in Pan's grove and presented themselves in the middle of the hall, before the king. Then, turning their backs to the king they danced towards Circe's enchanted garden where they greeted the naiads, who had just been freed from Circe's spell.

The naiades then proceeded, two by two, to the middle of the room where they were joined by the dryads. The violins, once again, changed their tone and commenced playing the entree to the Grand ballet. "It was composed of fifteen figures, arranged in such a way that at the end of each figure all the ladies turned to face the king." (This was danced to twelve measures of music, sung by five voices in 4/4 tempo.)

The Final Grand Ballet
This danced entrée went immediately into the final Grand Ballet, composed of forty distinct geometric figures ( La grand entrée is written in 4/4 for five voices and is seventy-eight measures ):
These were all exact and well-planned in their shapes, sometimes square, sometimes round, in several diverse fashions; then in triangles accompanied by a small square, and other small figures. These figures were no sooner formed by the Naiads, dresses in white, than the four Dryads, dressed in green, arrived to change the shape, so that as one ended, the other began. At the middle of the Ballet a chain was formed, composed of four interlacings, each different from the others, so that to watch them one would say that it was in battle array, so well was order kept, and so cleverly did everyone keep his place and his cadence. The spectators thought Archimedes could not have understood geometric proportions any better than the princesses and ladies observed in this Ballet.
As before, Beaujoyeulx does not provide the reader with the precise spatial configurations traced by the dancers. One does get a sense, however, of the interplay between the two groups of ladies dressed in contrasting colors. In these danced passages, the naiads and dryads move in a contrapuntal relationship, such that stasis and flux are juxtaposed, not only sequentially, but spatially. One group of dancers breaks out of a pattern at the precise moment when the other group establishes a formation. There is a continual generation and disintegration of form which must have set up a visual and kinetic tension between the two opposing groups.
Perhaps Beaujoyeulx, inspired by the ancient Greek notion of the cosmic dance, intended for the passages of the final ballet entrée to mirror the progression of the seasons, the mutation of the elements, and the circling of the stars and planets in the heavens.

The final grand ballet was followed by a grand ball in which the performers invited the spectators to join them on the dance floor in branles and "other dances customary in great feasts and celebrations."

Artistic Significance of Le Balet Comique de la Reine
Le Balet Comique de la Reine is considered to be the starting point of the composite art form because its creators made a conscious effort to harmoniously blend verse, music, dance, scenic elements and costume into a coherent theatrical statement. Balthazar Beaujoyeulx, the organizer and choreographer of the production, seems to have been acutely aware of the artistic significance of the event . In planning this event Beaujoyeulx was no doubt striving to meet the King's high standards for court entertainment, which should be, "marvelous in variety, inimitable in beauty, and incomparable in novelty."

Beaujoyeulx's Artistic Intentions
In his preface " To the Reader", Beaujoyeulx elaborates on his artistic intentions,
For, as to the Ballet, even though it may be a modern invention, or at least repeated so far distinct from antiquity that it can be so called, being, in truth only some geometric mixtures of several persons dancing together to a diverse harmony of several instruments, I confess to you that simply represented by [means of visual] impression it would have had much novelty, and little beauty, the recitation of a simple comedy. Also it would have been neither very excellent nor worthy of such a great queen, who wished to do something truly magnificent and triumphant.
Because of this I decided it would not be a bad idea to mix one and the other together and to diversify the music with poetry, and most often to merge the two together; for in antiquity they never recited poetry without music, and Orpheus never played without words. I have, however, given first place and honor to the dance, and second place to the substance, which I have called "comic" more for the beautiful, tranquil and happy conclusion than for the quality of the personages, who are almost all gods and goddesses, or other heroic persons.
Thus I have animated and made the Ballet speak, and Comedy sing and resound, and have added many rare and rich scenes and ornaments. I may say that within a single well-proportioned body I have pleased eye, ear, and mind.

A Composite of Theatrical Devices
There is no doubt that Le Balet Comique de la Reine was a unique theatrical event , but that does not mean that it was entirely new. According to Prunieres, the artistic devices found in Le Balet Comique stem from a composite of medieval forms of court entertainment, the masquerades, Italian intermedio, and tourneys. Beaujoyeulx displayed his creative abilities in joining these disparate theatrical elements and organizing and presenting them in an entirely new manner.
The novelty and inventiveness of Le Balet Comique de la Reine was manifested in the dancing. The dancers' measured steps, performed in synchronicity with the accompanying measured verse and music was a conscious reflection of the metrical and musical labors of Baïf's Academy in their effort to rediscover the effects of ancient poetry and music. Dance was intended to please the eye, song the ear, and poetry the mind, but as a corporeal enactment of harmony, dance acted as a unifying presence and as the visual representation of harmony for the audience.
It was not important that the dance steps were borrowed from the court social dances, rather than being of ancient origin. The dancing mirrored the music and verse, and this was enough to make it "antique". Like many of his contemporaries, Beaujoyeulx had a talent for borrowing from the past only that which suited his artistic purposes and supported and justified his aesthetic and moral beliefs.

Allegorical Interpretations
Issues of political, moral and philosophical import were not stated outright in the court spectacles. These edifying messages were commonly veiled in allegories and revealed to the spectators by means of spoken or sung verse, iconographic emblems, choreographic figures, and written text. In the libretto to Le Balet Comique de la Reine, the author includes four allegorical interpretations of the Circe fable. The allegorical interpretations are philosophical, moral and political in nature, and are of particular interest because they bring into question whether there was a commonality of understanding or interpretation among the elite court spectators.

In L'Art du Ballet de Cour en France 1581-1643, Margaret McGowan asserts that ballets, like other types of court spectacle, aimed at mass appeal, among an elite and educated audience. There was no limit to the complexity of allusions contained within the allegories. Several levels of meaning operated simultaneously, pleasing King, courtiers and ladies of the court, each at their own intellectual capacity. Surrounded as they were in an atmosphere of humanism, it is difficult to surmise, let alone, measure the exact effect that these allegorical allusions had on the consciousness of the court spectators.
There existed a hierarchy in the various interpretations of each allegory. The philosophical significance, where the image and the idea were harmoniously joined to reveal a higher or superior reality was the most important as well as the most difficult to grasp. The moral interpretation was next in line, followed by historical, political and social applications. The last in the hierarchy of interpretation was the literal meaning of the fable.
Le Balet Comique de la Reine

Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx

Translated from the French by Mary-Jean Covvell

Baltazarini di Belgiojoso, wise to the ways of political promotion, took a French name when he left Italy for Paris around 1555 as a member of a band of violinists. He became court valet to Catherine de' Medici and as such was responsible for the royal entertainments.
In the "first ballet," dancing was only one of several important elements: instrumental music, songs, spoken verses, costumes, and scenic effects all received attention. In fact, the author of this libretto devotes far more space to the texts of the speeches and songs and to descriptions of the decorations than he does to the dances. After all, most of his readers knew the steps from their own experience in court ballrooms, where rules like Caroso's prevailed. The Ballet Comique was first of all a grand spectacle designed to enhance the glory of France. Since the audience consisted exclusively of invited dignitaries, the publication of the libretto provided a means of extending recognition of the national image.

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