Monday, March 2, 2009

The Sun King Dances

Left: King Louis XIV in "La Nuit", Right: Jean Baptiste Lully

Dance History

Reading: The Sun King Dances

Anticipation Guide

The following statements all concern the development of ballet following the Renaissance. Place a check next to those statements with which you would probably agree (past experience or intuition). Be prepared to defend your choices in small group activity by considering information you are familiar with and that support your decisions.

_____1. During the reign of Louis XIV we will continue to see a life of exaggerated elegance and manners.

_____2. Louis was the king of Italy.

_____3. Italians continued to be the leaders in art.

_____4. Louis had a great interest in dance and liked to perform himself.

_____5. The ballets that were produced during Louis time had simple sets and scenery.

_____6. Technique was the more the focus rather than emotion.

_____7. Under Louis rule formal rules and order were abolished in dance.

_____8. Dancing moved from palace halls to stages and theaters. _____9. Louis created music and dance academies.

_____10. In England low, middle and high classes attended performances.

After reading, return to the anticipation guide and determine whether you change your mind regarding any of the statements. Locate sections in the reading that support your decisions.

The Sun King Dances


Louis XIV

The most famous dancing king, Louis XIV (1638 to 1715), leapt onstage with two men who resided at his court: Lully and Beauchamps, both important to our story. Because of the nature of the Sun King's court, and its interactions with all of French culture, we now begin to see the beginnings of a professional ballet tradition, such as the kind we associate with today's scene. A casual first glance seems to reveal the opposite of profess- ionalism. Dance, more than ever, was an aristocratic plaything, as the court of Louis XIV reached a new height in exaggerated, elegant, artificial, ceremonious lifestyle.

Louis himself demanded to be treated like a god. He rose from bed in the morning, ate his meals, and sank to sleep at night as the star—or the sun—of a public spectacle in which the greatest noblemen of France competed for the privilege of helping him dress, undress, or reach his wine cup. It was considered an honor to be allowed to hold the sleeve of his royal nightshirt while his royal arm entered it. Courtiers who served as his valets or washing-bowl attendants were themselves of noble birth.

This also had been true in Renaissance courts, but Louis magnified the scale, increasing his royal household from six hundred to ten thousand people! No one was considered worthy of eating with him, but those favored were allowed to watch him put food into his royal mouth. While this insistence on being the focus of all eyes arose from a belief in the importance and total power of all kings, especially himself, at the same time, Louis XIV staged these daily events with conscious courtesy and pompous ceremony. The style of classic ballet owes a great deal to the personal mannerisms of Louis. These in turn were rooted in the elegance of Renaissance court life, together with Louis's own cultivation of physical grace through a daily routine that included dancing lessons, exercises with weapons, and fencing. It is no wonder that a king with an over-blown ego who delighted in breakfast rituals in which noblemen devoted themselves to his adoration also enjoyed being the center of-attention on an actual stage. For this most total, absolute, despotic monarch loved dancing. He amused himself not only with lessons and frequent formal dancing parties, but with active participation—in leading roles—in the ballets that his courtiers produced. Louis XIV danced in court ballets for at least twenty years, beginning as a teenager when he, like his father before him, was under the domination of a queen mother.

La Ballet de la Nuit, 1653. At the age of fourteen, Louis presented himself in La Ballet de la Nuit, this time not as a declaration of independence from his mother, but partly in support of her, in answer to the Fronde, a collection of rebels from all classes who had unsuccessfully tried to overturn the monarchy, as represented by his mother Anne. The monarchy won, and this ballet was Louis's statement that the royal ruler was the sun around whom the kingdom revolved, and on whom it depended for its life. Therefore, when he finally occupied the throne as the real power in France, Louis XTV set about engraving an indelible image of a Sun King whose rays could warm his people and make the country grow strong; but whose same rays could be lethal, if directed against enemies of France or of Louis— which amounted to the same thing. "I am the State," he maintained. His appearances in ballets and his starring role at his daily wash-up were all part of this patriotic self-glorification.

In La Ballet de la Nuit, Louis took no less than six roles, among them the rising sun. He liked this picture of himself so well that he eventually took the sun as his personal symbol. The production embodied all the characteristics of seventeenth-century ballet that we saw under his father, Louis XIII. La Ballet de la Nuit had forty-three divertissements in four acts, following the progress of the hours through a night:

ACT 1. Sunset. Assorted "dark" characters romped about, including hunters, bandits, shepherds, gypsies, lamp lighters, beggars, and cripples.

ACT 2. The night as the hour of court entertainment. This allowed an introduction of the "old-fashioned" courantes and sarabandes in masquerades and pantomimes—a ballet within a ballet.

ACT 3. Fantasies of the night. The moon as a lover. A moon eclipse, observed by astrologers Ptolemy of Egypt and Zoroaster of Persia. A witches' dance and a burning house complete with fleeing children and thieves.

ACT 4. Sleep and silence, and then the rising sun (Louis), accompanied by happy spirits, symbolizing honor, grace, love, riches, victory, fame, and peace. Their function was to praise the Sun King.

All these little scenes took hours to present, in combination with poems, songs, and intricately designed and engineered sets—like illusions for the fire, moon, sun, and so on—that were surely more spectacular and advanced than the dancing. From there on, there were many such ballets for Louis to star in. He even designed some of his own variations. We can't fault the king for holding the center stage in court ballet. His financial support to the art form and his many personal appearances certainly promoted its popularity.

All this sounds like more of the same court entertaining that we found in the Renaissance Italian palaces and later under Catherine de Medici and Louis XIII in France. And, of course, there were great similarities. But now we come to another aspect of Louis XIV's monarchy.

Louis's New Order. The reign of Louis XIV was not just pleasure oriented, ceremonious, and tyrannical. It was also total, absolute, despotic, and in today's language, a systematically organized, tightly controlled dictatorship. The new addition was an orderly system. The French monarchy was a complex organization, ruled from the top, and characterized by a worship of geometric order for its own sake. Rene" Descartes, philosopher and mathematician, expressed the spirit of the age with his declaration that everything in the universe works according to logical principles that can be understood with the use of systematic, intellectual reasoning. It doesn't serve our purpose to set forth the workings of this orderly dictatorship in foreign and economic policy, taxation, and religion. Rules and systems were in evidence in all these departments, suffice it to say. Of more interest to us is the application of detailed rules to every aspect of cultural life.

Etiquette for every situation was strictly prescribed. The French language was codified. Words and expressions considered proper were listed in a dictionary that took fifty-six years to prepare. The board of an academy of painting and sculpture decided how these arts should be taught and applied; which artists were worthy of receiving commissions and prizes; even whose work would be exhibited. A court poet wrote a book that dictated acceptable approaches to drama and poetry. Incidentally, while artists usually hate to be told what to do, and work badly when they area, at this time the authoritarian supervision was quite successful. Beautiful, expressive, interesting works were produced in all fields.

Dance and Music Academies

Dance and music were by no means neglected, which is not surprising, considering how much the king enjoyed them. Academies were founded to fix objective standards for the perfection of technique and artistry, sometimes treating music and dance separately, and sometimes coupling them under one organization, or perhaps linking them variously with drama and poetry.

Jean Baptiste Lully (1632 to 1687). Again, an Italian was the key figure here. A brief side trip to peek into his personal story offers insight on this historical period, since some very instructive facts are involved. First, it shows how the aristocracy looked at lower-class people as things—even as property. An important nobleman brought Giambattista Lulli, a peasant boy of seven, from Florence, Italy to France as a "present" for his high-born niece, who put the child to work as a kitchen assistant. Secondly, it demonstrates that low birth was not a permanent obstacle to advancement. The boy annoyed the other servants by practicing the violin. This came to the attention of the lady of the house—probably as a complaint from the staff—who recognized his talent and got a teacher for him. Thirdly, it tells us that immigrants, then as now, changed their names to harmonize with their new surroundings. As Jean Baptiste Lully, this precocious youngster was soon playing in, and then conducting, a string orchestra. From there, he became the king's music master, and then the director of the Royal Academy of Music, dominating the music and dance scene in France and beyond, until his death in 1687.

A final lesson contained in Lully's story is the capricious games that fate sometimes plays on individuals, and through them on the culture of a period. At the age of forty-eight, Lully accidentally pierced his foot with his oversize conducting baton. Gangrene set in and the wound caused his death. Most significant to the dance historian is the close connection between developments in the art of movement and those in the art of music that occurred in Lully's career—a connection that is to be made time and again in our story. Lully is best known as a composer. But he was also a director, a producer—and a dancer! He therefore understood and was interested in the problems of writing music for ballets, and further, he helped create a form of opera that featured a lot of dance. He also worked closely with Beauchamps, who was dancing teacher to Louis XIV as well as a choreographer and a top performer.

Pierre Beauchamps (1636 to 1705). Beauchamps directed the Royal Academy of Dance. In keeping with the spirit of the time, with the rules and analytic systems set forth for language and the other arts, Beauchamps listed and described the technique of Ballet as far as it had advanced in his day. He noted the five basic foot positions, the arm positions, the known patterns of movement and steps, and the rules for executing them, with emphasis on the crucial turnout of the legs.

Beauchamps stressed technical excellence rather than expression of ideas and emotions. As we continue this dance history, we repeatedly find some ballet masters who primarily seek to display technical skill, while others are interested in dance principally as a means of communication—a way of talking through the body to convey thoughts or feelings. Beauchamps was in the first group. In his theory, his teaching, and his own fine dancing, he detailed the conquest of skills. He emphasized vigorous pirouettes and leaps that covered space. According to the precise, orderly style that was so fashionable, he arranged these in balanced, well-proportioned designs that leaned towards the geometrical. Beauchamps was also responsible for establishing the practice that dancers should always face the front of the stage, with the line towards the audience being the most harmonic one possible. The turnout of the legs helped this positioning.

Theater Design The emphasis on a frontward-facing dancer resulted partly from the location and design of the theatrical stages that came into use during this period. Theaters had been, common in ancient Greece and Rome, but during the Middle Ages they disappeared. Churches became the theaters for morality plays that presented scenes from the Bible, and especially the New Testament, with the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus celebrated at Christmas and Easter. There were similar performances in outdoor market squares, but here lighter entertainment might be included among the religious episodes. Then, as we have seen, during the Italian Renaissance, spectacles and entertainments primarily for pleasure were staged in large halls of palaces and other great dwellings, sometimes preceded by outdoor processions.

First in Italy and then in England, platforms were erected, both outdoors and in ballrooms. Then, scenic backgrounds were introduced along with movable flats, props, and scenic machinery. Finally, by the close of the 1500’s, theater buildings were specially constructed with permanent stages that allowed the use of elaborate settings. By the end of the 1600s, Italian stage engineers brought these designs to other European cities.

Separate theater buildings were constructed everywhere, or palaces were at least furnished with their own theaters, including tremendous, well-equipped stages (such as those at the Louvre and Versailles). Thus dancers and actors began to perform as they do today, on a raised stage, making a series of pictures framed by a proscenium arch, while the audience sat opposite—not watching from haphazard angles as they would have out in the street, or seated all around the hall as they did in the ballrooms during court entertainments. Stage sets were designed so that the action might appear as a series of moving pictures, taking place behind the proscenium arch, while the entire audience watched from one viewpoint. On the stage would be a house or a street, painted "in perspective" on a backdrop and side wings, which gave a three-dimensional illusion of depth and distance.

Most of our theater buildings today are modeled after the sixteenth- century Italian design that had a raised proscenium stage at one end of the hall, with the audience spread out in front of it. This arrangement affected more than the stage design and the placement of performers, who would always be seen at the best advantage from a front view.

On the performing side, the way was open to theater and dance becoming totally professional activities. Dancers and actors were separated from the audience, first by the physical existence of the proscenium arch, and more importantly, by the removal of the productions from the court. This meant that the amateur courtiers were no longer the principle source of performing talent. The class of paid, professional entertainers had never really died out since ancient Roman times, but it had shrunk considerably during the Middle Ages. Now it was to increase continuously, both in numbers and in respectability.

Also affected was the makeup of the audience. Separate theater buildings brought with them the practice of charging admission, and this meant that performances were no longer private spectacles to be enjoyed by invitation only. Now almost anyone with the price of a ticket could attend. The audience began to come from the population at large, and not just from the nobility. It was generally true that the theater tended to attract those who had some understanding and background in the arts. First of all, this meant the nobility, and secondly, the professional and business middle class, rather than workmen. But in the London of Elizabeth I, all classes were present, much as they might be at a movie house today.

Of course there were always seats for different prices. The most expensive ones were in exclusive boxes, to which the wealthy and highborn came, as much to be seen and admired as to see the production. Or they may have wanted to watch a favorite dancer or singer. Then they would retire to a private little room adjoining their box, to play cards, to eat, to flirt, or to gossip. They returned to their box seats only when an attendant called them to tell them that something was about to happen onstage that they wouldn't want to miss. Elements of this kind of pampered, selfish behavior are still very much with us at all theatrical events, especially ballet and opera performances.

The court may have been the whole world to the aristocrats and their attendants who lived among them. But there were many more people outside the nobility. They were of the middle class, in businesses and professions; and of the lower class as farmers, laborers, and tradesmen. Many from these two classes were also spectators at all kinds of performances. The commercial theater manager searched for new kinds of shows, different in subject and tone from the court spectacle, to attract and keep the patronage of this mixed audience, now so much wider than the selected "invited guests" at a court entertainment. No longer could the sole content of a production be the flattering of a duke on his birthday, delivered in a courtly, pompous manner. More substance, humour, and action that concerned a broader segment of humanity were now called for. Finally, the combination of a dance and music academy with a commercial theater meant that the performers were separated once and for all from their audiences: socially, physically, and in their schooling for the arts. No longer did dance represent an activity with which courtiers amused themselves. It now became a profession. La Triomphe de L'Amour, a French ballet in 1681, saw the appearance of the first professional premier danseuse on record: Mademoiselle de Lafontaine (1655 to 1738). This was a double innovation, because up to then most women's roles had been danced not only by the courtiers, but by men. Occasionally, ladies did agree to appear in a production, but they would be in scenes with all women, or at least they would pretend to conceal their identity behind a mask.

Because this is a dance history, every dance detail is magnified, while tier things are mentioned only in passing or skipped over altogether. Don't let this give you a distorted picture of history. Please keep in mind that every past age was at least as complicated as our own. And as for entertainment, audiences were more likely to go to these new theater buildings to watch plays and operas, rather than just ballets. In fact, the dancing they saw was usually a part of a total dramatic production, whether spoken or sung.

fMoliere (1622 to 1673). If you mention Moliere to the average cultured person, his name will call to mind a group of excellent satirical plays that hold up to ridicule many silly habits and customs of seventeenth-century Frenchmen. For example, one of these plays, produced during any recent season, is The Imaginary Invalid. It is a rollicking comedy about a hypochondriac who tries to marry off his daughter to a doctor, so
that he can get free medical treatment. The viewers of this play may not know that Moliere also worked with Lully and Beauchamps at the court of Louis XIV for several years, turning out a series of comedie- ballets which were to be the ancestors of today's musical comedies. This ignorance is understandable, because the comedie-ballets tend to be the lesser-known works produced by Moliere. However, in their day, the combination of his witty plots and characters, Lully's fine operatic airs, and Beauchamps's lively dance patterns made outstanding theatrical evenings.

Bejart's Moliere. These entertainments, together with Moliere's life and times, inspired a contemporary choreographer to create La Moliere Imaginaire. Maurice Bejart, responsible for the modernistic Romeo and Juliet mentioned earlier, applied his inventive imagination in 1976 to seventeenth-century France. His work, La Moliere Imaginaire, combines dancing, singing, and acting to make what Bejart described on the program as a "Ballet Comedy." This deliberate reversal of the seventeenth-century term comedie-ballet was to show that Bejart wanted to emphasize the dance aspect, while paying respects to an older form that he was reviving with up-to-date modifications.

The decor and costumes, the music and the action are all in a combination of seventeenth-century court style and bold modern surrealism. The leading figure sometimes represents a modern-day actor, or one of the characters found in Moliere's plays, or perhaps Moliere himself. Two nearly-naked lovers dance their embraces to represent Moliere's constant searching and respect for human truth. They are set in contrast to figures in wigs and hoop skirts, who mince around, representing the phony manners, dress, and personalities of the society that the playwright satirized. Moliere's words are used throughout. Movements and patterns feature an elegant minuet and modern dance. Once again, we have a work that demonstrates how artists and audiences alike share in and draw on the richness of our cultural traditions.

Certainly, the image of the dancing King Louis XIV is indelibly engraved on our view of the past, and it helps enlighten us about ballets in the present. King Louis's reign saw court ballet at its most courtly. Yet by the time he died in 1715, the dance scene was marked by professionalism in every aspect The academic technique, the schooling, and the commercial theater that were to influence the future of ballet, all developed under this most noble, dignified monarch. He left the stamp of his royal mannerisms on the style of our art form. However, we can't yet call ballet fully professional. After all, side by side with the professional Mademoiselle de Lafontaine, Louis himself took part in entertainments like La Triumph de L’Amour, or if he didn't, his courtiers did. For the totally professional scene, we must wait a little linger, until the eighteenth century.

Questions for Review

1. Discuss La Ballet de la Nuit as an artistic work and as a political work.

2. What were the contributions of Jean Baptiste Lully to our story?

3. Was the ballet professional during the reign of Louis XIV?

4. How did the Royal Academy of Dance reflect the spirit of the age?

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