Dallas — With dance having such a focus on all things new and innovative, it’s rare to find moments for the dance history nerd to geek out. Fortunately, the art of eras past has not fallen away from the concert stage, nor does one have to travel to New York City or a European arts hub to experience another world of dance. The vibrant Dallas Bach Society, dedicated to performing music composed before 1800 on replicas of original instruments, has once again included Baroque dance in one of its offerings.
On Oct. 8, the New York Baroque Dance Company, headed by Catherine Turocy and including local dancers, joined DBS (directed by James Richman) for Les Arts Florissants, presented at the Caruth Auditorium at Southern Methodist University and featuring other music by composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
What does this mean for audiences in the 21st century?
Baroque dance, while having a distinct form, structure, and vocabulary, became the basis for classical ballet, not only in its movements but with its mannerisms and philosophy. Dancing was a part of the aristocratic education and revealed one’s status and wealth by the level of excellence presented.
Large spectacles, which were the precursors to our current full-length narrative ballets, were not only a place to display wealth through costumes and scenery, but the characters, formations, and choreography held a symbolism usually connected with the supremacy of the ruling monarch.
Today, the order and idealism of Baroque dance carries on through classical ballet training and repertoire, but its richness is still worth celebrating on its own.
Back to Les Arts, which holds its own place in history. France’s King Louis XIV—an avid performer who tied his dancing ability to his ability to reign as king—gave the Royal Patent for opera to his personal composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. This meant that no one else in the kingdom could use more than eight singers and eight musicians, a stifling burden given the precedent for spectacle.
Charpentier, in service of the Duchesse of Guise (the richest woman in France), used some clever methods to create a satisfying, complex opera-ballet with a traditional good vs. evil narrative, given the limitations. Les Arts opens with the Warriors fighting off the followers of Discord. The solo Arts (Music, Poetry, Architecture, and Painting) sing the praises of the Peace, but then Discord returns with his followers. The Peace appears and vanquishes Discord for good, then everyone joins in a song and dance for celestial harmony.
To get around the performer limitation, most of the singers were double cast. The soloists all delivered exquisite vocals, with sopranos Rebecca Beasley and Anna Fredericka Popova as the most enchanting. Baritone Patrick Gnage shone as well in his performance as Discord.
Regarding the dancing, the most noticeable characteristics are its deliberateness and leisurely speed. Nobles and royalty were expected to exhibit the Apollonian characteristics of harmony and order, so the only choreography that appear more frenzied and sharp was that of the followers of Discord. Men typically hold their hands either to the side with forefinger and thumb touching or on the hip. Even the faster footwork has a sense of control and finesse, which is a nice contrast to the usual virtuosic explosions men are capable of.
Bruce Wood Dance Project guests Brock Henderson and Gabriel Speiller and NYBDC members Andrew Trego and Brynt Beitman deftly navigated the precise footwork with a royal sense of ease. Turocy and longtime Dallas dance teacher Glenda Norcross portrayed masked followers of Discord with tense, sustained movements, and Alexis Silver added a brief but vivacious solo to complete the essence of the scene. Silver then switched to the more frolicsome movements in the celebration of Peace with Carly Fox Horton.
Period costumes (by Marilyn Skow, Marie Anne Chiment, Mary Myers, and Fernando Hernandez) stood out, equally stunning as the music and dancing. Richly decorated fabrics and a lush attention to detail provided a feast for the eye, and the precisely designed soloist costumes depicting the individual arts (with allegorical accoutrements by Jane Stein) proved stately without being overbearing. Masks by Alan Jones and Glenda Norcross delivered a subtle creepiness to the followers of Discord.
Two other musical pieces opened the evening at Caruth. In Nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesum Christum Canticum brought Christmas early, and Sonate delivered an elegant variety of rhythms and vocals.
The intimate space of Caruth Auditorium, even with its imposing organ, worked quite well for the season opener. Charpentier did his work out of a large home rather than the palace courts, so the small stage space replicated what 17th century patrons might have experienced. The central focal point was the gorgeous blue harpsichord, which Richman played beautifully throughout.
A concert such as this obviously won’t deliver the fast-paced entertainment of today’s culture, but it’s nice to slow down and let oneself become immersed in the world of centuries past.