The Ballets de Cour of Louis XIV

Among the most significant works for the creation of modern ballet were the ballets de cour of Louis XIV. Louis succeeded to the throne of France in 1643, before he had reached the age of five. Between 1648 and 1669, some 26 ballets de cour were performed. Louis XIV made his dancing debut at the age of twelve in 1651, in the Ballet de Cassandre. His last performance may have been in 1670, in the comédie-ballet Les Amants magnifiques, when he was 31 (his appearance in this work is uncertain). He danced in many ballets de cour, alongside his family and his courtiers. These high-ranking amateurs were trained and supported by skilled professional dancers, who must have created the choreographic content of these hybrid works.

Nicolas de Larmessin. Louis XIV. 1661. © Trustees of the British Museum

Nicolas de Larmessin. Louis XIV. 1661. © Trustees of the British Museum

The ballets de cour ultimately gave way to the comèdies-ballets created by the actor and dramatist Molière and the court composer and dancer Lully. These works, performed between 1661 and 1671 (the most important date to 1669 – 1671), had a largely professional cast. They were succeeded from 1672 by Lully’s operas, which included much dancing and were performed in Paris on the public stage by professionals. I will return to the dancers and dancing in these.

Louis XIV’s ballets de cour have been studied in some detail, although little attention has been paid to the development of the style and technique, and the conventions, of the dancing we now call ballet. Apart from the King himself, one of the most important dancers in the court ballets was a professional – Pierre Beauchamps, his dancing master, who performed several roles in nearly every ballet de cour. Louis XIV and Beauchamps, between them, established the danseur noble – the leading male dancer in ballets ever since.

Beauchamps was credited with technical innovations, including the codification of the five positions of the feet still used in ballet today (Pierre Rameau, Le Maître a danser. Paris, 1725, p. 9). This was only possible once turn-out of the legs and feet had become the norm. Beauchamps must surely have developed this and other ideas in the course of his work in the ballets de cour.

The ballets de cour also saw the emergence of the ballerina – the leading female dancer in ballets – and laid the foundation of a repertoire of stories and characters that have not entirely been relinquished by theatre dance even today. I will also return to these themes.

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