Two performances I’ve seen recently brought the topic of authenticity back into my mind. Both were minuets that reminded me of ‘baroque dance’ I’d seen a good few years ago which owed very little to the surviving 18th-century dance manuals and notations.
In an earlier post, I voiced my uncertainty, and my scepticism, about ‘authenticity’ in historic dance. Yet, these performances reminded me that authenticity does sometimes matter. One took place in a gallery with a wonderful collection of 18th-century fine and decorative arts. The other was in a historic house dating originally from the mid-1700s. Both called for performances that were true to their surroundings in terms of style and technique. Expert knowledge of the treasures on show, as well as accessibility, is important to galleries and historic houses open to the public. Why should the occasional dance performances in such venues be exempt from the same values?
One reason is, of course, the status of dancing – seen as merely a frivolous pastime rather than a socially and culturally significant art form. Another is the widespread ignorance of the dancing of the 18th century. It is all too often seen as simple yet full of affectation – very far from the classically inspired beauties of the surviving choreographies. Yet another is the fixation on costume, at the expense of the dancing – even though deportment, so important to the correct wearing of period costume, was of fundamental importance in the 18th century. I should say here, that I believe that costuming does matter. After all, whatever the period, the dancing of the past was crafted around the prevailing style of dress – as indeed are modern dance genres.
The steps described in 18th-century manuals, as well as the choreographies preserved in notation bear witness to a refined and sophisticated style and technique in the ballroom as well as in the theatre. None of the modern attempts at ‘baroque dance’ routines I have seen come close to the originals for variety, energy or elegance. The dances of the 1700s reflect the complexities of the other arts of the period – from music to garden design. All share the same aesthetic space.
Unfortunately, baroque dance is difficult. It takes a great deal of time and much hard work to master. An effortless performance of the minuet is the result of years of practice of the steps and figures described in the original sources. I am uncertain whether any of the dancers in the performances I saw really understood that such work either could or should be done. I don’t want to enter into a critique of either of the ‘minuets’ on show, but I can’t help feeling sad that such a beautiful dance and such a wonderful dance form should still be so little known and so often poorly represented. The visitors to those and other wonderful places that preserve the material evidence of 18th-century life surely deserve better.