The Saraband

I’ve recently been working on Feuillet’s solo Sarabande for a woman to music from Colasse’s 1706 opera Polyxène et Pirrhus. This choreography survives in a single manuscript source and must date to period 1706 to 1710. The music is very different from the better-known saraband in the Entrée for Spain within the Ballet des Nations that ends Lully and Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. It seems that, in the early 18th century, there were two distinct types of saraband – one being French, as in the Sarabande de Polyxène, and the other Spanish, the best known examplar being the Folie d’Espagne.

A remark on the radio, describing  the saraband as ‘slow and stately’ prompted me to take a closer look at this dance type. I admit to being very tired of hearing the expression ‘slow and stately’ in relation to the very varied ballroom and theatre dances of the late 17th and 18th centuries, but it is difficult to know how to counter it.

There are at least 27 surviving choreographies labelled as sarabands, to which can be added four Folie d’Espagne notations (not included in the following statistics). The dance was popular both in the ballroom and on the stage. Ten of the notated sarabands are identifiable as ballroom dances. Nine of these include the saraband alongside other dance types in mini-dance suites. Five choreographies can be linked directly either to the Paris Opéra or the London stage. Six more dances are male solos and there are five female solos. All of these may have been intended either for the stage or as exhibition dances. Four of the solos (two male and two female) are to the saraband in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, marking them out as ‘Spanish’.

There is, of course, much more to the saraband as a dance. Do the choreographies themselves differentiate between ‘French’ and ‘Spanish’ sarabands, or do these distinctions lie hidden within style and technique rather than on view in the step vocabulary and choreographic motifs? I will try to address these issues in later posts.

In the meantime, here is a description of a dancer performing a saraband from Father François Pomey’s Le Dictionnaire royal augmentée published in Lyon in 1671. The translation of the French original comes from a 1986 article by the researcher Patricia Ranum.

‘At first he danced with a totally charming grace, with a serious and circumspect air, with an equal and slow rhythm, and with such a noble, beautiful, free and easy carriage that he had all the majesty of a king, and inspired as much respect as he gave pleasure.

Then, standing taller and more assertively, and raising his arms to half-height and keeping them partly extended, he performed the most beautiful steps ever invented for the dance.

Sometimes he would glide imperceptibly, with no apparent movement of his feet and legs, and seemed to slide rather than step. Sometimes, with the most beautiful timing in the world, he would remain suspended, immobile, and half leaning to the side with one foot in the air; and then, compensating for the rhythmic unit that had just gone by, with another more precipitous unit he would almost fly, so rapid was his motion.

Sometimes he would advance with little skips, sometimes he would drop back with long steps that, although carefully planned, seemed to be done spontaneously, so well had he cloaked his art in skilful nonchalance.

Sometimes, for the pleasure of everyone present, he would turn to the right, and sometimes he would turn to the left; and when he reached the very middle of the empty floor, he would pirouette so quickly that the eye could not follow.

Now and then he would let a whole rhythmic unit go by, moving no more than a statue and then, setting off like an arrow, he would be at the other end of the room before anyone had time to realise that he had departed.

But all this was nothing compared to what was observed when this gallant began to express the emotions of his soul through the motions of his body, and reveal them in his face, his eyes, his steps and all his actions.

There is more, but isn’t this more than enough to refute the idea of the saraband (or, indeed, any baroque dance) as ‘slow and stately’? The expressive possibilities outlined in this passage can readily be seen in the surviving notated sarabands.

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