More than three years ago, I posted a piece on Le Menuet d’Espagne, a duet published in 1715 that I had recently performed. I meant to follow it with a series of posts on various aspects of the minuet, but I went on to other topics instead. A few months ago, I performed Le Menuet de la Cour, a choreography published in notation around 1780. This minuet is, arguably, one of the most famous ballroom dances ever created. It inspired many later versions (from duets to quadrilles and beyond) and, in essence, survived for over 150 years.
Le Menuet de la Cour began life as a piece of music in Grétry’s opera Céphale et Procris, first given at Versailles in 1773. The tune was then used by the choreographer Maximilien Gardel for a minuet danced in act 2 of his ballet-pantomime Ninette à la Cour, first performed before the French court in 1777. In that production, and when the ballet arrived on the London stage in 1781, it was danced by two of the Paris Opéra’s stars Gaëtan Vestris and Anne Heinel. Was the dance published in notation by Malpied the same as the stage duet? We don’t know.
This minuet is short, with 78 bars in all, including the opening 8-bar révérence. It has an ABAABA structure. The notated Menuet de la Cour is not an orthodox ballroom minuet, despite containing figures that are quickly recognisable as the taking of right hands, the taking of left hands and the taking of both hands to draw the dance to a close. The Z-figure is there too, but it is hinted at through choreographic elaborations in each of the two B sections. The A section has 8 bars of music, but the B section is unusual with its 19 bars, if you remember that all minuet steps take two bars of music in 3/4 time. There are minuet steps, but these occur only in the two B-sections. However, much use is made of the minuet ‘grace’ steps (included since at least the early 18th century).
I have danced Le Menuet de la Cour on three separate occasions, with three different partners, and it is only this third time that I have felt I was beginning to understand and properly perform the choreography. The music, at least in the version I danced to, is dynamic. To my mind, it lends itself to heightened style and technique which is grand and almost combative. The playfulness that lies within the choreography is less obvious, and perhaps should not be emphasized.
I won’t try to analyse the dance in detail, but here are two plates from the notation. The first shows the end of the first B-section, at the finish of the Z-figure. The sequence is a series of jettés battus (unusual in the context of a minuet) followed by the pas de Marcel.The other follows the second Z-figure and has a series of jettés and assemblés, followed by chassés and then a full turn on both feet ending with an ouverture de jambe. None are steps to be expected in a minuet. Both sequences are followed by the anomalous single bar, used for a rond-de-jambe by the left leg, transferring the weight to leave the right foot free to begin the next step.
Is the notated Menuet de la Cour a ballroom dance? Well, yes, it is. But it is an exhibition ballroom dance meant to display before a discerning audience the technical skills, refined style and sophistication of the couple performing it. The choreography is demanding, in keeping with its stage origin.