Among the steps listed for use in the cotillon, when the dance became popular in the 1760s, were a sissonne brisé (Josson, 1763) and brizé à trois pas (Gherardi, 1769?). Neither source describes how these steps should be performed, nor does the brisé turn up in earlier dance manuals (at least not under that name). It does appear later among the steps recommended for quadrilles (where it is described) and it does, of course, also form part of the vocabulary of modern classical ballet. What was a brisé in late 18th and early 19th century social dancing?
The earliest description of a brisé that I know comes from Gennaro Magri’s Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo of 1779. Apart from appearing some ten to fifteen years later than Josson and Gherardi, Magri deals principally with stage dancing. Here is what he has to say about the brisé:
‘The brisé done in its true form has nothing in common with the capriole; indeed an assemblé to the side is more like a capriole than a brisé. This step is greatly used by the French, and although it might be a little thing in itself, none the less it appears to have more value by being a brilliant step, as it makes more effect done by those ballanti with supremely lively footwork than a capriole done by another. In truth then, referring to the subject of the capriole, it is executed as though it were a fourth capriolata to the side, but since it is done on the ground it becomes a step and not a capriole, whence in calling it a capriole the teachers of the art commit an error, showing that they cannot distinguish this from the step. It may be done forwards, backwards, sideways, turning, repeated, or doublé.
To do it forwards, if you wish to take it with the right leg, place yourself in any position except the first and the second, but the best is always the fourth; placed then in this with the right behind, bending, extend the foot to second in the air from where, with the calf of the same leg, beat in front of the instep of the other, which by the same strike is chased to fourth in front.’
(Magri, Theoretical and practical treatise on dancing, translated by Mary Skeaping, 1988, p. 138)
A footnote explains that ‘The right foot cuts in front of the left, which is simultaneously snatched up to touch the calf of the right’. Magri’s remark that ‘it is done on the ground’, without a jump, is particularly interesting in the context of cotillons and quadrilles. Steps that we would today associate with jumps seem to have been done simply with a rise in the ballroom. Magri’s caprioles include the entre-chat and cabriole, i.e. they are steps with both jumps and beats.
Magri also has a step called the demi-sissonne, described thus:
‘The sissonne, whether it be simple or with a rise and of whatever other category except the repeated, may be halved by ending it with a bend of both knees, without rising after the landing.’ (Skeaping translation, p. 106)
He adds that ‘This demi will have its place whenever another different step which begins with a plié has to be attached, either a jump or a capriole’ and tells us that serious dancers ‘add a pas brisé to it’. Might this shed some light on Josson’s sissonne-brisé?
The sources for quadrilles do explain how to perform the steps they mention. Here is what Gourdoux-Daux has to say in his De l’art de la danse of 1823 about the ‘pas ou tems qu’on nomme brisé dessus et à trois tems’. He begins ‘Pour faire ce pas, les pieds étant à la troisième’ and continues:
Gourdoux-Daux seems to be suggesting that the brisé is followed by a sissonne (the early 19th-century version) and then a close in third position. Was this, in fact, Gherardi’s brizé à trois pas?
Mason describes a jeté brisé dessous in his A Short Essay on the French Danse de Société of 1827 as follows:
‘Jeté devant upon the right foot, passing the left to fourth position behind; make a little battement forward and back; jeté devant upon the left, and continue.’
The pas battu seems to have no jump, in keeping with the conventions of social dancing.
Modern dictionaries of ballet describe the brisé as a small travelling assemblé with a beat. The earlier versions I have been discussing here seem not to travel and to have been executed with a rise and not a jump. Otherwise, the 18th and 19th-century brisé is clearly the ancestor of the modern step. Reading the various early descriptions, I can begin to see how the brisé could be incorporated into the perpetuum mobile of the cotillon and be performed within an early 19th-century quadrille.