Mr Isaac’s ‘The Favorite A Chaconne Danc’d by her Majesty’

I have been learning Mr Isaac’s The Favorite, described on its first plate as ‘A Chaconne Danc’d by her Majesty’. This duet was one of the six notated choreographies included in A Collection of Ball-Dances perform’d at Court published in 1706 by John Weaver and perhaps intended to accompany Orchesography, Weaver’s translation of Feuillet’s Choregraphie. ‘Her Majesty’ was, of course, Queen Anne, although by the time of the dance’s appearance in notation poor health had forced her to give up dancing. Mr Isaac has an idiosyncratic choreographic style and his ballroom duets shed important light on court culture under the late Stuart monarchs, so I thought it would be worth looking more closely at this dance.

The Favorite is actually in two parts, for it is a chaconne followed by a bourée. The music was first published in Amsterdam in 1688 and it appeared as ‘the new French Dance’ in 1690 in the sixth edition of Apollo’s Banquet. When it was reissued by John Walsh around 1712, the title page named the composer as ‘Mr. Paisible’. The chaconne has three variations, which are then repeated, giving 64 bars in all. The bourée has the structure AAAABB and a petite reprise of four bars to give 36 bars. At 80 bars, the dance seems long for a ballroom choreography intended for performance at court but Isaac’s other dances in A Collection of Ball-Dances are mostly the same or even longer (the exception is The Richmond at only 52 bars).

This dance probably dates to the years around 1690, when the music was first published. Princess Anne (as she then was) hosted a ball for William III’s birthday in November 1688, while her sister Queen Mary II gave a dance for the Princess’s own birthday in February 1691. Both were occasions when Anne (then between pregnancies) might have performed before the assembled court a duet specially created by her dancing master.

Can this notated choreography tell us anything about Isaac’s approach to choreographing these dances of display or Princess Anne’s dancing skills? The notation shows that Isaac used a basic vocabulary of steps throughout the two parts of the dance, although he sometimes combined them in ways that required particular skill from his dancers. For example, the first plate includes two balancés. The first ends in first position on beat two, with a pause on beat three, while the second has a battu on the second beat with an extension of the working leg in the air on beat three (as a preparation for the pas tombé and jetté in the next bar). It is a point for debate whether the Princess would have balanced on the ball of each foot in turn or performed these balancés on a flat foot. The fifth plate, with notation for the bourée, includes several bars which have two coupés travelling sideways. Much practice is needed to execute these fast-moving steps clearly and correctly.

Isaac ornaments only one of Princess Anne’s steps, the coupé avec ouverture de jambe in bar 22 of the chaconne, which has a pas battu around the ankle before the working leg opens towards the fourth position. There are five bars within the chaconne in which the man’s steps have either a pas battu or a rond de jambe. Such explicit ornamentation of the man’s steps, but not the woman’s, occurs in other notated dances by Isaac.

The chaconne has some 17% of steps with small jumps within them, whereas the bourée has around 44%. The steps most often used throughout the two parts of The Favorite are the pas de bourée, with its final jetté, the contretemps and (in the bourée section) the pas de sissonne. Isaac also repeats sequences in both the chaconne and the bourée.

The figures in The Favorite hint that this dance is not simply an abstract display. One of Isaac’s repeated motifs has the dancers coming together and then parting (or vice-versa) across the dancing space. They first do this at the very beginning, with a coupé sideways and a tems de courante forwards, before travelling towards the presence according to convention. The following figure has the dancers travelling sideways away from the presence – the only extended sequence of sideways movement in the dance – which allowed them to face the spectators who would have surrounded them as they moved. These figures can clearly be seen in the first plate, even if you don’t read Beauchamp-Feuillet notation.

They begin the third variation of the chaconne back-to-back, with the woman (Princess Anne) facing the presence – her previous step (a contretemps forwards) can be seen just beneath the word ‘Majesty’ on the notation above. Both perform a coupé battu with a plié on the beat. This has the effect of a bow or curtsey towards those watching at each end of the room, before the dancers turn to face one another and come together. They then turn to their right for a more extended sequence in which they travel apart before turning to come together again.

Apart from the occasional mistakes in the notation, the practice of crowding several figures onto a single page can make it difficult to read. The Favorite has five plates of notation, with plates three and five being the busiest (with 32 bars and 28 bars of music and dance respectively). The second half of the chaconne (notated in full on plate three) begins with a double version of the approach and retreat motif. The dancers first turn towards each other and then away before continuing to travel apart and then return, moving on shallow diagonals. Isaac repeats this theme of retreat and approach twice more with another variation, as he places the dancers side-by-side to face the presence. The chaconne ends with the couple turning to face one another across the dancing space. They have been in mirror symmetry (dancing on opposite feet) for most of it, but the woman does a tems de courante and the man a coupé to begin the bourée in axial symmetry.

I don’t want to go into too much detail, so I will skip to the second plate of the bourée which contains three-quarters of its notated steps.

After two circular figures, the dancers can be seen facing one another up and down the dancing space – the man is nearest the presence with his back to it, while the woman faces him. There must be some distance between them as they have two travelling steps to come together (Beauchamp-Feuillet notation does not show figures with spatial accuracy). They dance in a circle, taking right hands, and then travel away from each other and back again in another instance of the retreat and return motif. Isaac’s repeated use of two coupés in a bar (mentioned earlier) can be seen to either side of the page, about two-thirds from the bottom, then to either side of the centre and finally about a third from the bottom of the page – just before the dancers begin their final sequence of steps to the petite reprise which take them to the back of the dancing space before they turn to face the presence with a coupé soutenu, which presumably precedes their final bow (not included on the notation).

I have enjoyed working on Isaac’s The Favorite. It isn’t a difficult dance technically but it certainly isn’t easy either. It would be rewarding to be able to work on it with a partner and a musician or two, to explore the interpretative possibilities of both music and dance and see how the choreography might work in performance. The steps and figures in these five plates of notation suggest that Isaac’s choreography had wit as well as elegance and liveliness.

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