The Dancer in the Dancing Space: The ‘Chacone de Phaëton’

There are three choreographies to the chaconne from act two of Lully’s 1683 opera Phaëton:

  • Guillaume-Louis Pecour, ‘Chacone pour une femme’, Recüeil de dances (Paris, 1704). LMC 2020, FL/1704.1/03.
  • Guillaume-Louis Pecour, ‘Chacone de Phaëton pour un homme non Dancée a l’Opera’, also in the Recueil de dances (Paris, 1704). LMC 1960, FL/1704.1/29.
  • Anonymous, ‘La chaconne de phaestons’ a solo for a man surviving in the manuscript source held by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 14884. LMC 1940, FL/Ms17.1/10.

All use a single iteration of the music, which in the opera is played through twice. Each of the choreographies thus has 152 bars of music with which to create a series of dance variations.

I have recently been working on the solo for a woman and become interested in the dancer’s relationship to the space within which she is dancing – or, perhaps more accurately, the space which surrounds her. We do not know when or where this solo was performed – it may or may not have been given within the opera. The step vocabulary is straightforward, with little in the way of embellishment, but its use of space and the changing orientation of the dancer as she traces her figures is worth some analysis.

A quick look at the notations for the two male solos indicates that both are very focussed on downstage centre (often referred to, particularly in ballroom contexts, as the ‘presence’), whether they are facing it or have their backs turned. These male dancers rarely turn to either stage right or stage left, or their ballroom equivalents. The use of space is quite different to that in the female solo.

Here, I would like to look at just three sequences from Pecour’s ‘Chacone pour une femme’ of 1704.

  • Plate 10, bars 1 – 16 (the first two musical variations), the beginning of this dance
  • Plate 17, bars 117 – 124, towards the end of the solo
  • Plate 19, bars 137 – 144, the penultimate variation of the dance.

I won’t say anything about the music, except that the notator of the dance respects the musical variations as he divides the choreography between plates – each plate has 16 bars of dance / music (two variations, each of 4 + 4 bars), except for plates 14 and 18 which each have 12 bars of dance / music to reflect changes in the structure of the music.

This chaconne begins with the dancer moving to right and left, before making a conventional passage downstage. According to the notation, she faces the presence as she waits to begin. She starts with a quarter-turn to the right for a coupé à deux mouvements, and then makes a quarter-turn to the left for a coupé battu avec ouverture de jambe. She repeats these two steps on the other foot, turning first to the left and then back to the right. So, she addresses each side of her dancing space before turning to the presence. I haven’t done any research to see if this is unusual among the notated dances, but in terms of the dancer’s successive orientations within her dancing space it is interesting. Here is the first plate of the ‘Chacone pour une femme’, with the first two dance / music variations, together with a detail of the passage I have described:

By plate 17, the dancer is within reach of the end of the choreography after a variety of steps and figures. Here, I want to look particularly at the second 8-bar variation – my focus is on the figure to the right of the plate.

This is not the first rectilinear figure in the chaconne. There is another in plate 12, in which the dancer performs seven coupés à deux mouvements with a final coupé simple. All travel sideways to the left and there is a quarter-turn to the left at the beginning of every other step, from the first to the seventh and then on the eighth as well. So, the dancer performs two coupés à deux mouvements facing downstage, two facing stage left, two facing upstage, one facing stage right and the final coupé simple facing downstage again. The turns in the figure on plate 17 are more subtle and varied and follow each other in quick succession. This was the sequence which set me thinking about the dancer’s use of space and orientation as I struggled to get it right. I also couldn’t help wondering how it might relate to later codifications of the directions of the body in ballet and in modern ballroom (two styles I am acquainted with).

This variation has eight pas de bourrée. The dancer begins facing the presence, having just done a pas de bourrée sideways. Her first step has a quarter-turn to the right and then a half-turn to the right on the demi-coupé and ensuing step of the pas de bourrée, so she faces stage right then stage left and has a final step backwards with no turn. The next pas de bourrée has a quarter-turn to the right at the beginning and she stays facing downstage for the rest of the step. The third and fourth pas de bourrée each have quarter-turns to the right on their first two steps, followed by no turn. The dancer faces stage right, upstage, stage left, downstage as she moves. Although she ends facing the presence, her fifth step has a quarter turn on its second step so, she turns away to face stage right. The sixth pas de bourrée has a quarter-turn to the right on the first step, so she faces upstage immediately (at the point when she must be directly in front of the presence). Her seventh step has quarter-turns to the right on the first and second steps, turning her back to face downstage, a direction she maintains for the eighth pas de bourrée (which moves sideways to the right, reflecting the step which preceded this sequence). I have said little about changes in the direction of the steps themselves (the second to the sixth pas de bourrée each begin with a sideways step), but they play a part in the surprising complexities of this variation.

As I worked on it, I began to wonder how important these degrees of turn were. They reminded me of the precise degrees of turn required in modern ballroom steps, in which the directions of the body relate to the centre lines, the outer lines (the walls) of the dancing space and the ‘line of dance’ (a concept that needs further analysis) itself. Both these rectilinear figures within the chaconne move anti-clockwise around the space, as do modern ballroom dancers, with the dancer herself turning clockwise as she moves. I understand that directions of the body and directions of travel were not codified, in either ballet or ballroom dancing, before the early 20th century, but here are the rudiments of them within baroque dance some 200 years earlier. Of course, this focus on the perimeter of the dancing space raises a question – was the ‘Chacone pour une femme’ created for the court ballroom rather than the stage?

The last sequence I want to look at comes close to the end of the dance, on the very last plate of the notation.

It is both an extension and a variation of the sequence with which this chaconne began, and also draws on another earlier version of that opening sequence in which the coupé à deux mouvements was replaced by a contretemps. This latest variation begins with a contretemps, followed by a coupé battu avec ouverture de jambe, but the dancer turns to the left first and does not turn back to the presence on her second step. Instead, she continues to face stage left and then does a half-turn pirouette to face stage right, followed by a coupé soutenu in the same direction. She then repeats the whole sequence on the other foot in the opposite direction, not really addressing the presence at all. She only turns to face downstage when she begins the final variation of the choreography directly before the presence, and then faces it until the very end of the dance.

I can’t guess at the significance of these changes of direction within this particular female solo, although I do feel that it is important to dance them accurately. I couldn’t readily find anything on the topic of body directions among the sources accessible to me, but I need to take another look. The concept of the presence needs revisiting, too. So, perhaps, there will be a follow-up to this post in due course.

Reading List:

Régine Astier, ‘Chaconne pour une femme: Chaconne de Phaëton. A performance Study’, Dance Research, XV.2 (Winter 1997), 150-169. (Papers from the 1996 conference Dance to Honour Kings)

Francine Lancelot. La Belle Dance: Catalogue Raisonnée (Paris, 1996) [FL]

Meredith Ellis Little and Carol G. Marsh. La Danse Noble: an Inventory of Dances and Sources (Williamstown, 1992) [LMC]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s