Category Archives: The Minuet

Does Authenticity Matter?

Two performances I’ve seen recently brought the topic of authenticity back into my mind. Both were minuets that reminded me of ‘baroque dance’ I’d seen a good few years ago which owed very little to the surviving 18th-century dance manuals and notations.

In an earlier post, I voiced my uncertainty, and my scepticism, about ‘authenticity’ in historic dance. Yet, these performances reminded me that authenticity does sometimes matter. One took place in a gallery with a wonderful collection of 18th-century fine and decorative arts. The other was in a historic house dating originally from the mid-1700s. Both called for performances that were true to their surroundings in terms of style and technique.  Expert knowledge of the treasures on show, as well as accessibility, is important to galleries and historic houses open to the public. Why should the occasional dance performances in such venues be exempt from the same values?

One reason is, of course, the status of dancing – seen as merely a frivolous pastime rather than a socially and culturally significant art form.  Another is the widespread ignorance of the dancing of the 18th century. It is all too often seen as simple yet full of affectation – very far from the classically inspired beauties of the surviving choreographies. Yet another is the fixation on costume, at the expense of the dancing – even though deportment, so important to the correct wearing of period costume, was of fundamental importance in the 18th century. I should say here, that I believe that costuming does matter. After all, whatever the period, the dancing of the past was crafted around the prevailing style of dress – as indeed are modern dance genres.

The steps described in 18th-century manuals, as well as the choreographies preserved in notation bear witness to a refined and sophisticated style and technique in the ballroom as well as in the theatre. None of the modern attempts at ‘baroque dance’ routines I have seen come close to the originals for variety, energy or elegance. The dances of the 1700s reflect the complexities of the other arts of the period – from music to garden design. All share the same aesthetic space.

Unfortunately, baroque dance is difficult. It takes a great deal of time and much hard work to master. An effortless performance of the minuet is the result of years of practice of the steps and figures described in the original sources. I am uncertain whether any of the dancers in the performances I saw really understood that such work either could or should be done. I don’t want to enter into a critique of either of the ‘minuets’ on show, but I can’t help feeling sad that such a beautiful dance and such a wonderful dance form should still be so little known and so often poorly represented. The visitors to those and other wonderful places that preserve the material evidence of 18th-century life surely deserve better.

 

 

Le Menuet d’Espagne

I have been meaning to return to the minuet for a while, and I would like to open my discussions with a choreographed version of this most revered of ballroom dances. Le Menuet d’Espagne by Dezais was published in his XIII Recueil de danses pour l’année 1715 alongside Balon’s La Transilvanie (discussed in an earlier post). The collection appeared early in the year, aimed at the carnival season which took place several months before the death of Louis XIV on 1 September.

Le Menuet d’Espagne is one of a number of choreographed minuets published in notation during the 18th century. There are about 20 in all and a dozen or so of them date to the early 1700s. Among all these dances are several minuets for four, figured minuets for larger groups of dancers, solo minuets (mostly intended for the stage) and minuets within dance suites that display a number of different dance types in a single choreography. I will return to each of these in due course.

The music for Le Menuet d’Espagne is a rondeau with the structure ABACA (A has sixteen bars, B and C each have eight bars), but the source of the tune has not so far been identified. The choreography is almost a ballroom minuet in miniature. The steps are limited to pas de menuet à deux mouvements, pas de menuet à trois mouvements and contretemps du menuet, with just a couple of agréments or grace steps. The figures are essentially those of the ballroom minuet. The minuet’s opening figure has been simplified. The Z figure has been freely adapted – the sideways steps at the beginning and end are there, together with the crossing of the dancers, but the order of these elements, the paths of the dancers and the spatial relationships between them are quite different. The taking of right hands, then left hands and the closing figure, in which the dancers take both hands, are all clearly recognisable. The whole dance has just 64 bars of music, rather shorter than was expected for a ballroom minuet.

Why is this very French choreography titled Le Menuet d’Espagne? Could it have been a compliment to King Philip V of Spain, grandson of Louis XIV, who had married his second wife Elisabeth Farnese on 24 December 1714? Their proxy marriage on 16 September 1714 would have allowed Dezais plenty of time to create a new ballroom dance honouring the couple. What better duet to choose than a minuet,  performed at royal and other formal balls before (and sometimes by) the highest ranking guests?

I would like to have included a video of this charming duet, but the version I had in mind is not so far available on YouTube. Here is the close of the dance in notation, showing the couple taking both hands as they retreat from the presence.

Dezais. Le Menuet d’Espagne (Paris, 1715), final plate

Dezais. Le Menuet d’Espagne (Paris, 1715), final plate

Learning to dance: Gottfried Taubert

The first dance manual to describe the minuet in detail was Gottfried Taubert’s Rechtschaffner Tantzmeister, published in Leipzig in 1717. This German treatise is a mine of information on all aspects of learning to dance but, without a complete and accessible translation into either English or French, it has remained little known compared to other dance manuals of the 18th century. With the publication in 2012 of a complete English translation it is now widely available for use and study. I will be drawing on this translation for my posts.

Gottfried Taubert. Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister (1717). Title Page.

Gottfried Taubert. Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister (1717). Title Page.

As Taubert’s translator Tilden Russell makes clear, the minuet was central to Taubert’s view of the 18th-century world of dancing. In this post, I will look at his general approach to teaching rather than his specific instructions for the steps and figures of the minuet. In his Foreword, Taubert declares he will provide ‘a clear, methodical and thorough introduction to the theory of the well established art of French dancing’. He makes clear that he will be ‘mainly concerned with presenting a comprehensive discussion of both the theory and practice of the three world-renowned fundamental dances’. He identifies these as the courante, the minuet and the bourée, although his focus throughout most of the treatise is the minuet. He uses the term ‘la belle danse’ for the style and technique used in ‘all ballroom dances’ and makes his debt to French dancing abundantly clear. So far as Taubert was concerned, the French were undisputed rulers of the world of dance.

Taubert lays great emphasis on the necessity for the systematic teaching of dance. He begins with la belle danse and ballroom dancing, setting out his ‘instruction of the fundamental dances and general method’.

  • First, standing, walking and bowing;
  • Second , ‘first principles and universal steps’;
  • Third, how to execute ‘the prescribed basic step for each fundamental dance correctly’;
  • Fourth, how to execute ‘the other most important simple and compound steps’ introducing theatrical steps alongside those for the ballroom;
  • Fifth, how to read and understand the symbols in Feuillet’s Choregraphie as well as the notated dances.

He promises that ‘all this shall be examined topic by topic, methodically and coherently’.

Standing and walking get a chapter each, followed by five chapters on bowing. Taubert is adamant that dance instruction should not begin until the student has mastered ‘how to stand gracefully; how to walk with ease; and how to bow politely and make the proper révérences for any occasion’.

When it comes to the dancing, Taubert says he will address:

  • ‘the formation of steps and motions’;
  • ‘the connection of steps’;
  • ‘the cadence and division of steps according to the meter’;
  • ‘the figures and tracts along which one dances’;
  • ‘the air or manner with which one should dance’.

Each and every one of these is as important to the modern student of baroque dance as it was to the 18th-century dancing master and his pupils. All are fundamental to an accomplished performance of the minuet.

Before I turn to the teaching of steps and figures of the minuet and other dances, I will take a look at what Pierre Rameau and Kellom Tomlinson have to say about the fundamental aspects of dance technique.

The Minuet: Sources

The topic of Georgian balls brings me to that most terrifying of dances with which they all began – the minuet. This was the one duet that everyone had to learn, if not to master, if they hoped to gain a place within polite society.

The minuet disappeared from the ballroom, and from dancing lessons, some 200 years ago. There is no recognisable descendant among our modern ballroom dances. We must, therefore, turn to written sources if we wish to reconstruct the dance. None of the surviving dance manuals and notations is entirely clear and, between them, they pose many problems of interpretation.

The earliest surviving notated minuet is a dance for four (two men and two women) from the mascarade Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos, created by Jean Favier the elder for performance at Versailles in 1688. Favier recorded the whole entertainment in his own system of dance notation. The steps of the ballroom minuet were published in Beauchamp-Feuillet notation in 1701. Feuillet inexplicably omitted them from the first edition of Choregraphie in 1700 and had to add a ‘Supplément de pas’ to the second edition.

The earliest dance manual to describe and explain the ballroom minuet in detail is Gottfried Taubert’s Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister, published in Leipzig in 1717. Better known, at least to baroque dance aficionados, is Pierre Rameau’s Le Maître a danser (Paris, 1725) with its translation by John Essex The Dancing-Master (London, 1728). Kellom Tomlinson, whose The Art of Dancing appeared in London in 1735, followed them by devoting several chapters to the steps and figures of the ballroom minuet. Like Taubert, he provided a notated version of the duet. It is reasonable to assume that all three treatises reflect the teaching practice of the dancing masters themselves.

During the 18th century dance treatises were published throughout Europe. Many drew on Rameau’s work and included the minuet as part of a course of instruction in ‘French Dancing’. Alongside these were the minuets published in notation. Many are duets for a man and a woman. There are also minuets for four (two men and two women), as well as dances for five or more and a number of solos. In addition, there are several dances that include the minuet as one of the sections in a small-scale ‘suite’ of differing dance types.

I will look more closely at these and other sources for the minuet in future posts, as I explore the various facets of this familiar but little-known and much-misunderstood dance.

The Illustration is from George Bickham the younger’s An Easy Introduction to Dancing: or the Movements in the Minuet Fully Explained published in London in 1738. This little work draws heavily on The Dancing-Master, for which Bickham had provided new illustrations when it was reissued in the early 1730s.

Bickham Minuet

Going to the Ball

I occasionally get all dressed up and go to an historical dance ball. Most such events are Regency period, but some acknowledge the earlier Georgians in costumes as well as country dances. All, understandably, emphasise enjoyment rather than authenticity so far as the dancing goes (although, sometimes, the reverse seems to be true for the costumes). 18th-century balls were formal and elaborate affairs. I can’t help wondering whether it would be possible to get closer to them than our modern historical balls generally do.

What was an 18th-century ball like? The most detailed and often-quoted description comes from Pierre Rameau’s treatise Le Maître a danser, published in Paris in 1725 and translated into English by John Essex just a few years later. Rameau describes a ball at the court of Louis XIV ‘to which … all private Balls ought to be conformable’. At the French court, everything was ordered by rank. The ball began with branles and gavottes, line dances, led by the King and highest ranking lady. These were followed by minuets, performed one couple at a time in order of precedence. Rameau says nothing about the other danses à deux, specially choreographed duets that use the steps explained in his treatise, or about contredanses. He seems to be writing about the most important and formal court balls, where most of those present were spectators.

A ball at the court of Louis XIV. Pierre Rameau. Le Maître à danser (Paris, 1725).

A ball at the court of Louis XIV. Pierre Rameau. Le Maître à danser (Paris, 1725).

Masquerade balls, with their elaborately disguised participants, were extremely popular. These followed the same basic programme as the formal balls, with the addition of danses à deux and contredanses. The most lavish masked balls also included danced divertissements, often involving professional dancers. Today, that would be a great way to show off some of the surviving choreographies – if there were enough enterprising and talented people to perform them.

John Essex translated Pierre Rameau’s account of royal and ‘regulated’ balls without significant change, suggesting that the form and order of dancing was much the same in England. Balls were held to celebrate royal birthdays, as well as on Twelfth Night and many other occasions. What evidence there is about the dancing at court comes mainly from newspaper reports. According to the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer for 4 June 1720, the formal ball held to celebrate George I’s birthday that year ‘began about Eight, and the Musick and Dancing (by order) ceas’d at Twelve’, when the King and other members of the royal family departed.

There are few references to what was danced, although the Daily Advertiser for 3 March 1731 provides a glimpse of the ball held to celebrate Queen Caroline’s birthday.

‘On Monday Night His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and the Princess Royal, open’d the Ball at Court with a Minuet, and afterwards danced set Dances, with several of the Quality, till between 4 and 5 o’Clock next Morning.’

The ‘set Dances’ were presumably country dances. Dancing into the small hours became customary once the younger members of the royal family began to participate in court balls.

One place to attend ‘regulated’ balls was Bath. John Wood’s A Description of Bath (1765) summarises proceedings at the ‘Publick Balls’ held in the city on Tuesday and Friday evenings.

‘The Balls begin at six o’Clock, and end at Eleven; … the Ball is commonly Opened with a Minuet Danced by two Persons of the Highest Distinction …

The Minuet being over, the Lady returns to her Seat, and the Bathonian King brings the Gentleman a New Partner, with whom he Dances a second Minuet, and then both retire: A second Gentleman doing as the first had done, and so on; every Gentleman Dancing with two Ladies till the Minuets are all over, which commonly happens in about two Hours Time, and then the Country Dances begin …’

The country dances went on for about an hour, after which there was a break for refreshments (Wood refers to ‘Tea’) and then the country dances resumed until the ball closed with appropriate ceremony. The ‘Bathonian King’ was, for many years, Beau Nash.

So, an authentic Georgian ball should begin with about two hours of minuets, danced couple by couple, before it can turn to country dances. Such a programme is unlikely to prove popular with modern would-be historical dancers. Yet, it would surely be possible to begin with two or three couple minuets, together with some minuets for four (which became part of the opening sequence of minuets at the less exalted balls). The rest of the evening could then be given over to country dances – hopefully played at speeds that allow for steps of the period rather than simply walking through the figures. Of course, to be true to the 18th century, one would have to be able to heed Lord Chesterfield’s advice to ‘dance a minuet very well’.

Later in the 18th century, cotillon balls became the rage. I will take a look at them later.

 

Ballroom Dancing in the 18th Century

It is not widely known that, in the early 18th century, ballroom dancing (duets by a man and a woman) reached a height of sophistication probably not seen again until the 20th century. These dances were, of course, very different to their modern counterparts. The couple danced side by side, performing the same steps and floor patterns often in mirror image. They did not touch except occasionally to take hands.

The only one of these dances still known today (although it is widely misunderstood) is the minuet, which dominated the ballroom for around 100 years from the late 1600s to the late 1700s. However, there were also the ‘danses à deux’ or ‘double dances’, many of which were created for important occasions at court and then more widely disseminated through their publication in notation. These appeared over a shorter period, roughly the first third of the 18th century. A handful of choreographies became so famous that they were danced throughout the 18th century and are referred to many times in contemporary writings.

Beauchamp-Feuillet notation, the system developed at the court of Louis XIV in the 1680s, published in 1700 and used to record these ballroom duets, will be the subject of a later post. The duets themselves have been catalogued by Meredith Little and Carol Marsh in La Danse Noble (1992) and by Francine Lancelot in La Belle Dance (1996).

The danses à deux use the steps, style and technique of what is now recognised as an early form of ballet. They range over a variety of different dance types – the saraband, the loure, the passsepied, the bourée, the rigaudon, the English hornpipe among others. Some of them bring together two or more dance types within their choreographies. Although they vary in difficulty, some are as complex as stage dances while others are short and simple, even the most straightforward of these duets require much practice if they are to be performed with the requisite skill and ease.

There has been much disagreement over the appropriate style and technique for these dances, not least because the original sources can be obscure and contradictory. That, and the need for would-be dancers to have had some formal dance training as well as the time and patience to practise, has deterred most from learning these choreographies. They are currently rarely taught or performed in the UK. Most people, even those closely concerned with dance or dance history, will never have seen them.

Yet, these duets provide a window onto a vanished world of dancing. They are an integral part of the history of dance. As well as looking in detail at the ballroom minuet, I will analyse individual choreographies and pursue the stories behind them in future posts.

The illustration shows where these ballroom duets began.

A ball at the court of Louis XIV. Pierre Rameau. Le Maître à danser (Paris, 1725).

A ball at the court of Louis XIV. Pierre Rameau. Le Maître à danser (Paris, 1725).

 

Mr Holt’s Minuet and Jigg in Performance

There are at least three versions of Mr Holt’s Minuet and Jigg on YouTube. In my opinion, this is the best of them.

The dancers are well costumed and they dance nicely. However, we have two men and two ladies, rather than the four ladies specified by the original notation. One of the videos I was able to find has four ladies, but this version has much better dancing.

The figures are accurately performed and the steps are neat, although the performance is perhaps rather too contained and even a bit stiff. Is that how they thought it should be danced? It is very difficult to find a happy medium between our conflicting ideas of 18th-century politeness and extravagance. Although there is some interaction within each couple, each pair less often acknowledges the other – which underplays the social dimension of this choreography. The second figure of the Minuet looks to me, on paper at least, to refer to the S-reversed of the ballroom minuet, a possibility that these dancers do not acknowledge. Other figures are danced prettily, particularly the circle in the second part of the Minuet where the dancers use to good effect the shoulder shading called for in the pas de menuet to the left.

The steps used in the Jigg don’t always quite work. Mr Holt calls for only a few steps in specific figures, leaving the others to the dancers’ choice. Those chosen, or rather the sequences of steps, don’t always seem choreographically quite right to me. I’m not sure why. I do like the concluding figure and the way the dancers open out into a half-circle to face their audience. This must have been charming at the time, when the dance was performed by four young ladies.

I wonder if this performance does represent the style and technique of 18th-century social dancing. There is simply no way we can tell. It is nicely danced, and those wishing to perform Mr Holt’s Minuet and Jigg can learn much from it, but I would prefer a little more freedom and liveliness – within the bounds of politeness, of course.