Category Archives: Ballet de Cour

Various Authenticities

When I first began to study baroque dance, I tried very hard to be authentic – not least because I was so often criticised for my ‘balletic’ approach. It took me some time to realise that such authenticity is impossible. We know a great deal about dancing in the late 17th and early 18th centuries (far more than most people realise), but there is just as much that we don’t and indeed cannot know. My own reconstructions of dances, particularly the solos danced by Mrs Santlow and Mlles Subligny and Guiot, owe as much (if not more) to my personal style and technique as a ballet-trained dancer as they do to the notations and dance manuals of the early 1700s.

The subject of authenticity came into my mind again a week or so ago, when I went to a talk at the Wallace Collection. The speaker was the choreographer and Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet David Bintley. His new ballet The King Dances is based on Le Ballet de la Nuit, the 1653 ballet de cour in which the fourteen-year-old Louis XIV appeared as the rising sun and became known ever after as the ‘Sun King’. Bintley talked about his forays into history and the world of baroque dance as he developed his choreography. He had gone so far as to have a baroque dance expert give instruction to his dancers – only to find that the unfamiliar style and technique was too difficult to learn in a short period. Although it marked the beginning of ballet, baroque dance was far from the strength and extension now characteristic of its descendant.

At the time of writing, I have not seen Bintley’s The King Dances so I cannot comment on the ballet. However, the photographs of the production are stunning. The young male dancers look as fabulously glamorous as their youthful antecedents at the French court must have done. When they are caught in mid-step the effect is strangely evocative of the ballet de cour, as we glimpse it through the few surviving designs for costumes and scenes. Could Bintley’s work possibly be ‘authentic’ in ways that a production consciously attempting complete ‘authenticity’ could not?

I thought about authenticity again this weekend, while I was taking part in a dance display for a heritage open day which also gave me time to watch. The dances – several cotillons by Dezais and a couple of ballroom duets – were all faithfully reconstructed from 18th-century sources. The costumes were handsome and in good period style, right down to the corsets. However, these were not the essential factors that made the display authentic. There was a range of skills and experience among the dancers and the dances were practised but not perfect. The dances were lively and all the dancers very evidently enjoyed performing them. They took pleasure in dancing with each other and for their audience. I couldn’t help thinking that it must have been very similar at many real balls in the 18th century – except that we may well have danced better than our forebears did.

Authenticity surely resides as much, if not more, in the spirit of the reconstruction as in the letter.

 

Dancers in Ballets de Cour, 1648-1669

Between 1648 and 1669 the dancers in ballets de cour were predominantly male. More than 300 male dancers appeared during this period. Around 90 of them, not quite one-third, were professionals. About 100 men, mostly courtiers, appeared in only one or two of the ballets. Of those who appeared in a significant number of ballets, i.e. at least half of the productions, around two-thirds were professional dancers. These men were the core performers in the ballets de cour. They ensured that the performances were the spectacular events they were meant to be.

Among the most important of the professional dancers were:

Louis de Mollier (c1615-1688). He took 48 roles in 18 ballets and was the most prominent dancer up to 1660.

Pierre Beauchamps (1631-1705). He took an astounding 93 roles in 23 ballets. His significance for the development of ballet cannot be overestimated, not least because of his dominant position as a performer over the whole period.

François Hilaire d’Olivet. He took 46 roles in 18 ballets and like Beauchamps was active throughout the period.

These men were also leaders of the profession of dancing masters. D’Olivet was a founder member of the Académie Royale de Danse, established in 1661. Beauchamps became Director of the Académie in 1680.

Two other men were, if anything, even more important to the ballet de cour and dancing:

Louis XIV, the monarch around whom these entertainments were created, was the subject of an earlier post. His regular appearances alongside professional dancers, as well as the range and extent of his repertoire, suggest that reports of his dancing skills were not simply hyperbole.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), composer and dancer. He took 45 dancing roles in 11 ballets. He made his dancing debut in 1653 in the Ballet de la Nuit. He began to compose music for the ballets de cour in 1655. His involvement as a dancer diminished as his role as a musician and composer expanded.

Ballets de cour did include female dancers. Around 120 noblewomen and female professionals appeared in 15 out of the 26 ballets performed over the period. Six of these ballets involved only professional female dancers. The number of female professionals is uncertain, because they are difficult to identify from the sources, but there seem to have been about 15 of them. Of the other nine ballets, five were closely associated with Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, the English Princess Henriette-Anne, known as Madame, also the subject of an earlier post.

However, so many male dancers and the irregular appearance of female dancers meant that female roles were often danced by men. This is a topic I will return to.

Mlle de Verpré, the first female professional dancer?

If Madame was the source of the ballerina’s refined and sophisticated style, the latter may owe her virtuosity of technique to Mlle Verpré. She, too, has a claim to be the first ballerina. She may have been the daughter of the Verpré who danced in court ballets from 1648 to 1661, and was one of several girls from professional dance backgrounds who appeared in these entertainments. These first female professional dancers have been written about in recent years by a handful of dance historians.

Mlle Verpré first came to notice in the Ballet d’Alcidiane of 1658. In the very last entrée of the ballet she danced a chaconne as a Princess Maure with the King and seven other male dancers. The libretto sets the scene:

‘Une Princesse de Mauretanie que le hazard a fait aborder en l’isle inaccessible avec sa suite, tesmoigne par une Chacone, dont les Maures ont esté les premiers inventeurs, la part qu’elle prend à la satisfaction des deux Amans [Alcidiane and Polexandre]; & conclud tout le Ballet par cette dance si agreable; …’

Mlle Verpré unquestionably took a starring role in this ballet.

The following year she appeared in the closing entrée of the Ballet de la Raillerie as ‘L’Espagnolle. … dansant avec Castagnettes, accompagnée de huict Guitarres’. She was the sole female Spaniard among the pairs of French, Italian, Turkish and Indian ‘Gentilhommes’. Louis XIV danced as one of the French gentlemen. The nine danced a chaconne together.  In the Ballet de l’Impatience of 1661, she appeared in the first entrée with eleven men, including the King. Louis XIV performed as ‘un Grand amoureux’ and she may have been his ‘Maistresse’. She returned to the stage for the third entrée of part 3 as ‘la Dame’ with the King and seven other men as ‘Chevaliers de l’ancienne Chevalerie’ all of whom were rivals for her favour. Two other female professional dancers, Mlles Girault and de la Faveur, appeared in the final entrée of this ballet.

The ballerina in the 1661 Ballet des Saisons was Madame, but Mlle de Verpré appeared in the seventh entrée dancing a saraband with seven men (nobles as well as professionals). The ‘de’ added to her name, usually an indication of nobility, suggests that her dancing skill had been rewarded with higher status. 1662 perhaps marked the high point of her career, when she appeared in the Ballet d’Hercule Amoureux as part of the celebrations for the King’s marriage. Both the King and the Queen danced in this ballet. In the sixteenth entrée Mlle de Verpré danced alone as Aurora, heralding the appearance of Louis XIV as le Soleil in the following entrée.

Mlle de Verpré did not appear in the Ballet des Arts of 1663, in which Madame took pride of place. The advent of Madame as the court’s ballerina seems to have pushed the professional dancer to one side. Even in the Ballet des Amours Déguisés of 1664, in which Madame did not appear (but the King did), Mlle de Verpré danced only in the second entrée as ‘La Gouvernante’ albeit alongside the duc de Saint-Aignan as ‘Le Gouverneur d’Egypte’ with a supporting group of eight men (four of whom danced as women). She made her final appearance in 1665 in the Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus, dancing only in the second entrée of part 2 as Daphne, alongside the marquis de Beringuen as Apollo. Thereafter she disappears from dance history.

In his verse gazette La Muze Historique, Jean Loret mentions Mlle de Verpré and her performances in ballets de cour several times. He repeatedly refers to her ‘caprioles’. Of her appearance as an ‘Espagnolle’ in the Ballet de la Raillerie, Loret wrote of the gentlemen of various nations and their female companion:

‘Accompagnez d’une Espagnole,

Qui sçait frizer la capriole,

De la mesme sort et façon

Que feroit un joly Garçon,

…’

By ‘frizer la capriole’ did Loret mean that she could execute a cabriole, a jump with a beat in the air? In any case, Mlle de Verpré evidently had a professional level of technique and the skill to keep up with (if not challenge) the young men she danced alongside.

There is no known portrait of Mlle de Verpré.

 

Louis XIV, Premier Danseur Noble

Louis XIV is the only dancer, among the many nobles and professionals who appeared in the ballets de cour, to repeatedly attract the attention of scholars. His rank and the extent of his repertoire make any appraisal of his dancing career a challenge. The King performed some 68 roles in 24 ballets de cour, together with at least one role in a comédie-ballet, from 1651 to 1669, a period of nearly twenty years.

I list all these roles below. I will limit myself to just a few observations about them. There is more work to be done on Louis XIV premier danseur, but as much (if not more) research is needed on his dancing contemporaries if we are to reach a proper understanding of his involvement in the ballet de cour.

The King took some roles more than once. He danced the role of le Soleil (the Sun) three times:  le Soleil levant, Ballet de la Nuit (1653); le Soleil, Ballet d’Hercule Amoureux (1662); le Soleil, Ballet de Flore (1669). Despite the frequent identification of the Sun with Apollo, Louis XIV danced the latter role only once, in Les Nopces de Pélée et de Thétis (1654). He appeared as a Maure in three ballets, as Printemps (Spring) in three and as a Berger (Shepherd) in three. These few roles give us an idea of his range as a dancer.

Between 1651 and 1666, Louis also danced seven female roles:

1651 Ballet des Festes de Bacchus (Bacchante; Muse)

1654 Les Nopces de Pélée et de Thétis (Furie; Dryade)

1661 Ballet des Saisons (Cérès)

1663 Les Noces de Village (Fille de Village)

1666 Ballet des Muses (Nymphe)

His first such appearance was at the age of thirteen and the last took place when Louis was twenty-eight.

Louis XIV began to dance in public when he was thirteen and ceased when he was thirty-one.  Over the period of his dancing career, he not only danced alongside his own courtiers but he also appeared with the leading professional dancers of the time.

Louis XIV’s dancing roles in ballets de cour and other entertainments:

1651 Ballet de Cassandre 

(III: Chevalier Suivant de Cassandre. XI:  Tricotet Poitevin)

1651 Ballet des Festes de Bacchus

(IV: Filou. VIII: Devin. XVIII: Bacchante. XXII: Homme de Glace. XXVII: Titan. XXX: Muse)

[an entrée with Louis XIV as a Coquette was suppressed]

1653 Ballet de la Nuit

(Part 1. I: Heure. Part 2. II: Jeu. Part 3. VI: Ardent. XI. Curieux.  Part 4. II: Furieux. X: Le Soleil Levant)

1654 Ballet des Proverbes

(Part 1. IV: ‘Tout ce qui reluit n’est pas or’. X: Maure. Part 2. II: Attaquant. XI: Espagnol)

1654 Les Nopces de Pélée et de Thétis

(I: Apollo. IV: Furie. VI: Dryade. VIII: Academiste de Chiron habillé en Indien. IX: Courtisan. [X]: La Guerre)

Louis XIV as La Guerre in Les Nopces de Pélée et de Thétis (1654). Workshop of Henry de Gissey.

Louis XIV as La Guerre in Les Nopces de Pélée et de Thétis (1654). Workshop of Henry de Gissey.

1654 Ballet du Temps

(Part 1. II: Moment. XII: Siecle d’Or. Part 2. VI: Printemps. XI: Feu)

1655 Ballet des Plaisirs

(Part 1. I: Jeune Berger. XII: Egyptien. Part 2. I: Desbauché. XI: Genie de la Danse)

1655 Ballet des Bienvenus

(Part 2. II: Partie de la Renommée)

1656 Ballet de Psyché

(Part 1. II: Printemps. XII: Esprit Folet. Part 2. XII: Pluton)

1656 Ballet de la Galanterie du Temps

II, X: Galant

1657 Ballet de l’Amour Malade

(I: Divertissement.  X: Parent des Mariez)

1658 Ballet de l’Alcidiane

(Part 1. I: La Haine. Part 2. I: Eole. VI: Demon. Part 3:  VII. Maure)

1659 Ballet de la Raillerie

(I: Ris. V: Le Bonheur. XII: Gentilhomme Français)

1661 Ballet Royal de l’Impatience

(Part 1. I: Grand Amoureux. Part 2. IV: Jupiter. Part 3. III: Chevalier de l’ancienne Chevalerie)

1661 Ballet des Saisons

(IV: Cérès. VIII: Printemps)

1662 Ballet d’Hercule Amoureux

(I: Maison de France. VIII: Pluton. IX: Mars. XVII: Le Soleil)

1663 Ballet des Arts

(I: Berger)

1663 Les Noces de Village

(VIII: Fille de Village)

[He apparently did not dance, as announced, as a Bohémien in entrée XIII.]

1664 Ballet des Amours Déguisés

(VII: Regnaut)

1665 Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus

(Part 2. VI: Alexandre)

[1665 La Réception

(X: Paysan)]

1666 Ballet des Muses

(IV: Berger. VI: Espagnol. VIII: Cyrus. XII: Nymphe. XIV: Maure)

1668 Le Carnaval

(I: Plaisir. VI: Masque Serieux)

1669 Ballet de Flore (2)

(I: Soleil. XV: Européen)

Louis XIV did not appear in the Ballet des Plaisirs Troublés (1657), Ballet de Xerxes (1660), Le Triomphe de Bacchus (1666).

He danced as an Egyptien in the III entrée of the comédie-ballet Le Mariage Forcé (1664). He probably did not dance the roles in the first and last entrées (Intermède 1. I: Neptune. Intermède 6. V: Apollon) intended for him in the comédie-ballet Les Amants Magnifiques (1670).

Madame. The first ballerina?

Modern histories of ballet usually name Mlle de la Fontaine as the first ballerina, citing her appearance in Lully’s Le Triomphe de l’Amour of 1681 as marking the advent of the female professional dancer. In fact, the history of the ballerina starts some years before then.

Another contender for the title of the first ballerina, although she was most definitely not a professional dancer, is Madame – Henriette-Anne, Princesse d’Angleterre, duchesse d’Orleans. She was the sister of Charles II, king of England, and married Monsieur, the brother of Louis XIV, in 1661. Her first appearance in a ballet de cour was in April 1654, at the age of nine, when she danced in the first entrée of Les Nopces de Pélée et de Thétis as Erato, at the head of the other Muses.

Madame’s brief ascendancy as the leading female noble dancer at the French court began in 1661, just a few months after her marriage, when she danced the role of Diane in the second entrée of the Ballet des Saisons accompanied by a corps de ballet of court ladies. The verses written to celebrate her appearance, published in the ballet’s libretto, began:

‘Diane dans les bois, Diane dans les cieux,

Diane enfin brille en tous lieux,

Elle est de l’univers la seconde lumière,

Elle enchante les coeurs, elle ébloüit les yeux.’

If they are careful to describe her as ‘la seconde lumière’ to her brother-in-law the Sun King, the lines still suggest the idea of her as a ballerina, the leading dancer of the company.

In 1663, Madame appeared in the Ballet des Arts, dancing alongside Louis XIV as a Bergère (Shepherdess) to his Berger. In the final entrée she danced as Pallas Athene with a group of Amazons personified by court ladies. In 1665, she danced as Venus in the first entrée to the Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus, given in her own apartments. According to the libretto, she made her appearance on a throne of mother-of-pearl surrounded by twelve Nereides (danced by court ladies) ‘qui l’admirent, la reverent, & dansent avec elle’. In the sixth and final entrée Louis XIV appeared as Alexander the Great with Madame as his mistress Roxane. The following year, 1666, Madame reached her apogee as the court’s ballerina when she danced in the Ballet des Muses. Her first appearance was alongside Louis XIV, again as a Bergère and Berger, in the fourth entrée. She and the King led troupes of female and male dancing Spaniards in the sixth entrée and in the eleventh entrée she led a group of Pierides (daughters of Pierus) against the Muses. This entrée took the form of a contest, with ‘ces deux troupes aspirant avec mesme ardeur à triompher de celle qui luy est opposée’. The Ballet des Muses ended with an Entrée des Maures, in which Louis XIV and Madame again danced together as a Maure and a ‘Mauresque’.

Madame’s career as a ballerina ended with the Ballet des Muses. She had been prevented from appearing in earlier ballets by pregnancy and she was unable to participate in the Ballet de Flore, created for her in 1669, because she was again expecting a child. Just fifteen months later, in 1670, Madame unexpectedly died at the age of twenty-six. The Ballet de Flore was probably the last time that Louis XIV danced in public. Would he have danced again, and would the ballet de cour have survived for longer if Madame, the court’s ballerina, had not died so tragically early?

Madame, Duchesse d'Orleans.Nicholas de Larmessin after Pierre Mignard? c1661-1670. © Trustees of the British Museum

Madame, Duchesse d’Orleans. Nicholas de Larmessin after Pierre Mignard? c1661-1670. © Trustees of the British Museum

The ballets of Louis XIV: a list

Here is a list of the ballets performed at the court of Louis XIV between 1648 and 1669.

1648       Ballet du Dérèglement des passions

1651       Ballet de Cassandre

1651       Ballet des festes de Bacchus

1653       Ballet de la nuit

1654       Ballet des proverbes

1654       Les Nopces de Pélée et de Thétis

1654       Ballet du Temps

1655       Ballet des Plaisirs

1655       Ballet des Bienvenus

1656       Ballet de Psyché

1656       Ballet de la Galanterie du Temps

1657       Ballet de l’Amour malade

1657       Ballet des plaisirs troublés

1658       Ballet de l’Alcidiane

1659       Ballet de la raillerie

1660       Ballet de Xerxes

1661       Ballet royal de l’impatience

1661       Ballet des saisons

1662       Ballet d’Hercule amoureux

1663       Ballet des arts

1663       Les Noces de village

1664       Ballet des amours déguisés

1665       Ballet de la naissance de Vénus

1666       Le Triomphe de Bacchus

1666       Ballet des muses

1668       Le Carnaval

1669       Ballet de Flore

Not all of these were ballets de cour. Some were smaller-scale and more intimate mascarades. There were other ballets over this period, notably the comédies-ballets of Lully and Molière, which mostly involved professional dancers. The ballets de cour were danced, first and foremost, by the king and his courtiers. Why were these ballets performed? What were they about? Who danced in them? How much did they influence later dance works, not only in France but throughout Europe? I can see that I will have to do some research into recent writing on the subject if I am to find out.

Nicolas de Larmessin. Louis XIV. 1661. © Trustees of the British Museum

Nicolas de Larmessin. Louis XIV. 1661. © Trustees of the British Museum

My interest is also in how they affected dancing on the London stage. Most of these ballets de cour were performed while England was suffering a civil war and then living under a puritan commonwealth government. The English tradition of the masque was interrupted by these calamitous events and never fully revived following the restoration of Charles II in 1660. However, French dancing was to be profoundly influential in London after 1660, both at court and in the playhouses. Before I can pursue that topic, I need to look more closely at the French ballets de cour and their performers.

The Morning Star: Monsieur and the ballet de cour

Much has been made of the dancing skills of Louis XIV, who performed in so many of the ballets given at his court between 1651 and 1669, but what of his brother Philippe duc d’Orleans known simply by the honorific title ‘Monsieur’? In the ballet, as in life, he was not allowed to overshadow the Sun King. Monsieur made his first appearance as a dancer in the Ballet de Cassandre, in which Louis XIV also made his debut. While the thirteen-year-old Louis took two dancing roles, Philippe (aged eleven) danced only as a Page de Cassandre. Later that same year he danced as a Fille (Young Girl) in the Ballet des Festes de Bacchus. At this time (and for many years to come) female roles were almost invariably danced by boys and men. Louis XIV himself danced female roles on several occasions, the last being in the 1666 Ballet des Muses when he was in his late twenties.

Monsieur’s notable roles included L’Estoille du Point du Jour (The Morning Star) in Le Ballet de la Nuit in 1653, in which he heralded the appearance of the King as Le Soleil Levant (the role that made Louis, definitively, the Sun King). In 1656, when he was sixteen, Philippe appeared in the Ballet de Psyché as Talestris, Reine des Amazones (Talestris, Queen of the Amazons) with four male courtiers as his fellow female warriors. The customary verses written to celebrate his performance and printed in the ballet’s libretto declared ‘like a true and perfect Amazon, you combine beauty and courage’. After 1656, Monsieur’s appearances in ballets de cour became less frequent, although he did dance in several of these increasingly extravagant productions during the early 1660s.

Following their marriage in 1661, Philippe’s wife Henriette d’Angleterre (sister of Charles II, King of England and known as ‘Madame’) began to take a leading role in court entertainment. She appeared alongside her brother-in-law Louis XIV in a number of ballets. In 1666, Monsieur again took the role of L’Estoille du Point du Jour – this time reflecting the glory of Madame, who appeared as Venus. Below is a list of Monsieur’s dancing roles (spellings generally follow those in the original libretti). At the moment, I do not know why he did not appear in so many of the ballets in which his brother Louis took leading roles as a dancer.

Philippe d’Orleans. Print by François de Poilly I, after Jean Nocret. c 1660. © Trustees of the British Museum

Philippe d’Orleans. Print by François de Poilly I, after Jean Nocret. c 1660. © Trustees of the British Museum

Monsieur’s Dancing Roles:

1651       Ballet de Cassandre (Page de Cassandre)

1651       Ballet des festes de Bacchus (Fille)

1653       Ballet de la Nuit (Galant; L’Estoille du Point du Jour)

1654       Les Nopces de Pélée et de Thétis (Pescheur de Corail; Un Amour)

1654       Ballet du Temps (L’Esté)

1655       Ballet des Plaisirs (Paren des Mariez; Courtisan)

1656       Ballet de Psyché (Talestris, Reine des Amazones; L’Hymen)

1661       Ballet des Saisons (Vendangeur)

1662       Ballet d’Hercule Amoureux (L’Hymen)

1664       Ballet des Amours Déguisés (Amour déguisé en Dieu Marin)

1665       Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus (L’Estoille du Point du Jour)

The Ballets de Cour of Louis XIV

Among the most significant works for the creation of modern ballet were the ballets de cour of Louis XIV. Louis succeeded to the throne of France in 1643, before he had reached the age of five. Between 1648 and 1669, some 26 ballets de cour were performed. Louis XIV made his dancing debut at the age of twelve in 1651, in the Ballet de Cassandre. His last performance may have been in 1670, in the comédie-ballet Les Amants magnifiques, when he was 31 (his appearance in this work is uncertain). He danced in many ballets de cour, alongside his family and his courtiers. These high-ranking amateurs were trained and supported by skilled professional dancers, who must have created the choreographic content of these hybrid works.

Nicolas de Larmessin. Louis XIV. 1661. © Trustees of the British Museum

Nicolas de Larmessin. Louis XIV. 1661. © Trustees of the British Museum

The ballets de cour ultimately gave way to the comèdies-ballets created by the actor and dramatist Molière and the court composer and dancer Lully. These works, performed between 1661 and 1671 (the most important date to 1669 – 1671), had a largely professional cast. They were succeeded from 1672 by Lully’s operas, which included much dancing and were performed in Paris on the public stage by professionals. I will return to the dancers and dancing in these.

Louis XIV’s ballets de cour have been studied in some detail, although little attention has been paid to the development of the style and technique, and the conventions, of the dancing we now call ballet. Apart from the King himself, one of the most important dancers in the court ballets was a professional – Pierre Beauchamps, his dancing master, who performed several roles in nearly every ballet de cour. Louis XIV and Beauchamps, between them, established the danseur noble – the leading male dancer in ballets ever since.

Beauchamps was credited with technical innovations, including the codification of the five positions of the feet still used in ballet today (Pierre Rameau, Le Maître a danser. Paris, 1725, p. 9). This was only possible once turn-out of the legs and feet had become the norm. Beauchamps must surely have developed this and other ideas in the course of his work in the ballets de cour.

The ballets de cour also saw the emergence of the ballerina – the leading female dancer in ballets – and laid the foundation of a repertoire of stories and characters that have not entirely been relinquished by theatre dance even today. I will also return to these themes.