Tag Archives: Pierre Beauchamps

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.

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.