The beginnings of classical ballet
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The beginnings of classical ballet

The Beginnings of Classical Ballet

THE quotation above is capable of many interpretations. The Balet comique de la Royne (1581) has been a convenient point at which to commence a history of ballet. This spectacle, which bore little resemblance to present-day ballet, was the climax of seventeen fetes given by Catherine de Medici to celebrate the betrothal of the Duc de Joyeuse to Marg-uerite de Lorraine-Vaudemont. It can also be interpreted as a climax of the Renaissance in France, when authors, having studied the theories, principles, technique and effects used in the plays of Greek dramatists, believed they were producing something similar.

The end (or object) of the production might be regarded as an expression of Catherine de Medici’s hopes that by understanding the truths hidden in its symbolism and allegory: „Hearts would be softened and opposite opinions be brought together“ (Champion) and the Protestant members of her court would see the errors of their ways and return to the Catholic church.

To find the seeds from which Balet comique and later ballets stem a search must be made amongst the dance rituals of primitive Greek tribes where originally the dancing of the group was everything, but where finally the priests and acolytes eliminated all others from the ceremony and continued their dance before a wondering audience. At this point in religious ritual the story of dance as entertainment might be said to begin because the performers had consciously to discipline themselves and their movements to communicate the meaning of the ritual and fili the now limited dance space. Thus a definite technique of dance started to develop. Although this bore little or no relationship to classical dance technique it had this in common with it: in both the movements had to be so displayed that the audience saw them to the best advantage.

THE BIRTH OF GREEK TRAGEDY

The dramatis personae and themes of classical ballet began to emerge as the tragodia—or goat-song—took shape under a priest who was also a poet. As he sang the tale of his god, so his acolytes danced and mimed that god’s deeds, whilst the audience at the climax or end of the recital, would join in the ritual by performing the appropriately expressive dance of rejoicing, sorrow, Bacchic frenzy and the like.

This form of ritual changed character when, inspired by the poems of Homer, a secular form of dramatic entertainment appeared in which bard and dancer-mime expressed through chant and gesture the deeds of some great hero, his relationship to the gods and the fates determining his life and death; Thespis, the father of Greek tragedy, introduced actors, thereby allowing dialogue in which the players could respond and exchange comment, and thus enlarged the scope of the drama.

The public love of this form of entertainment grew as the second actor became as important as the first and led a chorus, who not only interpreted the words directly into action, as the first dancer-mimes had done, but also reacted expressively to the speech of both actors. This task ultimately led the chorus also to create the background and at¬mosphere against which the hero’s deeds could be depicted. At a later stage poets began to compete for the honour of presenting such plays at the Olympic Games and other events linking the citizens of the Greek towns together.

The tragedy chosen was played as an act of homage to a city’s god. Its purpose was to fire the imagination and spirit of the townsfolk. It had to appeal to everyone, therefore its plot was limited to certain traditional themes in which the heroes, who were likened to gods, performed or were expected to perform deeds and acts that were known. There had to be generalization because both the characters and their actions had to be recognized as belonging to that theme upon which a particular plot was based. It is from the generaliza¬tions of action and character that the libretti of many later dramatic plays and ballets have developed, and the techniques of classical choregraphic design.

THE GENERALIZATION OF ACTION AND CHARACTER

The tragedy frequently took the form of a trilogy with each play forming, as it were, an act of the whole in which the events presaging and influencing a hero’s deeds and his life in the hands of the gods and the fates were so discussed that they would convey some poli¬tical or moral lesson.

The same characters appear in play after play and their actions, emotions and moods are discussed by the various authors in much the same terms. The heroes Theseus, Jason, Her¬cules and Ulysses not only have similar types of adventure, but are likened to each other in gesture, action and looks. The sad heroines Andromache, Hecuba, the faithful sisters or daughters Antigone, Elektra, Iphigenia and the tragic Cassandra are given similar dramatic manifestations of emotion, mood and action.

The gods and goddesses make infrequent appearances, but, like their servants Mercury and Iris, when they do it is always with those qualities and attributes with which they have been associated. Moreover from the time of Euripides, their main task was frequently to descend as the deus ex machina and deliver some comment or explanation of the drama, or even make some prophecy as an epilogue to the play.

THE BIRTH OF GREEK TRAGEDY

The dramatis personae and themes of classical ballet began to emerge as the tragodia—or goat-song—took shape under a priest who was also a poet.
As he sang the tale of his god, so his acolytes danced and mimed that god’s deeds, whilst the audience at the climax or end of the recital, would join in the ritual by performing the appropriately expressive dance of rejoicing, sorrow, Bacchic frenzy and the like.

This form of ritual changed character when, inspired by the poems of Homer, a secular form of dramatic entertainment appeared in which bard and dancer-mime expressed through chant and gesture the deeds of some great hero, his relationship to the gods and the fates determining his life and death; Thespis, the father of Greek tragedy, introduced actors, thereby allowing dialogue in which the players could respond and exchange comment, and thus enlarged the scope of the drama.

The public love of this form of entertainment grew as the second actor became as important as the first and led a chorus, who not only interpreted the words directly into action, as the first dancer-mimes had done, but also reacted expressively to the speech of both actors. This task ultimately led the chorus also to create the background and at¬mosphere against which the hero’s deeds could be depicted. At a later stage poets began to compete for the honour of presenting such plays at the Olympic Games and other events linking the citizens of the Greek towns together.

The tragedy chosen was played as an act of homage to a city’s god. Its purpose was to fire the imagination and spirit of the townsfolk. It had to appeal to everyone, therefore its plot was limited to certain traditional themes in which the heroes, who were likened to gods, performed or were expected to perform deeds and acts that were known. There had to be generalization because both the characters and their actions had to be recognized as belonging to that theme upon which a particular plot was based. It is from the generaliza¬tions of action and character that the libretti of many later dramatic plays and ballets have developed, and the techniques of classical choregraphic design.

THE GENERALIZATION OF ACTION AND CHARACTER

The tragedy frequently took the form of a trilogy with each play forming, as it were, an act of the whole in which the events presaging and influencing a hero’s deeds and his life in the hands of the gods and the fates were so discussed that they would convey some poli¬tical or moral lesson.

The same characters appear in play after play and their actions, emotions and moods are discussed by the various authors in much the same terms. The heroes Theseus, Jason, Her¬cules and Ulysses not only have similar types of adventure, but are likened to each other in gesture, action and looks. The sad heroines Andromache, Hecuba, the faithful sisters or daughters Antigone, Elektra, Iphigenia and the tragic Cassandra are given similar dramatic manifestations of emotion, mood and action.

The gods and goddesses make infrequent appearances, but, like their servants Mercury and Iris, when they do it is always with those qualities and attributes with which they have been associated. Moreover from the time of Euripides, their main task was frequently to descend as the deus ex machina and deliver some comment or explanation of the drama, or even make some prophecy as an epilogue to the play.



That some form of discipline was enacted is clear from de Martene’s De Antiquis Monarchum where he quotes a tenth-century document analysing over three hundred gestures used by Benedictine, Cistercian and other religious orders during the hours of silence and in Divine Service. It cannot be said that these gestures were the exclusive prop¬erty of the Christian Church. Nothing could be further from the truth as many of them are used and understood by people of all creeds and nations today. It would seem, therefore, that the pantomimi themselves gave regular form to the most common of their gestures, and the monks and nuns in their desire for regulation, directed these into rigid formulas of movement. Amongst these formulas are many which are the conventional gestures of the classical ballets d’action.

THE FIRST BALLET SPECTACLES

It is impossible to date with any accuracy the first spectacle to be associated with the term ballet. Father Ministries mentions the thirteenth-century horse ballets. Others find the elaborate masking, mummings, masquerades and balls of a slightly later period, a more feasible beginning as then a definite style of court dance with a proper technique of move¬ment began to be used. Some of these were organized round a theme which demanded little more than the wearing of appropriate costumes. A more useful pointer to the future shape of ballet as a spectacle might be an entertainment quoted by Prunieres in Le Ballet du Com en France avant Benserade et Lully. When Philip the Good of Burgundy married Isabel of Portugal (1430) he founded theknightly Order of the Golden Fleece to the Glory of God and the Propagation of the Holy Faith. Following the example of the Church’s religious processions, he introduced into the solemn proceedings a cart containing mummers who enacted the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, whilst a bishop preached a sermon likening the story of Jason to the Crusading Knights battling to rescue the Holy land from the Infidel.

The fact that this story lent itself so easily to symbolism and allegory made it a popular theme for other festive occasions, notably that staged by Bergonza di Botta for his famous dinner-ballet
honour of the marriage of Isabella of Aragon to the Duke of Milan (1489). But this was only one of many magnificent entertainments given throughout Savoy and Northern Italy during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Each was given to celebrate some notable event, staged throughout the town by the various authorities and contained wonderful scenic devices designed by such artists as Leonardo da Vinci.

The Mould of Classical Ballet:

I The Academic Background

WHILST the fantastic spectacula were staged outside in the streets and squares of the North Italian towns, they contained something for everyone. Scenes from plays by Terence and other classical authors were jostled by highly symbolical processions and groupings, fire¬works, water-shows, juggling, acrobatics, circuses and the rest. There was a place for the many different kinds of player. Those performers descended from the pantomimi and jongleurs were perhaps the most valued because they fitted into any form of entertainment. They were both vocal artists and dancer-mimes, and on being thrown out of some noble household for a ribald joke, or offending by clever innuendo, could go out into the streets and poke fun at those who irritated or oppressed the townsfolk, or indulge in some other popular „ploy.“ But once dinner-ballets and similar entertainments began to be staged in¬side the palaces of prince or prelate, only the more serious player could be used, because the scope of such spectacles was more limited. They were staged for some specific purpose, therefore only those who would conform to the discipline of words fraught with meaning and dance-steps moulded to spell out some complicated symbol would be employed.

THE PART OF THE PHILOSOPHERS

The production of the dinner-ballets and similar entertainments given in honour of a marriage or of the signing of a treaty, the welcoming of a hero or other like occasion was the responsibility of learned philosophers. On all such occasions the leading figures brought important spiritual advisers in their train, thus the various alliances united families, states and also learned men.

The task of these last was to advise on political and other eventualities and to help pro¬duce the spectacles which, it was hoped, would strengthen the significance of the union and be a compliment to those participating.

These meetings of philosophers sometimes led to the forming of academies where dis¬cussions took place to elucidate the writings of the great classical authors and bring about the reconciliation of pagan and Christian dogmas by the use of symbolism and allegory.

The Revival of Learning in France gained impetus when Francis I invited leading philo¬sophers and artists such as Leonardo da Vinci to his court. But it was not until his son, Henri II, married Catherine de Medici that lavish entertainments began to be staged. Catherine was an astute woman and realized that the struggle for power between the vari¬ous religious factions had to be resolved. She was quick to invite the help of learned Frenchmen of all parties to take part in the religious and political debates, and also to help stage the numerous festivities which she felt were needed to enhance the prestige of the court.

Jean-Antoine de Baif was a member of the group known as the Pleiade amongst whose interesting activities was their attempt to revive the theatre of the Greeks. De Baif invented a system ofvers mesures in order „To unite music with dance, song and measure as in the ancient days of Greece,“ so that the moral effects of the music would bring about the desired result. In practice this system was a method of making the metrical rhythm of the words form the basis of the musical rhythm. Thus the verbal declamation determined the timing and phrasing of the notes and these in their turn, determined the timing of the steps and gestures.

Theoretically the work of De Baif and the Pleiade was far more than drawing up rules for the composing of vers mesures. Like academicians elsewhere they interpreted the term music in the widest possible sense—everything to do with the Muses—and believing that no art, particularly that of living, could be practised without strict ethical and intellectual discipline, they drew up and discussed the educational syllabus required by those who wished to join in their activities. It suggested that the education of the French academicians, who were also courtiers, was to be complete in every detail as was that of the earlier Italians, whose education has been so brilliantly analysed by Castiglione in The Courtier (1528).

Henri III (Catherine de Medici’s third son) became interested in the work of De Baif’s academy on hearing of the „effects“ it supposedly had on its audience. Being a highly reli¬gious man and inheriting the throne of a country still torn between rival factions, despite Ins mother’s efforts to unite the parties, he felt the need of staging religious processions to the great cathedrals and monasteries as well as more lighthearted entertainments in an attempted reconciliation.

After he had visited a concert given by De Baif and taken part in some of the debates of the Pleiade, a contemporary, Sauval, wrote „All Ballets and masquerades were conducted by De Baif and Maudit.“ The king was so impressed by the „effects of the music,“ that De Baif and his colleagues were invited to compose the anthems and music and to help design the symbolical
and banners to be carried by Henri and his courtiers in penitential processions, as well as to take part in the debates, which Henri arranged at his own palace, and in the entertainments arising therefrom.

BALET COMIQUE DE LA ROYNE I58I

The author of The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century, Frances A. Yates, not only gives the history but also a brilliant analysis and interpretation of the many spectacular entertainments given throughout the life of Catherine de Medici and notes that a Huguenot, Agrippa d’Aubigne, who attended the palace debates when a member of the captive Henri of Navarre’s suite, claims to have invented Balet comique de la Royne.

The ballet is always attributed to Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx (or Baltazarino Belgiojoso), who came to Paris as valet de chambre with Catherine de Medici. This Italian musician and dancing-master seems to have acted as producer for a work prepared by many hands chosen for the task by Catherine herself. There is no evidence that the Pleiade was collectively involved in the production, but individually they and their followers were extremely active in staging the seventeen fetes given in honour of the Joyeuse marriage. Moreover as the De Baif academicians had had much experience in staging similar entertainments, it is not surprising that certain items found in their earlier works were repeated and enlarged upon, because their influence undoubtedly penetrated all spheres of art, and Balet comique de la Royne must be quoted as one of the first ballets in which a proper synthesis of the arts was made in the sense that Diaghilev was to make it more fully understood some four hundred years later. It is perhaps useful to take note of some of these earlier items in order to emphasize the importance of the Pleiade in establishing the recognized style of the ballets du cour.

At the Fontainebleau fetes (1564) when he received the Papal Ambassadors after the Council of Trent, Charles IX was wakened one morning by Three Sirens on the canal outside his window singing verses by Ronsard describing how Charles would restore peace. They were followed by Neptune (who symbolized the king) and immediately a nymph appeared on the rocks to signify „That the woodland deities would return with the return of peace,“ an item to be repeated with little alteration in the first part of Balet comique.

At the Fontainebleau fetes (1564) when he received the Papal Ambassadors after the Council of Trent, Charles IX was wakened one morning by Three Sirens on the canal outside his window singing verses by Ronsard describing how Charles would restore peace. They were followed by Neptune (who symbolized the king) and immediately a nymph appeared on the rocks to signify „That the woodland deities would return with the return of peace,“ an item to be repeated with little alteration in the first part of Balet comique.

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