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Baroque Dance Experts Play Games with Tradition


Slipping inside the body and into the psyche of an 18th-century dancer requires not only scholarship but finely honed intuition. Even those who can read the notation system published by Raoul Feuillet in 1700 and have studied the verbal descriptions and illustrations in dance manuals as well as the manners of the period must be aware that a dancer like, say, a long-ago Paris Opera star like Marie Sallé might taken aback by a 21st-century recreation of one of her solos.

Catherine Turocy calls her New York Baroque Dance Company’s new program “Points of Departure,” yet she knows that the eloquent, beautiful, and imaginative recreations of Baroque dance that she has presented since 1976 in concerts and operas are already, in some sense, departures. Yet her work has shown audiences a portrait of a society as it might wish to be seen—almost nonchalant in its elegance and grace, godlike in its grandeur, particular in its attention to detail. Nor has she shied away from the even more difficult to authenticate “grotesque” dances for Satan’s imps and the like.

I wish that, in the entertaining and thought-provoking evening she devised with the participation of Company XIV (Austin McCormick, artistic director) and the Concert Royal (directed by James Richman), she had included more “points” to juxtapose to the departures—say, flashes of Anthony L’Abbé’s Passacaille de Venus et Adonis (ca. 1725) to anchor Patricia Beaman’s bold Accumulating Venus. But the prelude that opens the performance certainly sets the tone. To an anonymous composition from 1700, played by Richman on the harpsichord, Turocy and Sarah Edgar in brocade gowns and little heeled slippers introduce the modestly springy steps, gracious arm gestures, and circling wrists that once counted among the accomplishments of ladies and gentlemen of the court and stage; dancers in modern attire gradually fill in the pattern.

The intent of the five choreographers involved seems to have been to preserve some of the essentials of the style and themes, while expanding them in more contemporary directions. Some of the music incorporates or varies Baroque sources, and the costumes suggest simplified or pared down period attire (corsets and petticoats, for example). McCormick’s Trompe L’Oeil plays on the use of lifelike masks for noble solos and their comedic value when worn on the back of the head. His dancers, performing to Andrew Przbitkowski’s electronically manipulated improvisation on themes from Vivaldi’s La Tempesta, wear gilded masks on the backs of their heads and masklike makeup on their faces to create an eerie effect of a Janus-headed society in which three ladies (Laura Careless, Samantha Ernst, and Yeva Glover) not only yearn picturesquely for a bare-chested man (Davon Rainey, seductively sinuous within the period constraints) but chase and entrap him. An elegant pair (Terence Duncan and Caroline Copeland) hint at entanglements beneath the smooth surface. Kathryn Kauffman’s lighting intensifies the mysteries hinted at in the music and choreography (based on two 1700 entrées by Louis-Guillaume Pécour).
Eighteenth-century solos created for professional dancers often involve mood changes and gestural storytelling—so delicately set on top of standard steps that they might almost be in code. Beaman’s Accumulating Venus and Edgar’s Armida Abbandonata, new visions of early works, attempt to crack that language. Beaman (disclosure: she’s a colleague of mine at NYU) plays with an ambitious and provocative idea. Her Aphrodite, masked and with a wig of blond curls emerges bit by bit from what appears at first to be a heap of roses, but is more likely a coral reef; she later turns it into a fancy overskirt. As samplings of harpsichord music war with waves and seas-bird cries in Justin Luchter’s score, Beaman executes a striptease in reverse—accumulating corset, panniers, and skirt (Leslie Weinberg is the clever costume designer), as she accumulates the skills of a court lady and the lively feet of a dancer. The beginning, with the goddess preening naively in her seaside bed, is especially charming, but some of the dramatic developments (love? The death of Adonis? ) are difficult to understand, and, partly because of this, the pace seems slow at times.

Edgar takes a wilder approach to a darker character, the enchantress Armida, who has fallen in love with her captive crusader, Rinaldo, and uses her spells in an attempt to secure his affections. He discovers the deception. Turbulent music (recorded) from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide, including the original Passacaille, subside into Henry Purcell’s resigned “Let Me Weep” from The Faery Queen. Edgar, wearing a long sleeveless vest and breeches, begins by laying out a square of flowers to symbolize Armida’s enchanted garden of delights. But that’s as gentle as this solo gets, despite its period mannerisms. Jumping, shuddering, crawling, and falling (one amazing topple to the side stops my breath), she suddenly turns happy, perhaps remembering (or experiencing) her amorous encounter, and unbuttons her vest to display her breasts. Rejected, she vows revenge in very eloquent body language.

It’s a treat when the Concert Royal plays again for Seth Williams’s Point of Departure. Richman, Steve Hammer (barpoque oboe), Sandra Miller (baroque flute), Cynthia Roberts (violin), and Lisa Terry (viola da gamba) bring all their skills to Daniel Becker’s commissioned score, whose complexities, discords, and unexpected syncopations work subtly contemporary magic on gavottes, tambourines, and other pieces described as “after Handel” (or Telemann or Rameau). Williams has created clever, spirited, spacious choreography for three couples and an extra woman (the beguiling Glover), who intervenes in a duet for Copeland and Duncan. In group passages and other duets (for himself and Samantha Ernst, for Careless and Aaron Walter), Williams uncorsets baroque decorum and steps just enough to create an image of joyous celebration. Careless is a deliciously frank and buoyant performer, and together she and Walter create an image of happy camaraderie.

Turocy releases period decorum a few more notches in Caprice, while the Concert Royal plays music composed by Nicola Matteis in 1700. The dancers, riffing off themes by Pécour and Feuillet that they know well, improvise within a structure set up by Turocy (a practice not unknown in 18th-century opera), they strut in place and parade while some burst into solos—Turocy teasing out her steps and snapping her fingers, Rainey making his breath suspend a move before falling happily into the next one, Careless letting her legs go crazy. Almost everyone has a moment in the sun.

As a program, “Points of Departure” is not without flaws, and who knows whether the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, would have smiled on it, but for us in this century the blend of respect and irreverence in some strange way brings us closer to the heart of the dancing he knew and practiced.

On October 17, members of NYBDC will appear in Opera Lafayette’s production of the 1745 opera Zelindor, Roi des Sylphes at Frederick P. Rose Hall.