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Early dance: performing the past.

Caroline Copeland's torso retains a regal calm as her turns and jumps race to Handel's music in the New York Baroque Dance Company's production of Terpsicore. Suddenly she stops and shows a simple tendu, pausing to savor the power of the instep.

From headdress to heel, Renaissance and Baroque dance relishes precision and subtlety. Modest turnout and low releves, coupled with controlled, vertical carriage, radiate elegance and ease. Yet because early dance emphasizes the expressive potential of the smallest gesture, every detail--the raising of an eyebrow, the arching of a foot--is charged with meaning and purpose.

From the 15th to 18th centuries, dance occupied a central place in the daily life of European courts. Social dances, theatrical dances, and opera-ballets flourished, forming the foundation of classical ballet. Twentieth century choreographers--including Balanchine, Forsythe, Humphrey, Limon, Morris, Taylor, and Tharp--have used early dance or its music in their works.

Studying dance from the period can deepen a dancer's appreciation of the nuances of their art, and help them develop technically, dramatically, and musically as performers. They can improve core and inner-muscle control, posture and carriage, and learn different ways of balancing, explains Catherine Turocy, artistic director of NYBDC. Working on the half or three-quarter releve of this style develops strong feet, ankles, and calves. The precision required pushes dancers to define and execute steps more clearly and cleanly, and to become more comfortable with subtle movement. It also heightens spatial awareness, improves stage presentation, and offers alternative ways of creating theatrical expression.

In addition, early dance enables dancers to fine-tune their counting and pacing, and better understand the relation of musical rhythm and movement. "All Baroque music, whether intended to be danced to or not, was written from dance rhythms and dance situations," comments Mark Morris. "Dance is in it; it's rhythmasized that way. A sarabande, if it doesn't have an accent on the second beat, is not a sarabande. So the music forms have that liveliness of a community rhythm to them, which is what gives Baroque music its life and its sense, and why, in many ways, there's never been music that's better than that--better than Bach doesn't really exist."

The richness of the era's music calls for a variety of movement quality. "Every dance form is different," says Chrystelle Trump Bond, professor of dance at Goucher College. "The pavane is slow and stately. The galliard is a fast 6/8 dance with a lot of kicking, jumps, allegro movement, and beats. The gigue is hot and fast. The sarabande is strong, sustained."

A dance suite, which is a medley of dances performed one after another in succession, provides performers with a broad expressive vocabulary. Suites train dancers to shift rapidly between emotions. "A Renaissance dance suite like Nido d'Amore is illuminating," comments Carol Teten, founder of Dance Through Time. "In one four-minute dance you have the whole spectrum of a love relationship." From the genteel overtones of the introductory section, the man and woman move to the showy jumps of a galliard, then the hot and heavy spinning of a salterello, and finally the stomping individualism of a canarie.

Tackling the diverse roles of early narrative dances has enabled NYBDC dancer Patricia Beaman to expand her range as a performer. "I've been Venus, a shepherdess, cupid, shade, coquette, handmaiden, three-legged man, juggler--and all the commedia [dell'arte] stuff. It's definitely helped my ability to take on characters needed."

In early dance, costuming affects how dancers move and communicate with their audience. Men must tailor steps to accommodate capes or coats that cover them from neck and wrists to waist or mid-thigh. Corsets constrict women's torsos, and long dresses over bell-shaped farthingales or bum rolls and petticoats hide and inhibit the legs. Decorated wigs weigh upon the head and masks conceal facial expression.

When they don such masks, dancers--often accustomed to seeing themselves in the mirror--find they need to generate movement from within. "In the 18th century they talk of 'the knowledge of the mask,'" remarks Turocy. "You put that mask on and you have a totally different experience of how your body moves expressively. It heightens your senses and the audience's senses. Because they can't read your face, they read everything else. They know the mask isn't going to change, so they see that little finger moving, they see the bend in the ankles, and think, 'Whoa, what's happening?'"

Unlike the virtuosic extremes of today's split leaps and multiple fouettes, the contained movement of early dance focuses attention on lines within dancers' individual space. "The experience of being a dancing body in the Baroque period is the idea of being in a sphere, like da Vinci's sphere in the Vitruvian Man," explains Turocy. Dancers become aware of oppositions of energy extending between polar points--along the vertical, across the diagonal--within their sphere.

There are introductory workshops in Renaissance and Baroque dance held around the country, most often during the summer, and sometimes at early-music festivals. Regular classes also can be found in Boston, Dallas, New York, St. Paul, Seattle, and New Bern, North Carolina. Early dance is offered at such colleges, universities, and conservatories as Franklin and Marshall College, Goucher College, Temple University, The University of California, Riverside, UC Santa Cruz, Longy School of Music, and St. Paul Conservatory of Music (see information on other classes and workshops).

By learning steps from the past, dancers take pride in their legacy and they evolve as performers. The centuries-old social-dance courtesies that Paige Whitley-Bauguess teaches--walking, bowing, greeting--serve her students well on the modern stage. "They practice honoring the king and then their partner, and accompanying their partner off the dance floor," says Whitley-Bauguess. "Then when we get to Nutcracker rehearsals, these kids look like a million bucks just by walking onstage--and they've learned to do it through 18th-century dance."

Marilyn Lawrence, co-editor of the book Performing Medieval Narrative, has written about dance for Movement Research Performance Journal and The Village Voice.
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Author:Lawrence, Marilyn
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance review
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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