Friday, January 5, 2018

Ballet : Ballet de Court - Mind your ps and qs.

When Catherine de Medici (1519 -1589) married the King of France (Henri II) in 1553 she introduced ballet de court, or court ballet to the French Court. The main characteristic of Ballet de court was the starring roles were performed by the highest figures of the land. At first these were usually masked extravaganzas with costumed courtiers, dancing. Initially the dances were complex, with elaborate floor patterns and step sequences. Although the technique required excellent balance and control, dress limited the possibilities of the movement. Shoes worn for early ballet were often specifically designed but usually followed current court fashion. This was both true for men and women (McDowell, 1994).

Men's fashion for longer toed shoes hampered their ability to move freely, as did the fashion for long wide sleeved gowns. Hence arm and foot position became important. Women wearing heavy dresses were unable to develop their footwork. Flexible soles allowed for small springing steps, but the raised heels restricted the possibility of jumping. Eventually a codified vocabulary of steps emerged.

Louis XIII (1601 - 1643) appeared in La Douairiere de Billebahaut (1626) but his successor and namesake, King Louis XIV (1638 - 1715) loved dancing and starred in many court productions. According to historians he had two compassions, himself and theatre. The attraction was the gracious worship often played out in the dance reflected the character's mortal glory.

He appeared in Ballet de la Nuit (1653) dressed as the sun and henceforth became known as the Sun King. Louis XIV wore high-heeled shoes with massive guilt sun buckles complete with rays. Men's clothing was now well fitted for nimbleness but their high-heeled shoes severely limited the possibilities. When Louis XIV became too old to participate he continued to patronise ballet and founded the Academie Royal de danse (1661). Later this became the Paris Opera Ballet and up until 1681 all-female roles were danced by young men.

Many historians believe the reluctance to include female dancers was related to clothing. Men's costume was light by comparison to women's, who wore heavy wigs and enormous headdresses with full heavy skirts, heeled shoes and probably thigh corsets. Men meantime wore tights. Decorum prohibited anything more daring than modified ballroom steps in the gavotte, the pavane, the courante or the minuet. Feet were elegantly pointed outwards to show off buckles and coupled with arm gestures careful to avoid brushing the full sleeve became the foundation of classical ballet.

Pierre Beachamps became the ballet master for Louis XIV and is credited with the establishment of classical ballet's basic five positions and he stressed technical steps and movements as opposed to the sino-geometrical movements then in fashion.

As was the convention dancers would greet each other by bowing, to bow too low would result in the embarrassment of losing your wig. The origins of 'minding your p & qs' may have originated when dance masters cautioned their pupils to mind their pieds (feet to be pointed outwards) and queues (wig tails) when they took to the floor.

Reviewed 8/01/2016

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