Apollo's Angels A History of Ballet

ISBN-10: 0812968743

ISBN-13: 9780812968743

Edition: N/A

Authors: Jennifer Homans
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Book details

List price: $29.00
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/29/2011
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 672
Size: 6.00" wide x 9.25" long x 1.75" tall
Weight: 1.936
Language: English

Kings of Dance Music and Dancing, not only give great pleasure but have the honour of depending on Mathematics, for they consist in number and in measure. And to this must be added Painting and Perspective and the use of very elaborate Machines, all of which are necessary for the ornament of Theatres at Ballets and at Comedies. Therefore, whatever the old doctors may say, to employ oneself at all this is to be a Philosopher and a Mathematician.
Charles Sorel According to Aristotle, ballet expresses the actions of men, their customs and their passions. -Claude-Fran�ois M�nestrier The king's grandeur and majesty derive from the fact that in his presence his subjects are unequal.... Without gradation, inequality, and difference, order is impossible. -Le Duc de Saint- Simon It is to this noble subordination that we owe the art of seemliness, the elegance of custom, the exquisite good manners with which this magnificent age [of Louis XIV] is imprinted. -Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand WHEN THE FRENCH king Henri II wedded the Florentine Catherine de Medici in 1533, French and Italian culture came into close and formal alliance, and it is here that the history of ballet begins. The French court had long reveled in tournaments, jousting, and masquerades, but even these impressive and lavish entertainments fell short of those traditionally mounted by the princes and nobility of Milan, Venice, and Florence: flaming torch dances, elaborate horse ballets with hundreds of mounted cavaliers arranged in symbolic formations, and masked interludes with heroic, allegorical, and exotic themes.
The ballet master Guglielmo Ebreo, writing in Milan in 1463, for example, described festivities that included fireworks, tightrope walkers, conjurers, and banquets with up to twenty courses served on solid gold platters with peacocks wandering on the tables. On another occasion, in 1490, Leonardo da Vinci helped to stage Festa de paradiso in Milan, featuring the Seven Planets along with Mercury, the three Graces, the seven Virtues, nymphs, and the god Apollo. The Italians also performed simple but elegant social dances known as balli and balletti, which consisted of graceful, rhythmic walking steps danced at formal balls and ceremonies, or on occasion stylized pantomime performances: the French called them ballets.1 Catherine (who was only fourteen when she married) dominated the French court for many years after Henri's death in 1559, bringing her Italianate taste to bear on French courtiers-and kings. Her sons, the French kings Charles IX and Henri III, carried the tradition forward: they admired the floats, chariots, and parades of allegorical performances they saw in Milan and Naples, and shared their mother's keen interest in ceremonial and theatrical events. In their hands, even strictly Catholic processionals could morph into colorful masquerades, and both monarchs were known to promenade through the streets at night dressed en travesti, adorned with gold and silver veils and Venetian masks, accompanied by courtiers in similar attire. Chivalric themes enacted with dancing, singing, and demonstrations of equestrian skill made for impressive theatrical collages, such as the joust held at Fontainebleau in 1564, which included a full-scale reenactment of a castle siege and battles between demons, giants, and dwarfs on behalf of six beautiful nymphs in captivity.
These festivities, so seemingly gay in their extravagances, were not mere frivolous diversions. Sixteenth-century France was beset with intractable and savage civil and religious conflicts: the French kings, drawing on a deep tradition of Italian Renaissance thought and princely patronage of the arts, thought of spectacle as a way to soothe passions and calm sectarian violence. Catherine herself was no saint of tolerance, as her role in the murder of Huguenots in Paris during the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572 proved. But the brutality of this event should not blind us to the fact that she, her sons, and many others also genuinely hoped that theatrical events might be an important political tool, assuaging tensions and pacifying warring parties.
It was in this spirit that Charles IX established in 1570 the Acad�mie de Po�sie et de Musique, modeled after the famous Renaissance Florentine Platonic Academy and drawing its members from a circle of distinguished French poets, including Jean-Antoine de Ba�f, Jean Dorat, and Pierre de Ronsard.* Profoundly influenced by Neoplatonism, these poets believed that hidden beneath the shattered and chaotic surface of political life lay a divine harmony and order- a web of rational and mathematical relations that demonstrated the natural laws of the universe and the mystical power of God. Melding their own deeply religious beliefs with the Platonic notion of a secret and ideal realm more real than their own perceived world, they sought to remake the Christian church-not through the old practices of Catholic liturgy but through theater and art, and above all through the classical forms of pagan antiquity. Working with players, poets, and musicians, these men hoped to create a new kind of spectacle in which the rigorous rhythms of classical Greek verse would harmonize dance, music, and language into a measured whole. Number, proportion, and design, they felt, could elucidate the occult order of the universe, thus revealing God.
A powerful alloy of mystical theology, recondite magic, and classical rigor, the new Academy represented a distinct form of idealism: music and art could summon men to their highest capacities and goals. The key lay in turning spirituality and learning to concrete theatrical effect. And so the Academy proposed an encyclopedic course of inquiry, including natural philosophy, languages, mathematics, music, painting, and the military arts. The focus, as one adherent later explained, was to perfect man "both in mind and body." Music-"the beautiful part of mathematics"-held a special place, with its celestial harmonies, Pythagorean logic, and penetrating emotional intensity seen as an unmatched suasion. "Songs," it was said (following Plato), "are the spells for souls." Or, as the statutes of the Academy put it, a bit more dryly, "where music is disordered, there morals are also depraved, and where it is well ordered, there men are well disciplined morally."2 So it was with dance. Indeed, the Academicians saw in ballet a chance to take man's troublesome passions and physical desires and redirect them toward a transcendent love of God. The body had long been seen as pulling man down, sacrificing his higher spiritual powers to material needs. On the Great Chain of Being, ranking all living things from the lowliest vegetative and material creatures up to the angels who occupied the highest rungs near God, man was consigned to the middle rungs: suspended perilously between beasts and angels, his highest spiritual aspirations were forever constrained by his earthly ties and gross bodily functions.
Not everyone at the time, however, appreciated the significance of the Ballet comique de la Reine. If some spectators found themselves awed, others were angered: how could the king waste such vast resources on a lavish entertainment in a time of civil war and strife? Henri III had long been criticized for his obsession with the Academy. One critic nailed a notice to the chamber where its poets met with the king, charging, "While France, crushed everywhere by civil war, is falling into ruin, our King practices grammatical exercises." He had a point, and indeed the high-minded enthusiasms of the men of the Academy were soon swept away in the violence that marked and finally ended Henri's ill-fated reign. Forced to flee Paris by the reactionary pro-Spanish Catholic League, which had designs on the throne, Henri had its leaders murdered only to be slain himself at the hand of a monk in 1589.9 The ideas first crystallized in the Ballet comique de la Reine, however, cast a long shadow. Well into the seventeenth century, distinguished scientists, poets, and writers looked back with admiration to the Academy's experiments, especially as Europe faced the renewed violence of the Thirty Years, War (1618-48). The Abb� Mersenne, whose home in the convent of Minimes at the Place Royal in Paris became a "post office" for the life of the mind in Europe in the first half of the century, wrote about the ballet de cour, and many of his friends and colleagues, including Ren� Descartes, also discussed the art and in some cases even tried their hand at writing ballets. (Descartes offered the Ballet de la Naissance de la Paix to the queen of Sweden in 1649, just before his death.) At court, ballet remained central: the French queen Marie de Medici (Florentine by birth) held ballets in her apartments every Sunday and increased the number of performances at court. And her son King Louis XIII (1601-1643) became a fine dancer and avid performer.10 But it was not really the same. Under Louis XIII the lingering Neoplatonic ideals of the Academy faded in favor of a more instrumental raison d'�tat. As Louis and his formidable first minister, Cardinal de Richelieu, set about pulling the disparate and warring forces of France under the strengthening arm of the French state and making the king's power over his realm absolute, the meaning and character of ballet changed-it had to. Louis and Richelieu were more concerned with power than God, and rather than revealing the order of the universe, the ballet de cour now magnified the grandeur of the king. Thus the intellectual seriousness of the Ballet comique de la Reine gave way to a more bombastic and flattering style. This too would be an enduring aspect of ballet.
From the Hardcover edition.
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