In her article ‘Complaisance, an Eighteenth-Century Cool’, published in Dance Scope in 1970, Shirley Wynne described baroque dance as calm, controlled and contained, with no excesses of expression or technique. Wendy Hilton, in her influential book Dance of Court & Theater. The French Noble Style 1690-1725 published in 1981, asserted the primacy of serious dancing (the ‘noble style’) which had developed at the court of Louis XIV and continued to be practiced at court and in the theatre into the eighteenth century. Working from a small number of contemporary dance manuals and notated dances, both Wynne and Hilton saw little difference between ballroom and theatre dancing. At much the same time, Francine Lancelot developed a more dynamic and demanding baroque dance style and technique. She worked predominantly with French manuals and notations, but published little other than La Belle Dance, her 1996 catalogue of the surviving French notations. Lancelot’s work has become known through the teaching and performances of her pupils.
Over the last thirty years or so, performance practice in baroque music has changed significantly, not least because of the emergence of virtuoso professional musicians who seek to re-create and not simply re-construct from the sources. In a New York Times review of 1998 (republished in The Danger of Music in 2009), Richard Taruskin deplored ‘the puritanical inhibitions with which romantic idealism has shackled the performance of classical music’ as he welcomed a new recording of baroque violin music which used fresh and outrageously virtuosic ornamentation. Baroque dance has, as yet, experienced no parallel developments, although Edmund Fairfax challenged what he sees as its ‘Victorian-like sense of decorum’ in his book The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet, published in 2003. Fairfax used a wide range of sources to propose eighteenth-century theatre dance that was both highly virtuosic and expressive, with four distinct genres and a variety of styles and techniques.
So, how should we perform the notated dances of the early 1700s as we begin the twenty-first century? Should we re-construct or re-create them? This paper will suggest that it is time to begin a fresh debate about the styles and techniques within baroque dance. It will look at what the sources – particularly the notations themselves – may or may not tell us, and consider the contexts within which these dances were and are performed. It will explore some of the options that lie between re-construction and re-creation of the surviving choreographies with the help of danced demonstrations.