“Your flesh is like the earth, your bones are like rocks, and your blood is like water,” Ms. Turocy explained, “So your body is a representation of the natural world, a ‘microcosmic reflection of the macrocosm’”. We drained our bodies of the water energy, releasing it through the bottoms of our feet and crouching on the floor. “Now choose a character. Say you are Louis XIV, say you are the Sun King himself. Fill yourself up with that energy, as if it were rising through your body. How would you stand? How would you carry yourself? How does it feel to be the Sun King?”
I was studying at the Santa Barbara Historical Dance Workshop and my teacher was Catherine Turocy, a world renowned voice in baroque dance. I had been told that Ms. Turocy was one of the best baroque dance teachers in the nation and if I wanted to truly understand the art form I should attend this workshop. It was true, after only a couple minutes into Ms. Turocy’s first class I was blown away by her knowledge and her methods.
The experience was full of serendipity for me, given the fact that I was there researching ideas for the new ballet I’d be creating for Elements titled The Sun King. I’d found more than what I was looking for in these classes. We studied not just baroque dance steps but the movement philosophies that governed them. For instance, Ms. Turocy lectured on how the body in baroque dance moved like waves, or the sea. If the blood in your body related to water, she explained, then that water had an ebb and flow to it and guided your dancing. We learned there was constant, living motion in the baroque-held body. In the authentic 18th-century dance we studied, The Royal Ann, we had to apply this concept generously. The feel of The Royal Ann seemed to rely on an uneven, rocking motion that felt foreign to anything in the present-day ballet syllabus. Only as I thought of the sea and tried to emulate the pulse of waves could I master the tricky moves in this dance.
Ms. Turocy’s theories come from a concept she developed herself: that baroque dance grew out of renaissance ideas, namely DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man drawing. In the famous drawing there are shapes surrounding the figure of a man — The accompanying text by Da Vinci explains: the square represents the material world, and the circle signifies the spiritual world. The center point of the square lies at the man’s genitals, and the center of the circle is his navel. Hence, in baroque dance the qualities of the character a performer would portray, whether an immortal, hero, fool, or miser, would emerge from one of these central points on the body. Nobility – Louis XIV most of all – had the difficult task of unifying the material with the divine. This meshing or contrasting of the physical and the spiritual, according to Turocy, is where most baroque dance stemmed from.
Ms. Turocy and our other instructor, the brilliant Sarah Edgar, often alluded in their teaching to treatises they had intensely studied that were written by 17th and 18th century dance masters and historians, as well as a highly detailed notation system from the period called Feuillet Notation. I got the impression I was learning from experts of a rare subject, possessing knowledge that few in the world had. I frantically took notes after every class, trying to capture the invaluable information being imparted to me:
“The upper body should spiral at the top of a step, like a fern, twisting as it grows;”
“Your body is always inclined to either your partner or the presence at the front of the room;”
The arms in baroque dance had much meaning. Locking or extending one’s arms was thought to flatten and take the appearance away life from the body. Raising the legs or arms high to exaggerated proportions was comical, or even grotesque. The directions the dancer moved had meaning: traveling forward represented a strong idea, sideways could mean doubt, and traveling backwards could suggest negative intentions. Turocy has even coined a term she calls the “the Baroque Bubble”, once again modeled after the Vitruvian Man. In this concept, all of the space around a person that their arms could comfortably touch “belonged” to them. To enter uninvited into another’s space, or “bubble”, was an act of offense. To invite someone into your space was to place confidence in them. Meaning was given even to the very tips of the fingers. Specific fingers, like the rest of the body, represented aspects of either the material world or divine. Touching the tips of these fingers together was yet another way to unify these two worlds.
Turocy continually stressed that dancing was meant to represent the macrocosm of the universe. As dancers traveled around each other, they orbited one another, mirroring the perfection of the planets and stars. Indeed, when moving through the patterning of The Royal Ann I felt like a celestial object, locked at a set distance from my partner in a sort of gravitational field.
The workshop was also inspiring in other ways. I was blown away by performances of reconstructed baroque dances from the New York Baroque Dance Company, as well as by guest artist Bruno Benne from France. His technique seemed to highlight a more relaxed arm position and movement quality than the New York Baroque dancers, suggesting subtle differences in the way baroque dance is being interpreted in different countries. Appropriately, I got to experiment with creating my own material in classes offered by Ms. Edgar themed in “the new baroque”. I even had some downtime at the University of California Santa Barbara, the beautiful campus situated snugly onto the pacific coastline where the workshop was held. Hiking through the on-campus beachfront nature preserve, I jotted down storyline and movement concepts for The Sun King. From my dorm room overlooking the ocean, I contemplated the nature of waves and how they might too influence contemporary ballet.
This workshop gave me an appreciation and love for the beautiful art form of baroque dance, as well as a wealth of material and knowledge to base my new ballet off of. Thanks to Ms. Turocy, Ms. Edgar, and the New York Baroque Dance Company, my mind has been opened to the many ways the physical and spiritual world can mesh through dance. Now I understand myself as a microcosm of heavenly perfection. Now I know a little bit of what it feels like to become the Sun King.
– Joseph Caruana
(Follow this link for an article by Catherine Turocy, linking baroque dance, the Vitruvian Man, and fractals)
Special thanks to the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation for providing a professional development grant to Joseph Caruana for this project