Dance in the Renaissance: European Fashion, French Obsession

January 29, 2009

Focusing on the 16th-century French court, Margaret McGowan's rigorously researched, beautifully illustrated text argues persuasively for the centrality of dance within Renaissance culture.

Dance became a virtual obsession for the nobility, who indulged in extravagant - and extravagantly expensive - spectacles, both as spectators and as accomplished performers. Drawing on letters, ambassadors' reports, dance treatises, formal records, journals, drawings and engravings, McGowan details the increasingly opulent forms; from court balls, to mascarades, where balls were interrupted and recommenced by costumed dancers, to the more formal "ballets de cour", such as the Balet comique de la reyne (1581), now considered the inception of the modern ballet.

The dance mania embraced the branle, the galliard and the volta, forms requiring technical virtuosity honed through intensive training with masters, imported mainly from Italy, to ensure a supply of performers fit to emblematise the grandeur of the court.

Yet the wealth of documentation belies the ephemeral essence of movement long past, the actual image of which remains obscured by inadequate notation and descriptions lacking visceral clarity. McGowan acknowledges that the picture of Renaissance dancing remains "tantalisingly incomplete". The very disembodiment of the traces, however, underscores the meaning of dance as transcending the mechanics of the choreography, and McGowan's text is at its liveliest when mapping out the myriad means by which dance encapsulated the social, political and aesthetic climate of the age.

Dance informed humanist thoughts, as writers associated the blend of movement, verse and music in contemporary ballets with the classical ideal of a unified art form. McGowan argues that in believing they had rediscovered ancient forms, poets, musicians and choreographers created new art forms lending "a special impetus to the status and power of the dance". Evincing order as it did, dance was linked with the harmony of the spheres. It proved a nimble metaphor for creativity and desire, catalysing poets and philosophers to probe the processes of divine inspiration.

Renaissance dance, however, was about political utility as much as lofty ideals. Francis I, King of France, shrewdly maintained that the spectacles he patronised diverted the court from engagement in harmful plots, while courtiers embraced dance as a means of political advancement via close proximity to the royals.

McGowan deftly explores the machinations of this "culture of display", in which omnipotence intersected with self-presentation. The monarchy throughout Europe consolidated power by displays of it, in both fabulous entertainments and in the presentation of their own dancing selves. Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots were accomplished dancers, McGowan notes, and dance featured largely in the entertainments of visiting ambassadors and royalty in France and elsewhere: theatrical one-upmanship thus kept the neighbours in tow.

However, as dance became an obsession for Catherine de'Medici and her sons, the slippage could be dangerous between dance as affirming power and dance as a distraction from maintaining it. McGowan cites the English ambassador complaining in 1572 that no business could be conducted because the French King was "busy with his dancing", and in 1577, the court feared for Henry III's health from over-excess. Spectacle collided with tragedy with the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572), as the ballet Le Paradis d'Amour (ironically named, in retrospect) - performed to celebrate the wedding of Catherine's daughter Marguerite of Valois and Henry of Navarre - became tarnished by a legend that the content of the spectacle had foreshadowed the killing.

McGowan's survey of the multiple meanings of 16th-century dance is packed with detail and largely engrossing. Non-francophone readers may regret the lack of translations for all citations, but it is highly recommended reading for dance historians, as well as anyone intrigued by Renaissance culture and its complex interrelations between spectacle and power.

Dance in the Renaissance: European Fashion, French Obsession

By Margaret M. McGowan. Yale University Press. 304pp, £35.00. ISBN 9780300115574. Published 23 October 2008

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