November 20, 2007

Baroque Social Scene

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The only dead art forms are those which cease to engage a living audience. Baroque dance, by this standard, is alive and kicking if this Sunday’s “Harlequin’s Capers: Dance and Music from the 18th Century Comic Theater” is any indication.
The concert in Bailey Hall presented the work of the New York Baroque Dance Company’s three-week residency at Cornell, including student dancers’ collaborations on two world premieres of reconstructions of dances originally choreographed by Jean-Joseph Mouret. The tension between a premiere (something new) and a reconstruction (something old) was deftly negotiated: the dances appeared both faithful to their sources while being responsive to their contemporary setting.
Inevitably, no matter how much sedulous research choreographers and musicians give to baroque performance, practice and theory, audience perceptions and historical contexts have changed. For example, a dance’s parody of the latest opera or the audience’s arrangement to reflect the hierarchy of nobility has been lost. Similarly, the political implications that distinguish the courtly protocol of la belle danse from the more egalitarian partnering of contredanse may not be readily apparent to modern viewers.
Nonetheless, the choreographers (Catherine Turocy assisted by Sarah Edgar) chose to emphasize the broad physical comedy and pleasing romantic sallies of these pieces, which, combined with their novelty, more than made up for the loss of the subtle ways these dances may have originally commented on their occasions as much as rock concerts or sketch-comedy TV does today.
The first half of the program featured a suite of short divertissements in the Italianate tradition of commedia dell’arte. Such stock characters as the hunchbacked rouge Scaramouche (Jorge Fuentes), the haplessly moonstruck Pierrot (Catherine Turocy), the nimble showoff Harlequin (Caroline Copeland,) and the tatterdamelion soubrette Columbine (Sarah Edgar) pranced and pantomimed set pieces that utilized theatricalized narrative as well as slapstick humor.
The elaborate costumes and grotesque masks were often as intriguing as the dances themselves, and in many cases the two worked together. My favorite skit was “The Three-Legged Dance” performed by Rachel List, whose footloose antics included extra fancy footwork with an extra foot that sometimes switched positions on the body according to her fancy. Other dances used a mask on the back of the head to portray “The Blindfolded Juggler” and a dummy beggar-woman attached to the front of the dancer to portray “The Peasant in a Basket,” both of which were performed by Turocy.
Other dances in the suite also benefited from the dancer’s striking use of percussion. Rachel List danced “The Spanish Loure” with a swirling blue and gold hoop-skirt while she swiveled her hips and clattered upon castanets; Caroline Copeland and Jason Helms played a soup-slurping and slightly abusive husband and wife. Their plates and spoons doubled as impromptu drum kits — as well as shields and mallets — in “The Plate Dance.”
The second half of the program presented the pantomime ballet “Pygmalion.” In this somewhat over-the-top version of the myth, Cupid (Alissa Auerbach) brings the love-struck sculptor Pygmalion’s statue to life more for his awe of his artwork’s bottom than for any higher-minded assets whereas the women who are wooed later in the story have an eye more toward the bottom line than love itself. Yet, the bawdy innuendo and low-life scurrilities are gently satiric in way that makes us sympathize with our shared human foibles. Decorum seems broken momentarily only to be later rectified in a more refined air of elegance.
The ballet also ascended heavenward when Zachary Wadsworth sang operatic snatches in praise of Cupid’s powers. The musical accompaniment to the dancing was provided by a partnership between the NYS Baroque Ensemble and Les Petits Violons de Cornell. The groups also performed Telemann’s “Ouverture burlesque,” whose movements each express the personalities of different commedia dell’arte characters, as a pleasing interlude between the two sections of dance.
Historically reconstructed art forms become encased in museum glass when they emphasize their historical interest over their aesthetic expression. These lively interpretations of 18th century performance, while striving for fidelity to the originals as much as possible, fortunately managed to be more art than artifacts.