Baroque Embedding, Feet First
Catherine Turocy’s Lessons Unlock Early Music’s Meaning
Ian Douglas for The New York Times
By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
Published: The New York Times on September 3, 2013
The strains of softly undulating lute music filled the space in a teaching studio inside Dance New Amsterdam as two rows of dancers, clad in Lycra and cotton exercise wear, closed in on one another and detached again in a graceful motion, then glided through a turn, ornamented with a quick, circular flick of the wrist. We were a group of 18 dancers taking part in a workshop on Baroque dance led by Catherine Turocy, the founder of the New York Baroque Dance Company and one of the leading figures in the historical dance movement of the past 40 years.
Well, there were 17 dancers, and then there was I.
I have no background in ballet, and although I enthusiastically seize any opportunity to dance, I have only limited experience with choreography. More often than not during the three-day workshop, I found myself facing the wrong way after a 180-degree turn, or backed roughly into another dancer. But I had signed up because I was curious to experience the spatial dimension of Baroque music. Much of pre-1800 music is rooted in dance forms that would have been familiar to contemporary listeners. Bach wrote some of his most stirringly expressive music in the form of dances, like the keyboard suites and his Partitas for solo violin, which are full of Sarabandes, Gigues, Passepieds, Gavottes and Bourrées. By learning about Baroque dance, I hoped to unlock the physical dimension encoded in the music.
I am not alone. Ms. Turocy has worked with music students at Juilliard; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the University of Miami. Last year, the chamber orchestra the Knights invited Caroline Copeland, a member of Ms. Turocy’s company, to teach its players.
But the workshop that I stumbled into — and would continue to stumble through, clumsily, over three days — was concerned more with artistic and expressive dance of the 17th and 18th centuries: with the ballet onstage, rather than the social dance of the ballroom. But then, whenever Bach used a dance form, it wasn’t intended as a social diversion, either, and the issues of period performance theory and aesthetics that Ms. Turocy discussed were enlightening at every turn.
Much of Ms. Turocy’s own research centers on two of the most important dancers and choreographers in 18th-century France, Françoise Prévost and her student Marie Sallé. Ms. Turocy led us in a languid Sarabande choreographed by Sallé, in which we were to strive for a gliding motion and sense of skimming the floor that was said to be typical of Sallé’s dancing. It requires a softness in the joints of the foot that is the opposite of the strenuously arched feet of 19th-century ballet and that made me think of the more diffuse attack of gut-stringed period instruments — less precision, more mystery.
Ms. Turocy quoted a contemporary of Sallé’s describing in admiring terms the “unaffected simplicity” and “negligent and broken steps” that made up her personal style. “A Sarabande,” Ms. Turocy said, “often has that quality of arrested motion, of letting a beat go by and then catching it on the next downbeat.” Surely that sort of freedom in a dancer required a reliably regular beat from the musician accompanying her. But I wondered whether there was not room for a similarly calculated freedom in situations where an instrumental soloist plays against a bass line.
Most intriguing to me was the idea of psychology embedded in structure. Drawing on early modern theories of the human body, the movements assigned to different body parts represented different expressive aspects, Ms. Turocy said. “Often there is this equation of fate as the path which is traced by your feet in space, while the upper body communicates how I feel about it — happy, anxious, ashamed,” she said. I began to imagine a musical performance in which the walking bass took on the role of the feet, while the upper voices developed a narrative by either straining against it or playfully ornamenting it.
According to Ms. Turocy, many dance manuals of the period emphasize the primary importance of the figures the dancers draw in space as they move through a work, with one dance master recommending that performers first memorize a piece by walking this blueprint and only then adding the steps, jumps and ornaments. In the dance notation of the time, these outlines have all the symmetry and grace of a manicured French garden. Perhaps in music, too, the harmonic progression holds its own geometric logic that needs to be honored before we consider the virtuosic embellishments above it?
By the end of the workshop, my feet were no closer to mastering the Sarabande than before. But my ears had learned to see Baroque music in a new way.