The King Who Invented Ballet, BBC Four
David Bintley takes a look at Louis XIV's impact on classical dance
September 2015 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of King Louis XIV of France and this documentary looks at how Louis XIV not only had a personal passion and talent for dance, but supported and promoted key innovations, like the invention of dance notation and the founding of the world's first ballet school, that would lay the foundations for classical ballet to develop.
Presented by David Bintley, choreographer and director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the documentary charts how Louis encouraged the early evolution of ballet - from a male-dominated performance exclusive to the royal court to a professional artform for the public featuring the first female star ballerinas. The film also looks at the social context of dance during Louis XIV's reign, where ballets were used as propaganda and to be able to dance was an essential skill that anyone noble had to have.
As well as specially shot baroque dance sequences and groundbreaking recreations of 17th-century music, it also follows Bintley as he creates an exciting new one-act ballet inspired by Louis XIV. Danced by 15 members of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, The King Dances features an original score by composer Stephen Montague, designs by Katrina Lindsay and lighting by Peter Mumford and receives its world premiere on television directly after the documentary.
Louis XIV, the King of France from 1643 to 1715, was a ballet enthusiast from a young age. In fact his birth was celebrated with the Ballet de la Felicite in 1639. As a young boy, he was strongly supported and encouraged by the court, particularly by Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin, to take part in the ballets. He made his debut at age 13 in the "Ballet de Cassandre" in 1651. Two years later in 1653, the teenage king starred as Apollo, the sun god, in The Ballet of the Night or in French, Le Ballet de la Nuit. His influence on the art form and its influence on him became apparent. His fancy golden costume was not soon forgotten, and his famous performance led to his nickname, the Sun King. In the ballet, he banishes the night terrors as he rise as sun at dawn. His courtiers were forced to worship him like a god through choreography. They were made clear of the glory of King Louis XIV and that he had absolute authority both on and off the dance floor. The ballets that young King Louis performed in were very different from ballets performed today. The form of entertainment was actually called ballets d’entrées. This refers to the small divisions, or “entries,” that the ballets were broken up into. For example, Le Ballet de la Nuit, comprised over forty of such entries, which were divided into four vigils or parts. The whole spectacle lasted 12 hours.
Throughout his reign, Louis XIV worked with many influential people in his court dances. He worked alongside poet Isaac de Benserade, as well as designers Torelli, Vigarani and Henry de Gissey, which made fashion and dance closely interlinked. Possibly his greatest contribution to the French court was bringing composer/dancer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Louis supported and encouraged performances in his court as well as the development of ballet throughout France. Louis XIV was trained by Pierre Beauchamp. The King demonstrated his belief in strong technique when he founded the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661 and made Beauchamp leading ballet master. King Louis XIV’s and France’s attempt to keep French ballet standards high was only encouraged further when in 1672 a dance school was attached to the Académie Royale de Musique. Led by Jean-Baptiste Lully, this dancing group is known today as The Paris Opera Ballet.
The king was very exacting in his behavior towards his dancing. In fact, he made it a daily practice to have a ballet lesson every day after his morning riding lesson. As the French people watched and took note of what their leader was doing, dancing became an essential accomplishment for every gentleman. Clearly ballet became a way of life for those who were around King Louis XIV. If one looked at the culture of seventeenth-century France, one saw a reflection of an organized ballet that was choreographed beautifully, costumed appropriately, and performed with perfect precision.[according to whom?] Louis XIV retired from ballet in 1670.
Perhaps one of the most influential men on ballet during the seventeenth century was Jean Baptiste Lully. Lully was born in Italy, but moved to France where he quickly became a favorite of Louis XIV and performed alongside the king in many ballets until the king’s retirement from dance in 1670. He moved from dancer for the court ballets to a composer of such music used in the courts. By the time he was thirty, Lully was completely in charge of all the musical activities in the French courts. Lully was responsible for enlivening the rather slow stately dances of the court ballets. He decided to put female dancers on stage and was also director of the Académie Royale de Musique. This company's dance school still exists today as part of the Paris Opera Ballet. Since dancers appeared in the very first performances the Opera put on, the Paris Opera Ballet is considered the world’s oldest ballet company. When Lully died in 1687 from a gangrenous abscess on the foot which developed after he stuck himself with the long staff he used for conducting, France lost one of the most influential conductors and composers of the seventeenth century. However, Lully did not work alone. In fact, he often worked in collaboration with two other men that were equally influential to ballet and the French culture: Pierre Beauchamps and Molière.
Beauchamps was a ballet-master who was deeply involved with the creation of courtly ballets in the 1650s and 1660s.However, Beauchamps began his career as the personal teacher to Louis XIV. Beauchamps is also credited with coming up with the five fundamental foot positions from which all balletic movements move through. Beauchamps techniques were taught throughout France in secondary schools as well as by private teachers. Contemporary dancers would astonish Beauchamps at their ability to have 180-degree turnout. Beauchamps dancers wore high-heeled shoes and bulky costumes which made turnout difficult and slight. One of the first things that Lully and Beauchamps worked together on was Les Fêtes de l’Amour et de Bacchus, which they called opéra-ballet. The opéra-ballet is a form of lyric theatre in which singing and dancing were presented as equal partners in lavish and spectacular stagings. The Les Fêtes de l’Amour et de Bacchus, one of their first and most famous collaborations, consisted of excerpts from court ballets linked by new entrées stages by Beauchamps. Customarily, King Louis and courtiers danced in the court ballets; however, in this new form of entertainment, the opéra-ballet, all of the dancers were professionals. Beauchamps not only collaborated with Lully, but he also had the great privilege to partner with Molière during his lifetime.
Beauchamps also originated the Beauchamp-Feuillet notation, which provided detailed indications of the tract of a dance and the related footwork. Starting in 1700, hundreds of social and theatrical dances were recorded and widely published in this form. Although this has been superseded in modern times by even more expressive notations, the notation is sufficiently detailed that, along with contemporary dancing manuals, these dances can be reconstructed today.
Molière was a well-known comedic playwright during that time period. He and Beauchamps collaborated for the first time in 1661, which resulted in the invention of comédie-ballet. His invention of comedies-ballets was said to be an accident. He was invited to set both a play and court ballet in honor of Louis XIV, but was short of dancers and decided to combined the two productions together. This resulted in Les Facheux in 1661. This and the following comédie-ballets were considered the most important advance in baroque dance since the development of Renaissance geometric figures. One of the most famous of these types of performances was Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which is still performed today and continues to entertain audiences. The idea behind a comédie-ballet was a combination of spoken scenes separated by balletic interludes; it is the roots for today’s musical theatre. Many of Molière's ballets were performed by Louis XIV. According to Susan Au, the king's farewell performance was Molière's Les Amants magnifiques in 1670. Not only were these types of performances popular in the courts, but they helped transition from courtiers being the dancers to using actors and professional dancers, soon to be known as ballerinas. The comédie-ballets helped to bring understanding between the court and the commoners as the transition from court ballets to a more common place ballet occurred.
With Molière writing the dialogue and directing, Beauchamps choreographing the ballet interludes, and Lully composing the music and overseeing the coming together of all the dancers and actors, these three giants of men worked together to create many beautiful pieces of art for King Louis XIV.
Ballet originated in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries before it had spread from Italy to France by an Italian aristocrat, Catherine de' Medici, who became Queen of France. In France, ballet developed even further under her aristocratic influence. The dancers in these early court ballets were mostly noble amateurs. Ballets in this period were lengthy and elaborate and often served a political purpose. The monarch displayed the country's wealth through the elaborate performances' power and magnificence. Ornamented costumes were meant to impress viewers, but they restricted performers' freedom of movement.
The ballets were performed in large chambers with viewers on three sides. The implementation of the proscenium arch from 1618 on distanced performers from audience members, who could then better view and appreciate the technical feats of the professional dancers in the productions.
French court ballet reached its height under the reign of King Louis XIV. Known as the Sun King, Louis symbolized the brilliance and splendor of France. Influenced by his eager participation in court ballets since early childhood, Louis founded the Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Dance Academy) in 1661 to establish standards and certify dance instructors. In 1672, Louis XIV made Jean-Baptiste Lully the director of the Académie Royale de Musique (Paris Opera) from which the first professional ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet, arose. Lully is considered the most important composer of music for ballets de cour and instrumental to the development of the form. Pierre Beauchamp served as Lully's ballet-master, the most important position of artistic authority and power for the companies during this century. Together their partnership would drastically influence the development of ballet, as evidenced by the credit given to them for the creation of the five major positions of the feet. The years following the 1661 creation of the Académie Royale de Danse shaped the future of ballet, as it became more evident to those in the French Nobility that there was a significant need for trained professional dancers. By 1681, the first of those who would now be called "ballerinas" took the stage following years of training at the Académie, influenced by the early beginnings of codified technique taught there.
The King Who Invented Ballet, BBC4
The programme is riveting, blending monstrous extravagance and social history
Martin Hoyle SEPTEMBER 11, 2015
Louis XIV may not have created ballet, admits David Bintley of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, but he was ballet’s first icon, as The King Who Invented Ballet (Sunday, BBC4 8pm) explains. Louis loved to dance, and his nickname “le Roi Soleil” seemed assured when as a 14-year-old the monarch appeared at the climax of a 13-hour spectacle, dazzling in gold, representing the sun dispersing the night’s blackness.
Follow that. And he did, creating the Grand Siècle which saw France’s apogee, its acknowledged greatness — but also bankruptcy, a legacy that would destroy his descendants.
Other creations included the Académie Royale de Danse and the school of the Ballet de l’Opéra where students still bow and curtsy to adults by royal decree.
The king gave up dancing after 75 roles in court spectacles but his influence continued and ballet spread to public theatres, with women also taking part. Above all, Louis established a style of grace and nobility, epitomised by the famous portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud in which the king is in fourth position, one leg forward, toes turned out.
Bintley was starstruck by Louis as a boy and his film combines history, dance, spectacle — a beautiful book of costume designs for his famous 13-hour allegory shows werewolves, an anthropomorphic chessboard, fantastics and grotesques — and music: years of research and informed guesswork are used to recreate the original orchestration for a recording. Locations include Versailles, Paris and Birmingham, where Bintley prepares his new ballet, The King Dances, inspired by Louis’ apotheosis as Sun King.
The programme is riveting, blending as it does politics and culture, monstrous extravagance and social history. It leads into a complete performance of Bintley’s ballet, whose premiere was greeted with a mixed reception in June. But some aspects — lighting ranging from Stygian to dazzling; Stephen Montague’s score easily combining baroque and modern — work especially well on TV.