“Your flesh is like the earth, your bones are like rocks and your blood is like water,” Ms. Turocy explained. “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,” she continued. “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 attending the Santa Barbara Historical Dance Workshop on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. My instructor was Catherine Turocy, a world-renowned voice in baroque dance. Ms. Turocy is regarded as one of the best baroque dance teachers in the nation. I believed it: After only a couple minutes in Ms. Turocy’s first class I was floored by her knowledge and her methods.
The experience was serendipitous for me, given I was there researching ideas for a new ballet I would be creating for Elements titled The Sun King. The workshop addressed not just baroque dance steps but the movement philosophies that governed them. 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 that guided your dancing. We learned to regard the body as baroque theoriests did: an entity in constant, living motion. In the authentic 18th-century dance we studied, The Royal Ann, we had to apply this concept generously. Dancing The Royal Ann required a reliance on an uneven, rocking motion that felt foreign to anything in the present-day ballet vocabulary. 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 had developed a theory that baroque dance grew out of Renaissance ideas, namely Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the famous proportion study of a man circumscribed by a circle and square. Da Vinci’s notes describe the square as a representation of the material world, and the circle 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 a performer’s character—whether an immortal, hero, fool or miser—would be based in one of these points on the body. Nobility– and 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 the genesis of most baroque dance.
Ms. Turocy and our other instructor, the brilliant Sarah Edgar, often alluded in their teaching to treatises they had studied written by 17th- and 18th-century dance masters and historians, as well as a highly detailed notation system from the period known as Feuillet Notation. I was learning a rare subject from experts; I frantically took notes.
“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.”
“Your arms are held very bent, to convey life and beauty.”
One’s arms carried significant meaning in baroque dance. Locking or extending one’s arms was thought to flatten the body and diminish the appearance of life. Raising the legs or arms high to exaggerated proportions was comical, 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 “baroque bubble,” also inspired by the Vitruvian Man. In this concept, all of the space around a person that their arms could comfortably touch “belonged” to them. To enter another’s space, or “bubble,” uninvited was an 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 the 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 balance.
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 employed 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. I had an opportunity to experiment with my own material in classes offered by Ms. Edgar addressing “the new baroque.” During downtime at UC Santa Barbara, a beautiful campus snug on the Pacific coastline, I hiked through the on-campus beachfront nature preserve, jotting storyline and movement concepts for The Sun King. From my dorm room overlooking the ocean, I contemplated the nature of waves, my workshops and how both might 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 on which to base my new ballet. 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 is a co-founder of Elements Contemporary Ballet. In addition to studying with Elements' Artistic Director Mike Gosney he trained at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School Professional Division on full scholarship and with The Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles’ apprenticeship program. He has also attended workshops with the Boston Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, and the Lou Conte Dance Center. Prior to co-founding Elements, he was a member of River North Chicago Dance Company for three years. He has performed with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Spectrum Dance Theatre, SD Prism Dance Theatre, Civic Ballet of Chicago, Evanston Dance Ensemble, and in numerous trade shows, as well as worked in TV and film. As a choreographer, his work has been accepted as a finalist into the McCallum Theatre’s Dance Under the Stars Choreography Festival and presented as part of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events DanceBridge program. Carauana was also recently awarded an Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship and a Richard H. Driehaus Professional development grant to develop his new ballet, The Sun King.
Special thanks to the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation for providing a professional development grant for this project.