Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music presented the second program in their sixth season of concerts. Entitled Let’s Dance, the four major selections featured choreography by Carlos Fittante, three of which were original and one a reconstruction from the early eighteenth century. Two of the original works were created in conjunction with Islene Pinder, and all of the original pieces were duets danced by Fittante and Robin Gilbert.
The reconstruction was of the work of Louis Pécour, one of the most famous dancers at the Académie Royale de Musique (now known as the Paris Opera). He made his debut in 1674 in Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione; and, following Lully’s death in 1687, he became the company’s ballet master. What little we know about him comes from the work of Raoul Auger Feuillet, who documented his choreography in a system (now known and Beauchamp-Feuillet notation) that he created under commission from Louis XIV. Feuillet’s book Chorégraphie, ou l’art de d’écrire la danse was published in 1700 and begins with a letter of dedication to Pécour.
Fittante’s reconstruction was of a dance solo set to the chaconne from Lully's 1683 opera Phaéton based on Feuillet’s notation, although the reproduction of the notation included in the program notes suggests that the dance was not performed as part of the opera. Interpretation of the notation is a controversial matter. Like just about every other notation, it was created for those who already had a strong “knowledge base” of practice, thus serving both to aid the memory and to clarify some of the more specific details. There are many current schools of thought over just what was in that “knowledge base;” and it is unlikely that the arguments among all those opinions will ever be resolved with certainty.
That said, Fittante’s reconstruction provided a satisfying, if not necessarily convincing, account of what one might have seen on the late seventeenth-century stage as captured in an early eighteenth-century document. Fittante seems to have given considerable thought to presenting the most suitable executions of both posture and gesture. To the best of my own weak knowledge of the basic syntax of the time, his steps seemed both nimble and appropriate. His execution certainly came off as consistent with the musical performance of a small orchestra, consisting of violinists Carla Moore and Maxine Nemerovski, violists Kati Kyme and Lisa Grodin, cellist Elisabeth Reed, and a continuo of William Skeen on violone, David Tayler on archlute, and Hanneke van Proosdij on harpsichord.
Of the other dance selections, Fittante’s choreography for Antonio Vivaldi’s extended set of variations on the Spanish “Folia” theme was the most period-appropriate. If the variations were conceived only as a major exercise in virtuosity, Fittante fit them rather successfully into a narrative arc of courtship and seduction. All this was executed in Spanish costume; and, again, the postures and gestures seemed suited to both the period and the scenario. The use of expressionless masks (carved in Bali) had a suitably disquieting effect, focusing the mind on the erotic action itself in relationship to the music.
Fittante’s remaining two pieces, both created with Pinder, were more inspired by the Balinese spirit than by the European baroque period. The first of these was set to Largo movements from two of Vivaldi’s concertos. Entitled “Eden Mandala,” it seemed to involve a brief narrative whose subtitle could have been “Adam and Eve discover procreation.” “Tigerlily and the Dragonfly” was also a “courtship” piece, this time based on a Balinese duet. The music consisted of four short movements from interpretations of the Dardanus myth by two composers, Georg Phillip Telemann and Jean-Phillippe Rameau.
Rameau also provided the music for two instrumental “interludes.” These came from an anonymous manuscript providing arrangements of Rameau’s short pieces (several from his keyboard suites) for an ensemble of six strings. Even the date of this manuscript is unknown, but it is assumed to come from the later 1750s. The arrangements were impressively effective and given a lively account by the Voices of Music instrumentalists. Those familiar with Ottorino Respighi’s unabashedly twentieth-century treatment of Rameau in his suite The Birds could appreciate the transparency of this earlier arrangement of “La Poule,” presenting Rameau’s efforts at “sound effects” with much greater clarity.