Consort de Danse Baroque
International Summer School in Baroque Dance Studies:
The Marriage of Baroque Music and Dance

The 2010 (19th) Consort de Danse Baroque International Summer School in Baroque Dance Studies took place at the Rubicon Dance Center, Cardiff, U.K., from the 20th to the 30th of August. Like every summer, Philippa Waite and her team (Judy Kennedy and Matthew Lewis joined Philippa as instructors of the Baroque noble style, with Diana Cruickshank leading the teaching and performance of Baroque country dances) organized a very high-quality, rich and successful (in addition to very friendly) event.

A class in the upstairs studio.

Whether a (professional or amateur) dancer, musician, historian, etc., if you have an interest in learning about, learning to dance (a little or a lot), or improving your technique or knowledge of Baroque dance, this Summer School was very likely to have been the right one for you. Yes, you missed it, but do not worry: there will be another one next summer – details at the end.

So what was so special about it? A unique combination of very important things. In a nutshell: organization, breadth, depth, importance of technique, and a deep understanding of the relationship between Baroque music and dance.

The Summer School was relatively long (ten days if you attended all the modules) and intense (classes ran daily from 9:15am to 9:30pm) but its format was such that it allowed students to pace themselves according to their abilities and interests. Overall, the course was divided into three self-contained three-day modules, which could be taken in isolation or consecutively, and a final performance in costume, with musicians playing on period instruments, at Tredegar House, a beautiful 17th-century country mansion in nearby Newport. Each of the modules had a different emphasis. The first and second modules focused on various aspects of technique, links between dance and music, presentation, and reconstruction from historical sources. The last module focused more on performance practice oriented towards the final show at Tredegar House, where visitors could enjoy complex theatrical and courtly dances performed by the members of the Consort, as well as demonstrations by groups of students of some of the courtly and country dances learned during the course.

In addition to the modular structure, the School had many other features that made it truly “for all” (that is, for all those with an interest in Baroque dance and music!) regardless of their level, background, or entry point into Baroque dance – through music, ballet, country dance, or anything else. Students were divided into four levels (from the complete beginner to the professional), which would merge, split and interact in different ways for different activities over the course of the day, ensuring that all students received personalized attention and training, with the right balance between new challenges and consolidation of technique. Activities, generally organized in 1.5-hour sessions (usually two in the morning after a general warm-up, three in the afternoon, and one after dinner), covered a very broad range of aspects of Baroque dance encompassing both the court and country styles. Some of the activities are present every year: for example, the three daily technique classes, each of them with different content (a wide range of dance steps and rhythms), emphasis and combination of levels; the different classes on presentation and (Feuillet-Beauchamp) notation; and the “steps in context” workshops that combine technique, presentation and reconstruction from original notation, applied to a variety of dance rhythms such as sarabande, bourée, gigue, minuet, gavotte, chaconne, etc. Other workshops were more specialized and (possibly) offered as a one-off event; for example, this year Philippa ran two workshops concerning the expression of moods through music and dance, whereas last year Matthew Lewis taught a workshop on the comparatively less-known Favier notation. Attendance at such specialized workshops was on a more optional basis, depending on the interests of the students, which also permitted deeper and more technical discussions in small groups. The breadth of activities was therefore not at odds with the depth in which they were covered.

The final day: dancers and musicians at Tredegar House.

Another aspect of the care put into depth of knowledge and (historical) accuracy, and perhaps the most special feature of this Summer School, is the importance given to good technique. Most people watching a performance or approaching Baroque dance for the first time, will (understandably) pay attention to its more “eye-catching” aspects, which obviously were also found at the School, such as period costumes, spatial patterns, unusual steps and “social signs” (smiles, holding hands, looking at and away from dancing partners, etc.), and generally dancers doing “pretty things” to “pretty music”. With time and repeated exposure (to good performances), and particularly if you are a musician or experienced dancer in some other style, attention is likely to switch to the more fundamental features of this style that are key to its beauty and its expressive qualities, such as rhythmic control and clarity and articulation of movement. Such features cannot be achieved without a very precise and controlled technique, and this is probably a key “message-to-take-home” from this Summer School. It is also probably the hardest to achieve, and it takes a very long time to do well – pretty much as long as learning to play the harpsichord or the violin well. It is indeed very similar in many respects, since dancing and playing are deeply intertwined in Baroque: one could say that dancers “play” their body, which is one more instrument of the orchestra. Of course, you should not expect to reach that level by attending one Summer School (or two, or three!), but even if you are not interested in doing so, or for example you are a musician not trying to learn to dance but merely interested in observing and trying a few steps, it is very important to be aware of and be exposed to good technique.

This “Marriage of music and dance”, as the French put it in the 17th century, manifested itself in many other ways. To conclude this review, I will just mention two of them, which also contributed to the very special atmosphere of the School. First, the fact that the students who wished to combine both activities and experience “both sides of the coin” were very welcome to do so, and could switch very naturally between dancing and playing music that the others could dance to – either using their own instruments or the gorgeous harpsichord made available for the entire duration of the School by one of the members of the Consort. Second, the way in which musicians and dancers worked closely together at the rehearsals of the performance at Tredegar House, as both groups very quickly understood that they were not working “for” the others but “with” them, that they were all in the same boat.

The 20th Consort de Danse Baroque Summer School will take place from the 19th to the 29th of August 2011, why not give it a go? Details are available from the Consort de Danse Baroque website.

(This review originally appeared in the Early Dance Circular.)