The first time I watched The New York Baroque Dance Company I was blown away. And it was on YouTube! Even on my rickety vintage laptop, I could feel the ancient air moving past my eyes. It was as if history had been brought to life, but without the dust of a Masterpiece Theater experience. The dances seemed fresh and newly re-imagined. I felt my art form being pulled through time. It was the stuff of chills. And so it's no wonder that Catherine Turocy, founder and artistic director of New York Baroque Dance Company, is a leading authority on baroque dance, the very roots of ballet.
At the time, I was working on a story about the company's appearance with Mercury (formerly Mercury Baroque). I couldn't wait to see the program. If the company was that good on a tiny screen, I knew it would be a powerhouse show. But then the weather gods interfered, I got stuck in New York with a bad case of the Jet Blues and missed the performance.
I missed out, but, another, more important connection was made. Matthew Dirst, artistic director of Ars Lyrica, happened to be playing the harpsichord for that show. He met Turocy, and at some point, one said to the other, "We should do something together."
Turocy operates a bit like a detective, culling from numerous sources, putting pieces together, from writings, sculpture, architecture, musical notes and published works.
Many years later, here we are at Ars Lyrica's season finale, Heaven and Hell, on Friday and Sunday, featuring the New York Baroque Dance Company performing Claudio Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda Ballo delle Ingrate and other works from his 1638 Madrigals of Love and War at The Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall.
Talk about being worth the wait.
Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is an operatic scene set for three voices, with a libretto drawn from Torquato Tasso's La Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, Canto XII).
Setting the scene
Turocy sets the scene. "It's a romance, set against the backdrop of the First Crusade, that was first performed during the 1624 carnival in the palazzo of the Venetian nobleman Girolamo Mocenigo. Testo, the narrator, tells the story of Tancredi, a Christian knight, who challenges a Saracen opponent to single combat.
"After a bloody encounter, the Saracen falls mortally wounded and asks to be baptized. Shocked, Tancredi realizes he has been fighting the maiden Clorinda. Monteverdi himself includes a description of the production with the musical score, and this forms the basis of my stage direction. His descriptions of the combat, graphically illustrated in the music, are matched by the actions of the dancers, who are the doubles of the singing Tancredi and Clorinda."
At first, it might boggle the mind how anyone reconstructs a dance from the 17th Century, especially given that Feuillet notation, a system devised at the behest of King Louis XIV of France by the dancing master Pierre Beauchamp and refined by the dancing master Raoul Auger Feuillet, didn't arrive until the18th Century.
Monteverdi madrigals are the very earliest dances that her troupe performs. "Monteverdi is the very beginning of the Baroque," she says. "He was cutting edge at the time, openly moving away from the Church. He also wrote the first opera."
Turocy puts me at ease; she doesn't have to be a time traveler after all. She had other sources, lots of them, including the detailed instructions of Monteverdi himself. And then, there's help from an early dance writer, Cesare Negri, who penned Le Grazie d'Amore, the first text on ballet theory, which was republished in 1604 as Nuove lnventioni di Balli (New Inventions of the Dance). John Bulwer's 1644 The Natural Language of the Hand was another trusted source.
The spark begins
Shirley Wynne at Ohio State University first sparked Turocy's interest in historical dance during her college years. She also studied Renaissance dance with Julia Sutton, Charles Garth and Elizabeth Aldrich, and performed briefly in the Court Dance Company of New York, directed by Charles Garth and Elizabeth Aldrich. Like most young choreographers, Turocy was also deeply involved in creating her own contemporary work. But in 1976, she reached a decision.
"What does dance need?" she asked. "Does the field really need another contemporary company?"
At the time, there was no professional Baroque dance company. Fast forward to today, where we find Turocy and her company to be the go-to organization for Baroque dances in opera and early music concert settings. She has been decorated by the French Republic as a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters, and has received a Bessie Award for sustained achievement in choreography, as well as the Natalie Skelton Award for Artistic Excellence.
Thomas Baird in Raoul Auger Feuillet's choreography (1700) for the Entrée d'Apollon, from Lully's Le Triomphe de l'Amour (1681).
Passacaille d'Armide danced and reconstructed by Catherine Turocy, artistic director of The New York Baroque Dance Company