Dance is often the neglected child in opera, but when it is used properly in harmonious creative balance with music, singing and drama, then we have what is properly opera: a combination of arts. In Baroque Opera, one of its earliest manifestation, the entire score was built on dances and dance rhythms derived from the dance suite, an arrangement of various dances in sequence. Dance was a characteristic of Baroque opera, inasmuch as polite society was expected to know how to dance, and people dancing onstage was a simple reflection of real life in the court. As courts changed habits, and art forms evolved, Baroque opera expanded its approach, and was less rigid in creative multi-art composition. By the late 18th century, the time period of L’Amant Anonyme, the sole surviving opera by multi-racial composer Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, dance was used more freely but nevertheless structurally and purposefully within the drama and musical score.
Haymarket Opera will perform this baroque rarity on June 17-19 at Holtschneider Performance Center at DePaul University. Sarah Edgar is directing this production and choreographing it as well. She is among a handful of internationally recognized specialists in baroque dance and opera direction. Haymarket has built up an enthusiastic audience over the years, not only for the rarity and historical accuracy with which they perform on period instruments, but more than that at the same time, for the entrancing quality of the productions, the vitality and humanity brought to the expressive timbre of the performers. There’s plenty to enjoy without knowing much about baroque opera, and it’s safe to say the Haymarket audience knows a lot about baroque music, and has fans devoted to the period sensitivities of the much-praised orchestra.
The chance to learn about the dance element has opened up with this production of L’Amant Anonyme. Sarah Edgar took time from her busy work putting up the show to speak with me about the 20 minutes of dance in the opera, what the dances are, and how to watch them; and understand what they are doing there.
In the middle of Act 1, is an eight-minute ballet in the period style of a ‘pantomime ballet,’ a kind of dramatic storytelling with movement. One evolution that stage dance evinced was from a more gestural language of mimed expression, to a more pure and sophisticated dance in itself. A notable device in baroque opera uses dance to portray a microcosm of the opera’s plot, told metaphorically, without words, or to underscore a main theme – like falling in love. This five-movement, eight-minute ballet has such a purpose. The viewer can enjoy the tale being told in concentrated entertaining miniature. There are pirouettes – invented by Auguste Vestris (1760-1842) – and one can see what an evolution these turns are for the dynamism and uplift of the older movements.
In Act 2, there is a four-minute dance as characters prepare for the wedding. It is a pure dance representation of pure love: the dancers carry garlands, and perform a minuet, one of the early baroque dances that survived through the end of the 18th century. Delicate and stately, the minuet is well-suited to the celebration of love. Here, It expresses the ‘contagion’ of falling in love.
Finally, in the last movement, dance provides the spectacular ruckus of a folk celebration preceding an aristocratic one. The dancers are four couples, and they display a leaping waltz – already a popular dance in parts of Europe; and a contredanse, which is a line dance such as a quadrille, that originated in the countryside, not the courts. The Virginia Reel is an American example of a contredanse. A robust contredanse concludes Bologne’s L’Amant Anonyme. The danced ending vaulting the folk dance to the fore symbolizes what was happening in opera, and in society in the late 18th century, around the time of the founding of the United States.
There is so much to enjoy in a performance by Haymarket Opera Company. This little dance primer is offered to anyone planning to see L’Amant Anonyme, to add to their knowledge of baroque dance and opera, and so add to their enjoyment.
By Joseph Bologne
Haymarket Opera Company
Directed and Choreographed by Sarah Edgar
Holtschneider Performance Center at DePaul University