Proceedings of the Known World Dance Symposium 2007

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English Court Masque

A Period Context for Dance Performance

Meredith Courtney
(Countess Mara Kolarova)

Most of the time, dancing in the SCA (well, western European dancing, anyway) means social dancing. But sometimes, we do want a performance. This is a somewhat rambling discourse on (1) a minor problem that I believe exists, and a possible solution for it, (2) some interesting peculiarities of a late-period Court entertainment, (3) a bit of description of a recent project that I’m quite proud of, and (4) a pitch for other people to try a similar project. Performance of western European court dances is what ties all these together.

So …why a performance? We might want to share something we think is cool, or demonstrate the results of research, or add an ornament to social dancing, or include dancing in some form of arts showcase, or simply indulge in performing for the joy of it.

The trouble is ... a straightforward dance performance may work for an arts-and-sciences competition, but at least in my experience, it often doesn't work very well for a presentation for the general populace at an event. There's polite attention to a greater or lesser extent, but little real interest. I'm a dance enthusiast, and sometimes my reaction is "I hope this doesn't take too long".

Side note: the principle exception I've seen to "straight dance performance doesn't draw real interest" is performances of Buffens, the sword dance described in Arbeau’s Orchesography. If you think back to one of our favorite social climbing dance masters, both personally and for his profession, Cesare Negri frequently mentions mattachins (the Italian version of Buffens) among the dances performed for various dignitaries, and praises various masters including himself for invention of mattachins figures. This makes me think that the general phenomenon, and its exception, has some precendent in period.

Anyway, be it artifact or activity, when recreating something from period and it doesn't seem to be working well, one thing to do is take a closer look at what was done in period.

Did noble ladies and gentlemen ever perform dances, as opposed to dancing socially? Actually they did, as part of performing in masques (in England) and similar theatrical spectacles elsewhere such as the French court ballets.

In January 1604, a masque named The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses was presented during Twelfth Night celebrations, the first of the new reign of James I of England. In the next few years, Ben Jonson started arguing that the poetry of a masque was paramount, and Inigo Jones that it was the spectacle - but I think that when Anne of Denmark, the new Queen of England, commissioned it, one of the principal things she expected from it was an opportunity for her and her new lady friends to show off their dancing. (She was known as an excellent dancer.)

In March 2007, the Barony of Carolingia did a production of The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses, and we found that it made a great center feature for a really nice event. We had a beautiful wood-panelled hall, offered lunch as a banquet (buffet), with savories before the performance and sweets afterward, along with social dancing. We were trying for a you-are-there experience of an afternoon during festive season at a court much like that of James, and I think we did pretty well. And, it was a dance performance, that showcased galliard solos and the 16th-century dances Contrapasso Nuovo and Bella Gioiosa, with some pavane and coranto in there for good measure. Well, actually, it was a multimedia extravaganza. Besides the dancing, we had actors and singers, instrumental music played by Renaissonics (a Boston-area ensemble that specializes in Renaissance chamber and dance music), costumes mostly by Master John McGuire, and a set (the Temple was a bit sketchy, but the Mountain allowed the goddesses to descend majestically from a height of 4 feet, which is higher in person than it sounds on paper).

So what is an early Stuart court masque?

At first glance, a masque looks like a little play, a small-scale musical. It is not. To a modern audience, it is actually quite an alien art form. The closest explanation I've been able to come up with, is that it is a cross between a music video and the sort of show we've come to expect for the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games.

Music video? Not the kind that looks like footage of a band playing a show, only with fancy camera work. Think instead of Michael Jackson's Thriller - music, dancing, costumes, special effects, and a thin little story to hold it together. Don't try to examine the story too closely, because there isn't much there - just sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Where does the Olympics show reference come from? It's a show designed and composed for a specific event, meant to be performed once only, with extensive symbolic or allegorical content. So also for a masque - they were usually composed for important weddings or for state occasions. The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses is straight-out political - Samuel Daniels, the poet who composed it, stated in a dedication "... the intent and scope of the project: which was only to present the figure of those blessings, with the wish of their increase and continuance, which this mighty kingdom now enjoys by the benefit of his most gracious Majesty ...". Accounts of the time do contain occasional references to a masque being presented a second time, with implication that such is unusual.

And then, a masque has a few more features that are just ... strange.

First there's the cast, which seems to have been a mixture of professional actors and "the masquers", who are noble amateurs. Although Queen Anne also commissioned the composition, it was called a masque of Her Majesty's because she performed in it. The roles of the goddesses in this show are for "the masquers", who were the Queen (she was Pallas) and eleven noblewomen, including five countesses. Remember that at this time in England, acting was not a respectable profession, and women did not perform on stage, female roles being played by boys. Masquers parts, whether for ladies or gentlemen, were nonspeaking roles, and I believe that was because speaking lines would have made their performing "acting" and therefore socially unacceptable. From the masquers’ point of view, actors to speak the lines were just part of the package, which included the text, the songs, the singers, the set, the costumes, and the choreography, provided for the masquers as a framework in which to swagger. (Partly because our social context doesn't have that taboo, and we didn't have the social distinction between the masquers and the other cast members, one of the adaptions we made for our performance was to have the goddesses speak their own descriptive lines instead of having them spoken by the Sybil.)

Popping back to the political aspect for a moment: I have to believe that those eleven noble ladies must have been very pleased with themselves for having scored roles in this masque. Anne likely was bestowing political as well as personal favors when she invited them to participate.

The antimasque was an optional feature of court masques, it's a short comic-relief piece. It is not an intermezzo though, an antimasque is thematically related and more-or less integrated into the masque itself. It seems rather odd to have this high-minded poetical spectacle going along, and it just pauses for a humorous interlude, and then resumes in all its allegorical glory - but it seems that's what they did. The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses has no antimasque, and we added one, and I'm glad we did, because it worked. Ben Jonson would probably have gone on about artistic balance, and how can one know Rule if there is no Misrule, and so on, but as a strictly practical matter - both then and now, some of the audience has shall-we-say limited appreciation for classical allusions, and they'll be much happier sitting through the high-minded stuff if there's an interlude they can laugh at.

And then there's another pause in the middle, and this one is a standard feature. Part way through the show, it pauses, and the masquers choose partners from the audience, and there's a set of social dancing, and then the audience members go back to their seats and the show resumes. We did that one also, a little set of two almans and a galliard, and somewhat to my surprise at the time, that also worked.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Audience participation, even if it isn't all (or even most) of the audience, is a good way to hold audience interest.

To be strictly authentic in that area, we should have moved all of the post-performance social dancing into the within-the-show interlude. I think that would not have worked for us, but the original audience understood that when they were invited to a masque, it was both a show and a dance party, and the show was the frame surrounding the dance party.

This isn't obvious if you start by thinking of these masques as "shows", but consider that a major thread in its ancestry is the sort of thing described in the "ball" scene early in Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and his buddies put on some not-very-effective disguises, but dispense with such customary embellishments as a speech to introduce the characters they present, and decking out one or more of their number as something such as Cupid hoodwinked with a scarf and bearing a painted Tartar's bow. They crash Capulet'sparty, and they get a warm welcome, because whether genuinely impromptu or arranged by the host, this sort of thing is an ornament for the dance party. Note that in this context it is acceptable for the noble masquers to speak lines – there aren’t any professionals around for the noble amateurs to be compared to.

A full-scale production of an early Stuart court masque is a major undertaking, but it can also be a project that many artists and artisans can work on together, with really spectacular results. It could be the focus of its own event, as Carolingia did it, or perhaps featured entertainment for a wedding event or some other high-court type occasion. It's a lot of work, but can be very rewarding. For source material, see the SCA Renaissance Dance Homepage and scroll down to the Seventeenth Century section – there are texts for several masques there, you could use one of them or get a local poet to write something in the style. If you prefer hardcopy, one of the books you might look for is A Book Of Masques, edited by Terence John Bew Spencer and Stanley Wells, published by Cambridge University Press, originally in 1967 – this was my source for the historical information in this paper.

And at the other end of the dance performance scale ... the next time you want to do a dance performance as an opening or interlude to a ball, or as a court presentation, don't just rehearse your dance. Find or make something to turn your garb into "costume", and maybe add a prop or two. Run up a little story of how Jove, or Apollo, or Love, or Courtesy, wishes it known that <local dignitary> is a special favorite, and so has sent <characters presented by dancers> with a special blessing, conveyed by this dance. For extra points, get your local poet to put your little story into verse. The extra effort should get you some extra attention leading into your performance, which might be just enough to get most of your audience truly interested in what you're doing. And besides ... it's fun!

Countess Mara Kolarova OL

Barony of Carolingia, East Kingdom

Meredith Courtney

12 Melville Ave

Boston, MA 02124