Dancing into the Past: Catherine Turocy on Baroque Dance

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The New York Baroque Dance Company
Photo Credit: Musikfestspiele Potsdam Sanssouci/Mathias Marx

Dance is about to take a huge step back in time, thanks to Catherine Turocy and the New York Baroque Dance Company when they join Mercury Baroque for an upcoming performance of Pygmalion at Cullen Theater.

Turocy began her studies of historical dance as a freshman at Ohio State University with Dr. Shirley Wynne. Under Dr. Wynne’s leadership the Baroque Dance Ensemble was formed and Ms. Turocy, as dancer, participated in many ground breaking performances for the early music and dance field.

Recognized as today’s leading choreographer/reconstructor in the field of 18th century dance, Ms. Turocy has been decorated by the French Republic as a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters and has received the prestigious BESSIE Award in New York City for sustained achievement in choreography. NEA Exchange Fellowships have allowed her to live in London and Paris to conduct research in the libraries of Europe and exchange ideas with other artists in the early music and dance fields. As a founding member of the Society of Dance History Scholars, Ms. Turocy lectures on period performance practices of the 17th and 18th centuries and her papers have been published by the society. She has contributed chapters to dance history text books, articles to Opera News and Dance Magazine, many which have been translated into French, German, Japanese, and Korean.

Ms. Turocy took the time to discuss all things Baroque dance below.

How did you first catch the Baroque dance bug?

CT: As a high school student I spent a lot of time in the library, waiting for my ballet class to begin. I read everything in the Dance section, including biographies of 18th century ballerinas. I loved the idea of dancing their dances. Later, when I studied at Ohio State University, Shirley Wynne (Dance History teacher) asked me to join her in a reconstruction of a one act opera-ballet and I was totally swept away with the beauty of the dance, music, costumes, singing-everything!

I was astonished by the feeling of being part of the past I got from just watching video clips on your website. I can just imagine what if feels like to perform these dances. Do you ever feel like a time traveler?

CT: Whenever I perform, whether it is historical dance or contemporary, I feel the experience is suspended in time. It is timeless. It is more like an electrical awakening to an atmosphere of heightened reality existing beyond time.

Tell us a bit about The Feuillet notation system that you use to reconstruct the dances. How long did it take you to learn it? Are most your dancers proficient in this method?

CT: Yes, all the dancers in the NYBDC are taught to read the notation system. One can be proficient in a month if one already knows the dance technique and style, which takes about a year to learn. The notation is a memory aid. Like a map, it records where the dancer travels in space and is marked with bar lines which match the bar lines of the music measure. The steps are recorded on this map-like tracing. Each phrase of music makes a geometric dance pattern which is called a “figure.” Remember figure skating when the skater was judged on making perfect figure 8’s on the ice? Well, the concept of “figure” is the same on the ice and in dancing and originates from the same time period.

When adequate notation does not exist and you use your knowledge of dances of this time period to reconstruct do you ever feel like you are re-inventing history?

CT: Not really. Ballet choreographers use ballet vocabulary to create their dances and I use period dance vocabulary to choreograph my dances. Any choreographer works in an established aesthetic even if they are the inventors of the aesthetic. So, I really feel like I am creating something new and fresh within the boundaries of the 18th century French aesthetic. A sense of spontaneity is called for in the rehearsal process as I fit the dance to the dancers…much as the choreographers from the period were required to use the specific talents of their dancers.

There’s much dancers will recognize in these works yet the flavor is distinct. The port de bras is so relaxed and there are these wonderful flourishes in the hands and wrists. How do classically trained dancers take to these differences?

CT: The Baroque dance technique is the basis of classical ballet. It is so close to current ballet technique that dancers have a hard time fighting ingrained reflexes. It normally takes about a year for a dancer to feel free in the baroque technique if they are already proficient in dance. That year is one of discovery and changing perceptions. Often dancers find that period dance training enhances their performance in other styles of dance. A new awareness of the body and a new awareness of how to present emotions and states of mind through gesture, to the audience are gained through historical dance performance experiences.

Can you describe a typical class in Baroque technique?

CT: Classes differ according to the teacher. The classes I teach for our company and in our workshops are centered on body placement within one’s own kinesphere; moving from a central axis with a vertical channel of energy; discovering the pulse of movement and how that is used in Baroque musical forms; discovering the place where technique and expression meet. I have developed my own methods to teach today’s dancer a technique which will support them in performing choreography from the 18th century, both social and theatrical dance.

The patterns also look familiar. Would you say that Baroque dance is the precursor to Contra dance and other American forms of social dancing?

CT: Absolutely!

Why is it that dancers commonly think their history begins with Ballet? I know you are doing much to change all that.

CT: Because, this is what they are taught from an early age. Teachers fail to inform their young students of styles of dance from different time periods, different cultures and different genres because they are so busy teaching them how to move. We need to re-think how dance is taught. This is being done, but it does take a concerted effort in the community. I really think dance needs to enter the general education in public schools before we see a real change in how dance is perceived. Why not teach dance forms in music classes, art classes, history classes or physical education classes?

Is it tricky to dance with such elaborate wigs and costumes?

CT: Yes, it is tricky to balance the weight of the costume. Wigs and headdresses affect the carriage of the head. The mask is also a transforming element for both the dancer and the audience.

How did you come to collaborate with Mercury Baroque?

CT: Antoine Plante, the conductor, rang me up on the phone. After explaining his vision for the group and what they wanted to do, I thought, yes, this man is a sincere artist with a plan – let’s take a chance! I knew nothing about the group or him before the initial phone call; they were just in their beginning years.

Can you tell us what your company will be doing as part of Mercury Baroque’s upcoming performance?

CT: We will be dancing a signature 18th century dance piece, Les Caracteres de la Danse, on the first half. In this solo work the dancer changes sexes and ages as she depicts different stories of love. Just imagine Marcel Marceau as a dancer and you will have a clear idea of the work. On the second half we will be playing the roles of the Graces, the Laughter and Game and the “people” for the story of Pygmalion. I will be doing the stage direction and choreography for this opera-ballet. All the dancers will be masked and all the performers will be in wigs and costumes. If you have ever wondered where Broadway musicals originated, come see this performance.

What have you learned from dancing 17th and 18th century dances that you find relevant to today’s world?

CT: Art, fashion, life, everything goes in cycles. I agree with Smokey Robinson (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) everything has been done before. I am not saying anything new that has not already been said. I just hope to make it memorable. In working with period dances I see that we are constantly looking for a way to comprehend the human experience through our art; the time period is only a matter of context. Especially in the computer/internet age it is possible to see we are the sum of what has gone before and to feel connected to history.

Many audience members, after experiencing one of our concerts, have come back stage to say that the beauty and grace found in the 18th century aesthetic gave them a feeling of an ordered universe and rekindled a noble hope that life can be better.

The New York Baroque Dance Company performs with Mercury Baroque in Pygmalion, an opera-ballet by J. P. Rameau on February 16, at 8pm at Cullen Theater in Wortham Center. Visit http://www.mercurybaroque.org/ or call 832-251-0706.

The New York Baroque Dance Company also performs Pygmalion with the Dallas Bach Society at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas on February 20th at 8pm. See http://www.dallasbach.org/

Learn more at http://www.nybaroquedance.org/

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