Dance from the Baroque period is the forerunner of western theatrical dance as we know it today. It contains a unique vocabulary of steps and ornaments that formed the basis of classical ballet later in the 18th century. Until recently, many of these steps were forgotten. The dance style is vigorously musical, with fleet footwork, florid accents of the arms, a dramatic system of gesture, and it encompasses a striking range of material: elegant court dances, virtuosic theatrical ballets, and raucous dances related to the Italian commedia dell’arte.
These dances of the 17th and 18th century were preserved for posterity thanks to the efforts of the dancing masters Pierre Beauchamps and Raoul Auger Feuillet, who at the behest of Louis XIV developed a notation system that captured the dances with remarkable precision. Over 300 French and English ballets in this Feuillet notation survive, and recent scholarship has made the faithful revival of these dances possible. The American composer Louis Horst played an important role in spurring initial interest in them, and the past decades have seen a “baroque revival” in dance, whose prime movers have included Melusine Wood, Belinda Quirey, Wendy Hilton and Shirley Wynne.
But before 1976, when Catherine Turocy asked her fellow Ohio State alumna Ann Jacoby to join her in forming the New York Baroque Dance Company, the reconstruction of 18th century ballet had largely taken place outside of the public’s eye. Turocy and Jacoby sought to bridge the gap between scholar and performer by enlisting dancers from New York’s modern and ballet companies, reconstructing a full evening’s worth of baroque dances, and seeing who might show up. They invited the young harpsichordist and conductor James Richman to lead his ensemble, Concert Royal, in providing the evening’s music. Turocy recalls that “hearing some of the music for the first time in tech rehearsals, wearing the heavy costumes, the tight corsets, performing in the restricted sightlines of masks…we felt intoxicated. We were naive to the difficulties of early music show biz!”
The audience and critics who attended the company’s initial concert – most of them curious and unsure of what to expect – left the theater and started talking. The company was widely hailed for infusing baroque materials with a new vitality, and this reflected Turocy and Jacoby’s research prerogative of consulting not only Feuillet notations, but also dance treatises, paintings, acting manuals, the journals of choreographers, and the letters written by people who had attended original productions.
Turocy soon after went into debt to finance a video that would be the first serious look at the process of reconstructing 18th century ballet, “The Art of Dancing, An Introduction to Baroque Dance.” That debt soon looked more like an investment. The video introduced the company’s work to a growing audience, became a requisite addition to library dance collections, influenced a generation of modern American choreographers, and caught the eye of the National Endowment for the Arts. Turocy was offered a fellowship to scour British libraries for original documents, and while in London brought her dancers over for a small tour. “Our mouths dropped open in astonishment when we saw our name in subway stations all over London, plastered on the cartoonish Time Out Magazine poster,” Turocy said. “In a land where Monty Python ruled, we were embraced and felt right at home.” The noted baroque conductor John Eliot Gardiner heard report of Turocy’s productions, attended a concert, and engaged her to choreograph a series of Rameau operas throughout France, where Le Figaro hailed her as “the Camargo from Ohio,” and observed that “nobody today seems more qualified to reconstruct the French dances of the 18th century than this American.” In 1982, Gardiner asked Turocy to choreograph Rameau’s Les Boréades , an opera that had never been performed due to the composer’s untimely death. Thus the opera’s premiere at the Festival d’Aix en Provence made Turocy, as Le Monde noted, the original choreographer over two centuries later for one of Rameau´s masterpieces.
The company’s reputation grew, and when Turocy and Jacoby collaborated with Richman – who was by now Turocy’s husband – on a production of Rameau’s Les Fêtes d´Hébé , Time Magazine took note and asked, “But can such a gentle artifice still speak to the brutal and cynical 20th century? A hardy band of performers is answering yes,” going on to praise the company’s “glowing” productions.
The company began to forge relationships with some of early music’s foremost orchestras, and in addition to frequent collaborations with Concert Royal, has worked often with Nicholas McGegan’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music, John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists, Ryan Brown’s Opera Lafayette, Apollo’s Fire of Cleveland, and with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Bach Society, the New World Symphony, the Smithsonian Chamber Players, and the Monteverdi Orchestra; the company has appeared at the Spoleto Festival USA, The Kennedy Center, the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, the Boston Early Music Festival, Germany’s Handel Festival, and in cities throughout Canada, England, France, Germany, Japan, and Mexico. New York seasons have often been sponsored by the Alliance Française.
Jacoby eventually decided to retire from the stage in pursuit of research interests, publishing articles on baroque dance, and supplied the English translation of Francine Lancelot’s long-awaited La Belle Dance . A number of dancers have come and gone from the company in its 30-year history, and the current group is notable for its connections to the world of contemporary dance as well as for its immersion in Turocy and Jacoby’s model of the “scholar-performer.” Many of the dancers are fluent in Feuillet notation and have become influential presences in the early dance scene, teaching and guesting at universities across the country. The company’s presence has been of wide-reaching consequence: there are few people working in the field, especially in the United States, who cannot trace their lineage to the NYBDC.
Esteem for the company’s achievements continues to grow. In 1995, Turocy and Richman were decorated by the French Ministry of Culture in the Order of Arts and Letters as Chevaliers (knights), in recognition of their outstanding work. And in 2000, Turocy was awarded New York’s BESSIE for Sustained Choreographic Achievement, for “a truly experimental reanimation of Baroque dance and the world out of which it emerged.”
The NYBDC is honored to be among a select group of dance companies designated for archiving by the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Videotapes of the company’s productions since 1976 are on view at the Jerome Robbins Archive of the Recorded Moving Image.