Louis XIV

Article excerpt

King of France, dancer and early patron of ballet

In addition to reigning over one of the most glorious periods in French history, Louis XIV (1638-1715) was a patron of the arts, paving the way for dance to transition from a recreational activity to a professional artform. At age 5, he became king of France following the death of his father, Louis XIII. Like his father, Louis XIV loved dancing, and appeared in court ballets in the Royal Palace as early as 1647. He went on to enjoy a long performance career that ended in 1670, when the pressures of ruling his country took precedence.

In addition to performing couple dances such as the minuet in ballroom settings, Louis and his courtiers also performed theatrical court ballets with challenging steps and complex spatial patterns. Dressed in elaborate costumes and surrounded by spectacular stage settings, the king, his courtiers and dancing masters performed together in extravagant spectacles held in lavish theaters within the Royal Palace. Although these performances were not open to the general public, as productions of this sort were considered court entertainment, audiences could include countless nobles, courtiers and diplomats from Europe and beyond.

Louis' official dancing debut was in the ballet Cassandra in 1651. His most well-known performance came in his role as Apollo, the Sun King, in Le Ballet de la Nuit in 1653. The king was only 14 years old when he first performed as the Sun King; the role became his signature dance at court, and he later adopted the moniker "Roi Soleil" for himself. Le Ballet de la Nuit-which was so popular that it was performed six times-was comprised of 43 entrées, or scenes. Each entrée was a mix of dancing, music, speech, props and sparkling costumes and sets, symbolizing events that occur during the night. The climax of the ballet was Louis's grand entrance and solo as the Rising Sun, symbolizing the return of happiness, honor, grace, love, victory, fame and peace to France and the rest of the world. In this and other court ballets, the king was the most elegant figure, starting the tradition of the "premier danseur noble," the stately, classical performer who commands the audience's attention.

During his lifetime, Louis XIV oversaw the development of dance in the serious "noble" style-as opposed to the character parts-and the theoretical foundation his dancing masters established paved the way for today's classical ballet. The king's grand balls and court ballets became the model for dancing throughout Europe, and the gradual dominance of French ballet coincided with France's development into a world power.

In the 17th century, the ramifications of dance extended far beyond entertainment. For example, Louis and his minister Jules Mazarin placed great emphasis on court ballets to entertain foreign visitors and members of the French court, in order to impress Europe and the whole world with the splendor and brilliance of French culture. Because of Louis' influence, France became the ballet mecca of the 17th and 18th centuries. …