fascination with military virtue and French Renaissance music
has a University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor
holding the reins of an elegant reenactment of a 17th-century
equestrian ballet and pageant, complete with horses in feathery
are glorious, highly trained horses. They're stars, both then
and now," said Kate van Orden, who, using research in
the field, is guiding two upcoming performances of Le Carrousel
du Roi, which includes the Ballet À Cheval. "They're
also very big. They're as big as 18 hands, some of them."
À Cheval is a horse ballet originally performed before
a reported crowd of some 200,000 people at the 1612 wedding
of France's King Louis XIII. The carefully choreographed ballet
expresses French notions of chivalry, power and control in
an era when introduction of the musket and infantry threatened
the status of the gallant knight and his powerful steed.
modern reenactment - using 21 costumed horses, ponies and
riders, musicians playing period instruments such as shawms
and sackbuts, along with gymnasts vaulting from horse to horse
- will be staged June 9 -10 as part of the biennial Berkeley
Festival & Exhibition, the largest early music festival
in the United States. The program is presented by UC Berkeley's
Cal Performances at Heather Farm Park, a former equestrian
facility in Walnut Creek.
Orden, the ballet will bring history to life.
knights faltered in the face of firearms in the 16th century,
rather than abandoning their old ways, everything actually
became more 'knightly,'" she said. "Nobles became
more obsessed with chivalric orders, they made heavier and
heavier armor ... One military author of the time said it
was like putting on an entire anvil.
still jousting at the beginning of the 17th century, but battle
shifts toward something more cavalry-like: To be effective,
horsemen leave the armor behind, lighten up, move more quickly
and move together.
ballet ... is, to a certain extent, a good preparation for
war; it will teach you something that will help you be an
effective soldier in battle," van Orden said. "But
at the same time, as soon as knights start to 'musicalize'
their activities, then they put themselves in the space where
the music is supposed to help coordinate, to help synchronize,
not just horse and rider, but groups of people as well.
the more you get groups of people doing the same thing together
and learning to be together, the easier they are to control.
It's all about discipline: they become disciplined even as
they discipline themselves."
Swiss, Spanish and others accepted the military's evolution
and switched their emphasis to the infantry as big battles
on big horses "just went out of fashion," she said.
everyone accepted the changes so easily.
French, especially, really clung to their chivalry and knightliness,"
van Orden said. The upcoming horse ballet depicts those final
glory days in France, as painstakingly reconstructed by van
Orden through the use of engravings of the era, archival materials
such as books, and the original musical score for the equestrian
Orden researched the 1612 horse ballet, she matched its musical
score by Robert Ballard with detail about dances done for
various pieces, working with award-winning
Federation experts Creeky Routson and Teresa Trull to perfectly
time the suitably majestic moves for horses with riders.
songs introducing the ballet, she had text but no music, so
she improvised, fitting the texts to music from other contemporary
with her musician husband, Richard Cheetham, director of the
Festival Winds group and of his own group in London, the Orchestra
of the Renaissance. He arranged the music on a computer using
music notation software to make a compact disc recording of
the music for the ballet rehearsals.
the ballet was loaded with challenges, among them the music's
deceptive simplicity. "No one who was a musicologist
ever wanted to talk about this music, but although simple,
in the context of the spectacle it works perfectly to amplify
the movements of the horses," she said. "And we've
added the greatest hits of the dance repertory from that time."
involved matching the gaits of the large horses with the tempo
of the music and adjusting for other complications such as
everyone's been measured," including the horses, van
Orden said. "We also needed to sit down and see, at the
final grueling level of practical detail, exactly what steps
are being done to what music and how long it takes to form
Jennifer Ellis from San Francisco plays what van Orden calls
a "Trojan Venus" role. "Bless her," said
van Orden. "She's willing to sing on a horse, with a
microphone." UC Berkeley drama student Scott Simons will
serve as master of ceremonies, or what in 1612 was called
the "mareschal du camp."
poetry from the 17th century at the start of the program introduces
the era. "It gives you a sense of the aesthetic,"
she said, "and prepares the audience (for the ballet).
horses, said van Orden, earn top billing.