‘Here No Rank is to be Observed’: The Role(s) of Dancing Masters and Dancing Nobility in German Courtly Ballets, 1650–1700

It has been estimated that for every opera performed in the German-speaking lands during the 17th century around three ballets were presented. Yet while the latter genre’s importance as a means of princely representation is more than amply demonstrated by the central role played by aristocratic dancers, such large-scale courtly musical-theatrical productions also offered a significant opportunity for collaboration between artists from many different fields and from across the social spectrum. Among the performers who naturally played a crucial part were the dancing masters and professional dancers who provided the choreography, trained the dancers (both amateur and professional) and, more often than not, frequently appeared on stage performing alongside members of the nobility. Given that the world of the early modern German court was quite extraordinarily hierarchical – with strict regulations governing the extent to which individual courtiers and servants were permitted to venture within the palace, according to rank – such entertainments acted as important sites of personal interaction, granting dancing masters a highly privileged position within society. This paper draws upon more than sixty printed programme booklets documenting German courtly ballets dating from the second half of the 17th century that present detailed evidence regarding the roles danced by the nobility and dancing masters alike. What were the roles traditionally allotted to dancing masters in such ballets? And what (if any) were considered the preserve of the aristocracy? Furthermore, to what extent did these characterizations reflect an individual’s position within the broader courtly hierarchy?  

Samantha Owens is Associate Professor in Musicology at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington, and an Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. Her research centres on historical performance practices and performance cultures, including early modern German court music, the musical life of early eighteenth-century Dublin, and the reception of German music and musicians in New Zealand and Australia, 1850–1950. Recent publications have included an edited book on Music at German courts, 1715-1760: changing artistic priorities (Boydell & Brewer, 2011) and book chapters on Percy Grainger (in Grainger the modernist, Ashgate, 2015) and the ballet composer Florian Johann Deller (in The works of Monsieur Noverre, Pendragon, 2014). A Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, she has held visiting fellowships at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge and at the MartinLuther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg (as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow).  

Samantha Owens
Symposium Title: 
Teaching Dance 2016
Author affiliation: 
Victoria University of Wellington