Flying phantoms and tumbling faunes: acrobats on the French Baroque musical stage

Late 17th-century French musical theatre, from the low-brow fair theatres to the august stage of the Académie Royale de Musique, not only incorporated dancing into virtually every performance, but also enhanced some spectacles with another kind of movement — acrobatics. Whereas the popular theatres might build entire shows around acrobatic feats (e.g., Circé en postures, performed at the Foire St-Germain in 1678), even Jean-Baptiste Lully integrated judicious doses of tumbling or flying into his ballets, comédie-ballets and operas.  Les Plaisirs de l’île enchantée (1664), for example, has an entrée for jumping demons, and the flying phantom in Thésée (1675) was performed by the leading acrobat of the day, Charles Allard.  This presentation will explore the evidence for acrobatic practices, the works that incorporated them, the types of scenes that could make the participation of sauteurs or voltigeurs dramatically plausible, the types of movement involved, and the music that accompanied such movement.  Charpentier’s music for Thomas Corneille’s machine play Circé  (performed at the Comédie Française in 1675) is particularly revealing in this regard, in that it cues the movements of the acrobats — faunes and other woodland deities, in this instance — to specific musical phrases.  This model then makes it possible to examine works that only hint at their acrobatic features, with a sharpened eye.

Rebecca Harris-Warrick
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
Department of Music, Cornell University, USA