From ballet de cour to divertissement: changing conventions in representing gods on the French stage

Deities, winds, furies, allegorical figures, and pastoral mortals (nymphs, shepherds, shepherdesses, etc.) appeared frequently in the court ballet, animated by dance music appropriate to their characters and contexts. Apollo graced the stage with his elegant carriage and noble steps - whether danced by Louis XIV, a nobleman, or a professional dancer. Among the most frequently represented of the Greco-Roman deities (after Apollo), Jupiter, Mars, Neptune, Pluto, and Bacchus all appeared in a variety of situations in dance roles in the court ballet. With the advent of the tragédie en musique, the gods and goddesses became removed from the physical exertion of the dance, appearing on-stage as singing actors rather than as dancers. Instead of dancing themselves, they provided the scene with troupes of singing and dancing followers who performed in the service of the deities, expressing delight, seeking to entertain, serving their masters and mistresses in a manner similar to the way the performers of the king's operas served their employer.  Although the highest level of divinities ceased to be danced roles, furies, demons, and winds maintained their colourful physical presence, flitting with even greater speed and violence than their court ballet predecessors, judging from their music. This paper examines connections between representations of gods, furies, demons, and winds in Louis XIV's court ballets and the tragédie en musique from the perspective of music, role-type, and dramatic context in order to shed light on the curious shift from dancing gods to singing gods - a shift which roughly coincides with Louis XIV's withdrawal from the court ballet stages and the assignment of dance roles in the operas solely to professional dancers - and the relative consistency of representation of furies, winds and demons in Lully's tragédies.

Rose Pruiksma
Author affiliation
Department of Music, Bates College, USA