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Exploring the science of baroque dance

It took a trip to Ireland for two MIT dancers to meet.

Associate Professor Thomas DeFrantz, director of MIT's Dance Theater Ensemble (DTE), "discovered" Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology administrative assistant Ken Pierce at a conference in Limerick last summer.

Although both are members of the Society of Dance History Scholars, DeFrantz is a contemporary dance scholar while Pierce specializes in late Renaissance and baroque dance. Since they work in different subfields of dance history, it's not surprising it took a while for them to connect, Pierce said.

For DeFrantz, discovering the work of his MIT colleague not only intrigued him; it influenced his MIT teaching. "When I saw Ken perform a reconstruction of a baroque work--in full costume--at the Limerick conference, I understood his work in a new light," DeFrantz said. "Because my DTE students have worked in various dance idioms such as abstract postmodernism, modernist abstraction, structured improvisation and comic gestural activities, I thought it might be time to try something rigorous, structured and based in a long historical dance tradition."

As a result of this inspiration, DeFrantz invited Pierce to be a guest lecturer for a new class this semester in baroque dance (subject 21M-880), as well as a guest choreographer with DTE.

"Les Plaisirs Champêtres" ("Pastoral Pleasures"), a new work by Pierce based on Baroque dance techniques, will be performed by two members of DTE and members of the Longy Early Dance Ensemble (which Pierce directs) on Monday, May 10 at 7 p.m. in Morss Hall in Walker Memorial.

Set to music by Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747), "Les Plaisirs Champêtres" is a short set of pastoral dances in the style of early 18th-century France. These dances--musette, gavotte, chaconne, passepied--tell no story, said Pierce, but rather evoke the idealized world of the noble shepherd and shepherdess, a standard convention in French baroque theater.

"Initially, I set out to make a dance for one couple that could then be expanded by cloning and mirroring to accommodate any even number of dancers," Pierce said. The piece now features six dancers: four from Longy and two from MIT.

Although one may think the stiff, ritualistic Hollywood version of the minuet is the standard of baroque dance, Pierce asserted that in the baroque period, the minuet was a lively, semi-improvised dance for a single couple.

The minuet doesn't involve much physical contact, but "the dancers maintain close connections with one another, keeping track of space, rhythm, energy and all those good things that make up a dance," Pierce said. "Symmetrical spatial patterns are an important component of baroque choreography, and to maintain symmetry, the dancers must pay careful attention to their partners and other dancers."

The steps used in baroque dance are built from a few basic elements--bends, rises, springs and turns--that are combined and ornamented in various ways to form a fairly extensive vocabulary. Steps can be simple or challenging; they can include jumps, beats and turns not too far removed from what one finds in ballet today. The timing and rhythm of the steps relate closely to the music.

The MIT students--Jazlyn Carvajal, a senior in civil and environmental engineering, and James Tolbert, a junior in electrical engineering and computer science minoring in dance--have applied their engineering skills to the task of learning the choreography.

"There is a sense of logic in the way the pieces are mapped out," said Carvajal, noting that Pierce can map the dance on paper so an experienced baroque dancer can decipher and perform it. "It's like drawing up designs for a building or machine and handing them over to the builder as blueprints for construction," she said. "The design engineer (in this case the choreographer) then supervises to make sure all gets done correctly and makes adjustments as needed."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 5, 2004.

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