NEW YORK — In their leotards and shorts, the dancers sweating through their paces in this stifling subterranean studio at the lower end of Manhattan don't look different from any others who labor in similar settings. But the delicate footwork they perform immediately takes one back to another world--one of imposing wigs, lavish floor-length dresses and pastoral settings.
These 20th-Century dancers are preparing a new version, choreographed by Catherine Turocy and Ann Jacoby, of a 1739 ballet that was a great popular favorite in Paris: "Les Fetes d'Hebe, ou Les Talents Lyriques." This three-act work, set to a score by Jean-Philippe Rameau, will be danced today and Sunday at Royce Hall, UCLA, by Turocy's New York Baroque Dance Company as part of the Nakamichi Baroque Festival.
Since it calls for seven solo singers and a 16-voice chorus to take part in the stage action, "Les Fetes d'Hebe" is scarcely what we think of as a ballet. "In the 18th Century, 'ballet' meant a piece consisting predominantly of dance," Turocy explains. "There was some singing, but the pretext of it all was to display the dancing."
"In 20th-Century terms, it looks like an opera that has a lot of dancing in it. Each act is about 45 minutes long, and more than half of each consists of dances. There are 44 separate dance numbers."
Since founding the New York Baroque Dance Company 10 years ago, Turocy has choreographed works by Handel, Gluck, Lully and Mozart as well as Rameau. In most cases, she choreographed only the dance portion of operas but recently has also been responsible for the overall staging of the productions, basing her work on research into the practices of the period.
In "Terpsichore," a 45-minute dance prologue to Handel's opera "Il Pastor Fido," performed by the company at Ambassador Auditorium two years ago, the dancing was the main attraction. But "Les Fetes d'Hebe" marks the first time Turocy has had the opportunity to work on such an expansive danced work with this large a group of dancers: 13, including herself and Jacoby.
The three acts--or, in the terminology of the period, entrees --represent three of the arts: "La Poesie," "La Musique" and "La Danse." The pretext uniting them involves Hebe, the goddess of youth, who descends to the banks of the Seine to celebrate the arts.
Fast, lively rhythms dominate "La Poesie," an allegorical ballet in which the dancers portray seafaring types. "La Musique" draws on Greek antiquity (Apollo, Mars and Hymen are among the characters) and depicts dance restored to its proper place among the arts and sciences. "La Danse" depicts an 18th-Century ideal of pastoral perfection, complete with shepherds, fauns and nymphs.
Some of Turocy's past projects have involved reconstructing choreography from existing baroque notation, but with "Les Fetes d'Hebe"--and all of Rameau's operas--no notation exists. "There are some notes on the action indicated in the score--'Dance for Apollo,' for instance--but no notes on the dances themselves," she says.
The availability of the music is due in part to the French composer Camille Saint-Saens, who was responsible for recovering and piecing together many Rameau scores, and also to Mary Cyr, a Montreal musicologist who wrote a thesis on the opera and assembled some missing portions of the score.
Turocy and Jacoby divided the choreographic duties. Often, one would suggest spatial patterns and the other supplied individual steps and arm gestures. "We discussed the dramatic context of each dance and how that related to the whole. It's really a collaboration."
"There is a lot of research involved with every individual piece we have presented," Turocy notes, "but with each one we gain that much more knowledge about the style of the period. Now that we've been working consistently in this style for 10 years, it's more a matter of growing in one's knowledge and understanding. The research continues, along with each new work."