CAMBRIDGE -- Ken Pierce started out like many dancers. He studied at the American Ballet Theatre School and with the Merce Cunningham dance studio. And then he discovered Baroque dance.
“It was like early ballet,” he said. “The vocabulary was similar. I liked that. And the notation system gave a way to reconstruct a dance from 300 years ago. It was a way to work with these talented choreographers.”
Pierce will give a dance concert on Saturday at Hubbard Hall as part of the Music from Salem series, followed on Sunday by a Baroque dance workshop.
Baroque dance is the type done in theaters or at court, especially during King Louis XIV’s reign (1643-1715). It is a very stylized form of movement in which a small hop, the angle of the wrist or placement of a foot can have meaning.
“The steps are more contained and more intricate,” Pierce said. “They can be highly decorated or ornamented with curved shapes and paths. The dance is a spatially symmetrical pattern.”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Hubbard Hall, Main Street, Cambridge
HOW MUCH: $20, suggested
MORE INFO: 677-2495; www.hubbardhall.org
Anyone who sees Baroque dance and knows something about ballet, will quickly recognize that the foot making the small circle in the air at calf level is ballet’s ronde de jambe and the heel of the foot gently touching at the ankle is a traditional battement.
The style’s familiarity enticed Pierce to study with several instructors of historical dance, including Francine Lancelot, Ann Jacoby and Elizabeth Aldrich, and finally to join Charles Garth’s company.
“I entered this whole world of early dance,” Pierce said. “But I was largely self-taught to learn the notation.”
Systems of notation
In 1700, Raoul-Auger Feuillet published his notation system on how to do numerous steps. Because this type of dancing took place mostly at court, anyone who could paid to have a master teach them the latest dances.
That was especially needed at Louis’ court, since he was known to be very fond of dancing and was himself a very good dancer, Pierce said. The dances could be at a specific tempo, such as a lively minuet or a slow sarabande, or could be part of a theatrical scene called “The Shepherdess,” “The Submission,” or even “Prince Eugene.”
As it became more popular, dancing masters traveled to the courts of Spain and Italy to teach, which led to more treatises being published on how to do the steps. Each country put its own stamp on the style, Pierce said.
Pierre Rameau, who became the dancing master for Elizabeth Farnese, the Queen Consort of Spain, published his “Le maître a danser” on formal French ballroom dancing styles in 1725. The manual covered everything from a dancer’s posture, the steps, how to bow and the use of the arms.
In 1728, Giambatista Dufort published “Trattata del ballo nobile” on Italian Baroque steps; and in 1735, Kellom Tomlinson published his “The art of dancing” on how steps were done at the English court, including four methods of how to do a minuet.
While learning the steps and the choreographies kept Pierce busy, he hadn’t expected that he’d also have to learn how to sew. Costume rental companies had late 18th century clothes but there was nothing he could dance in.
“So I had to learn to make my own,” he said. “It was more practical. I don’t have the budget that Louis had, so I buy remnants and take the specs from original diagrams. The dance and the costume are designed to go together. The movement goes with the costumes. The legs don’t go too high and the line of the costume must match the line of the steps.”
On Saturday, Pierce, who will dance solo, will use at least two costumes, one of which is the harlequin, and he expects to do a few dances, including a sarabande that he will adapt using 300-year old choreography.
Most of the music will be typical of the period with pieces by Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Marie Leclair, Michel Farinel and Pascal Colasse. Other music by J.S. Bach was not written for the dance and is much too complex musically, but Pierce said he wanted to experiment and would choreograph something that would be true to the period.
While there haven’t been that many Baroque dancers around, Pierce has put together a 25-year career in late Renaissance and Baroque styles that has included tours of Europe with such companies as New York Baroque Dance Company, Danse Baroque Toronto, Hemiole dance trio, Ris et Danceries, and with his own company.
His choreography or reconstructions have been commissioned for early music festivals in Copenhagen, the Netherlands, Boston, and Paris Opera. He’s on the board of the Society of Dance History Scholars, and directs the early dance program at the Longy School of Music at Cambridge’s Bard College.
Violist to perform
Violist Lila Brown, who will perform on Saturday, said she first saw Pierce at one of his workshops.
“I’d never really seen Baroque dance before,” she said. “I was so struck by his moves. They were so graceful and beautiful.” She wanted to have a quintet of musicians, but she wasn’t sure who else might be available.
“It will be like the old days,” Brown said laughing. “Like when you had a Mozart opera in the provinces, people had to transcribe the parts with what musicians they had.”
Pierce’s workshop will be on Sunday from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the hall’s dance studio and will cover the basic steps used in the dances of the late 1600s-1750s. Cost is $15, $10. Pre-register at hubbardhall.org or call 677-2495.