Music is always better with dance. Dance, when sensitively well-placed, informs the music. And on Saturday night at Hubbard Hall, baroque dancer Ken Pierce personified the uplifting compositions performed expertly by a Music from Salem trio.
Featuring violist Lila Brown, violinist Sharan Leventhal and double bassist Jeffrey Herchenroder, the baroque concert was a departure for Music from Salem. The fluid and inspired ensemble of musicians has built its reputation by entertaining the ear exclusively. But to music from J.S. Bach, Jean-Marie Leclair, Pascal Colasse and others, Music from Salem expanded its realm to the belle danse — the theatrical and social dances from the court of Louis the XIV.
And while this was a bare-bones production, with a single dancer in wig and lacy cuffs and collar, the audience left with an appreciation for the dances that form much of baroque’s musical structure, such as a gigue, gavotte and sarabande. Equally important is that these dances, ubiquitous among the aristocracy in its time, spawned classical ballet.
At first glance, the dances don’t resemble today’s ballet — an art form that has grown obsessed with extreme technique and jaw-dropping pyrotechnics. But on closer observation, Pierce clearly demonstrated the lineage. Dressed in a wig and period costume of his own making, Pierce’s upright carriage and open hands floated. His arms swung naturally about his frame without any fancy port de bras or finishing poses.
All the action happened below his knees — a walk on tip-toe, a low brush of his foot and a little hop. It was all done with a gentleness that defied contemporary ballet. The plié was high and delicate, the turn out unforced, and the jumps bright and spritely, but close to the floor.
Pierce, with a background in ballet and modern dance, is an ideal vessel for baroque dance. Dancing in the baroque style in both New York and Paris, Pierce is considered a scholar in this field. Yet on Saturday night, he oozed elegance danceur — striving every moment for perfect poise and placement.
He simmered in the sarabande with its slow turns and gained momentum in the gigue with his tours en l’air and sharp battement tendus. The dignified dancer released his comedic side in a final chaconne as a harlequin.
Frankly, for the uninitiated, baroque dance can seem staid and dull. Pierce wisely kept his pieces brief — instantly plunging the audience into the heart dances. Thus, he gained easy approval and interest.
The musicians were tremendous. In Leclair’s Sonata No. 2, Brown and Leventhal were animated, moving the audience by savoring the intricacies of the music. Also terrific was Leventhal, who radiated an optimism in Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major for violin solo.
Both compositions included a minuet, which, sadly, the audience did not get to see performed, as that requires more than one dancer. But hearing those minuets roused a longing. Would Music from Salem consider engaging more than one baroque dancer next time?
That is something to strive for.