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UC Berkeley music professor's research leads her into the arena for 17th-century equestrian ballet
06 Jun 2000

By Kathleen Maclay , Media Relations

Berkeley -- A fascination with military virtue and French Renaissance music has a University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor holding the reins of an elegant reenactment of a 17th-century equestrian ballet and pageant, complete with horses in feathery costumes.

"These are glorious, highly trained horses. They're stars, both then and now," said Kate van Orden, who, using research in the field, is guiding two upcoming performances of Le Carrousel du Roi, which includes the Ballet À Cheval. "They're also very big. They're as big as 18 hands, some of them."

Ballet À Cheval is a horse ballet originally performed before a reported crowd of some 200,000 people at the 1612 wedding of France's King Louis XIII. The carefully choreographed ballet expresses French notions of chivalry, power and control in an era when introduction of the musket and infantry threatened the status of the gallant knight and his powerful steed.

The ballet's modern reenactment - using 21 costumed horses, ponies and riders, musicians playing period instruments such as shawms and sackbuts, along with gymnasts vaulting from horse to horse - will be staged June 9 -10 as part of the biennial Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, the largest early music festival in the United States. The program is presented by UC Berkeley's Cal Performances at Heather Farm Park, a former equestrian facility in Walnut Creek.

For van Orden, the ballet will bring history to life.

"Although knights faltered in the face of firearms in the 16th century, rather than abandoning their old ways, everything actually became more 'knightly,'" she said. "Nobles became more obsessed with chivalric orders, they made heavier and heavier armor ... One military author of the time said it was like putting on an entire anvil.

"They're still jousting at the beginning of the 17th century, but battle shifts toward something more cavalry-like: To be effective, horsemen leave the armor behind, lighten up, move more quickly and move together.

"A ballet ... is, to a certain extent, a good preparation for war; it will teach you something that will help you be an effective soldier in battle," van Orden said. "But at the same time, as soon as knights start to 'musicalize' their activities, then they put themselves in the space where the music is supposed to help coordinate, to help synchronize, not just horse and rider, but groups of people as well.

"And the more you get groups of people doing the same thing together and learning to be together, the easier they are to control. It's all about discipline: they become disciplined even as they discipline themselves."

The Germans, Swiss, Spanish and others accepted the military's evolution and switched their emphasis to the infantry as big battles on big horses "just went out of fashion," she said.

But not everyone accepted the changes so easily.

"The French, especially, really clung to their chivalry and knightliness," van Orden said. The upcoming horse ballet depicts those final glory days in France, as painstakingly reconstructed by van Orden through the use of engravings of the era, archival materials such as books, and the original musical score for the equestrian ballet.

As van Orden researched the 1612 horse ballet, she matched its musical score by Robert Ballard with detail about dances done for various pieces, working with award-winning

U.S. Dressage Federation experts Creeky Routson and Teresa Trull to perfectly time the suitably majestic moves for horses with riders.

For the songs introducing the ballet, she had text but no music, so she improvised, fitting the texts to music from other contemporary songs.

She worked with her musician husband, Richard Cheetham, director of the Festival Winds group and of his own group in London, the Orchestra of the Renaissance. He arranged the music on a computer using music notation software to make a compact disc recording of the music for the ballet rehearsals.

Reconstructing the ballet was loaded with challenges, among them the music's deceptive simplicity. "No one who was a musicologist ever wanted to talk about this music, but although simple, in the context of the spectacle it works perfectly to amplify the movements of the horses," she said. "And we've added the greatest hits of the dance repertory from that time."

The reconstruction involved matching the gaits of the large horses with the tempo of the music and adjusting for other complications such as feathery costumes.

"Yes, everyone's been measured," including the horses, van Orden said. "We also needed to sit down and see, at the final grueling level of practical detail, exactly what steps are being done to what music and how long it takes to form the patterns."

Soprano Jennifer Ellis from San Francisco plays what van Orden calls a "Trojan Venus" role. "Bless her," said van Orden. "She's willing to sing on a horse, with a microphone." UC Berkeley drama student Scott Simons will serve as master of ceremonies, or what in 1612 was called the "mareschal du camp."

Recited poetry from the 17th century at the start of the program introduces the era. "It gives you a sense of the aesthetic," she said, "and prepares the audience (for the ballet).

But the horses, said van Orden, earn top billing.




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