Equestrian ballet was an art form staged at court festivals in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Elaborately costumed riders and horses performed intricate choreographed movements to the music of trumpets and violas. Their dance formed part of the telling of a story, in a way that is similar to an opera. The singers would have been transported onto the grand stage upon moving machinery and carriages.
Etching by Stefano della Bella (1661), ‘Il Mondo Festeggiante: Entrance of Cosimo III de’ Medici’. Bequest of Grace M. Pugh, 1985. Original in the Met Museum.
Its origins are intimately connected with the artists and musicians who created early opera and ballet de cour. For example, the music for two early equestrian ballets, La guerra d’amore from 1615, and La guerre di bellezze from 1616, was written by Jacopo Peri. Peri was a founding father of opera, and composer at the Medici court. As another example, Francesca Caccini wrote the music for La liberazione di Ruggerio, performed in 1625. It is thought to be the first music for an opera to be composed by a woman (see Harness, 2004), and included an equestrian ballet in it’s final scenes. Francesca’s father was Guilio Caccini, another founding father of opera, and member of the influential Florentine Camerata.
The emergence of the art is also entwined with the early riding academies of the period. It’s form represents the embodiment of the philosophy and ethos of these schools, which brought together the study of equitation with music, poetry, dance, philosophy and fine art. For example, Antoine de Pluvinel, who established the first equestrian academy in Paris, choreographed and performed in an early example of a ballet. It took place in 1612, as part of the celebrations for Louis XIII and his sister’s engagement to the Spanish Infantas. Pluvinel’s academy is well documented to have taught the classical liberal arts to the students.
In the opening pages of several surviving librettos, the authors refer to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, or to Virgil’s description of young Trojans, performing labyrinthine patterns with their pacing horses in mounted pyrrhic dances. In these brief references, we can glimpse the intentions behind the creation of equestrian ballet; to reconnect with the arts of the ancients, an endeavour that was at the heart of the endeavours of humanist academies of the period.
Many of the ballet stories were based on mythical themes. The science of mythology was “one of the most important aspects of learning” for the Renaissance mind (Yates, 1947). Within their fables, the poets and philosophers were thought to have hidden higher moral and divine truths. It became central to the way artists of the period communicated ideas, and imbued the performance of riding to music with deeper inner meaning.
A number of prints survive that depict the geometric patterns that the riders and horses would have traced upon the earth as they followed the choreographed movements. The shapes are remarkably similar to floor patterns found in court dance notation of this period. Research by authors such as Jennifer Nevile (2000) suggests that this symbolism “had close associations with the nature of the cosmos and divine truth,” and contained ancient Platonic and Pythagorean symbolism (Carter, 1987, 1992 & 1996; Greene, 2001; Nevile, 1993, 2000, 2004, 2008 & 2012).
Equestrian ballet is a “remarkably understudied” subject (Goethals, 2017). In the current literature, it is defined as a form of political theatre, and examined through the lens of social and religious contexts (see Harness, 2004; Mulryne & Shewring, 1992 & 2002; Mulryne et al, 2004), and as a representative of cultural change (see Ravelhofer, 2015).
I believe that this political lens is too narrow and opaque, and propose that equestrian ballet held an important moral and ethical function for its creators, composers and performers. In this art, we witness a search for ways to cultivate a nuanced and complex artist language that brought riding together with mythology, music, and symbolic movement.
Etching by Stefano della Bella (1637), ‘Carousel in Florence for the Marriage of The Grand Duke Ferdinand II’. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1967. Original in the Met Museum. Note the choreography floor patterns that are depicted.
In order to explore this idea, I am currently engaged in doctoral research at Durham University. My work is supervised by Professor Barbara Ravelhofer (Dept. of English Studies), and jointly co-supervised by Assistant Professor Dr Hector Sequera (Dept. of Music) and Andreas Hausberger, former Chief Rider at the Spanish Riding School. As this scholarship progresses, resources will be made available in the library section of this website.
The research process is interdisciplinary, and includes bringing the mythology, music and choreography of historic ballets back to life through practical performance. New and original choreography will also be created, in order to develop a deeper understanding of the inner meaning of the art form. Recordings will be made available in the performance section of this website.
Rider and horse brought together in harmony through classical riding become a living embodiment of the aesthetic and ethical principles of the art. Contained within their movement is the latent potential for expressing ideas and meaning. By improving our understanding and appreciation of equestrian ballet, this research aims to further the conservation and transmission of the artistic traditions of classical riding for future generations.
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