This Show Lets You Time Travel Through 400 Years of Dance History in 60 Minutes


Looking for a ballet class with no pointe shoes or pirouettes required? In fact, where you don’t even have to bend a toe? Beginning tonight, sit back and take a “class” (of sorts) from American Contemporary Ballet artistic director Lincoln Jones. ACB’s Dance+Design II series, which continues through the weekend at the Bloc downtown, demonstrates how the pas de deux—the quintessential dance duet—has evolved over the course of 400 years. This is a deep dive into history, but don’t expect to snooze in your stage-level seat. Jones’s talks are lively and company members do all the sweaty stuff, performing six pieces within the hour-long program. We spoke with Jones during final rehearsals. 

In addition to pas de deux excerpts from GiselleThe Sleeping Beauty, and Agon, which others are being performed?
We’re dancing Folies D’Espagne from the Baroque era. It is based on a dance that was banned in Spain for its “extraordinary obscenity.” The French version is more restrained, but the way Cleo Magill dances it, I can see why the religious authorities of the time might have taken issue. We’re also dancing Celeste Giglio from the Renaissance, which was dedicated to a duke and duchess of Parma, and Vestris Gavotte from 1775, which is one of the few dances we can reconstruct from that era.

Is each performed by a man and a woman? Does that define a pas de deux, and has that definition changed over time?
Yes, each is a dance for one man and one woman. The term pas de deux in the contemporary sense really comes into use in the 19th century. It is preceded by danse à deux, or entrée à deux. Earlier, in the Renaissance, for instance, there are dances designed for a man and a woman, but without a specific term because it was the assumed form of most social dances (just as in the 19th century, you wouldn’t need to say “a waltz for a man and a woman”).

The expectation of what a pas de deux includes changes over time. For instance, in the later 19th century, a grand pas de deux encompasses a slow partnered dance between the man and the woman, followed by a shorter solo dance for each and then a coda, where they alternate dancing fast virtuosic steps. This is the form of our excerpt from The Sleeping Beauty. Our 20th-century pas de deux from Agon has these same elements, but it is also markedly different.

Emily Parker and Mate Szentes rehearsing George Balanchine's Agon
Emily Parker and Mate Szentes rehearsing George Balanchine’s Agon

Photograph by Anastasia Petukhova

What distinguishes each of the six pas de deux? And do they have any similarities?
The Renaissance dance is essentially choreographed social dancing. I could probably teach the individual steps to most of the audience without much difficulty. The fact that it is choreographed into a four-minute sequence, however, makes it more challenging, and to do the steps gracefully, musically, and with some sense of style I think would challenge anyone. Baroque dance is still choreographed social dance (the theatrical dance of the time wasn’t much different stepwise). But in the Baroque era, the steps become much more refined, and much more difficult to perform well with style. Even though Baroque dance was performed primarily by “amateurs,” they were very serious about dance and highly skilled. I think the virtuosity of some of the steps would challenge any professional dancer today.

By the Pre-Romantic era, ballet looks much like we think of it today, but the woman is not yet dancing on her toes. By the Romantic era, she is, and there is also a big emphasis on storytelling in the dance. By the Classical era, pointe work pervades most of the woman’s choreography, even in very virtuosic steps. I think the thing that distinguishes our 20th-century excerpt is its deep connection with music of greater complexity.

What remains the same throughout all these dances is a palpable dynamic between the man and the woman, though that dynamic is a little different in each case, and the fact that they are moving to music together, which is probably as old as humanity itself.

Why did you select these particular pieces to illustrate the development of ballet as an art form?
I thought the most important thing was to select a single dance form, because then we could see everything change around it: the choreography, the music, the costumes. I chose the pas de deux because it was the most pervasive social dance form (which gave me a lot of options for the earlier eras) and is often the centerpiece of later ballets. I chose these particular dances because of their quality and because they exemplify their eras. And with the Vestris Gavotte, as I mentioned, it comes from a time when we aren’t able to reconstruct many of the dances.

Emily Parker and Mate Szentes rehearsing George Balanchine's Agon
Emily Parker and Mate Szentes rehearsing George Balanchine’s Agon

Photograph by Anastasia Petukhova

Any particular challenges during the research and rehearsal process?
There are rapturous descriptions of dancers from each of these periods. Especially with the earlier eras, I wondered what it was about the dancers’ appearance that produced such impressions, and I wanted to try and re-create that effect. I wanted to see what the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the Baroque era looked like. It takes a special dancer for that—one who is willing to immerse him or herself in a new style to a degree where they can really dance through it. I think dancers today are required to be so explosively athletic that it can be difficult for them to approach choreography, which relies more on refinement, musicality, and nuance.

To take the example of Cleo again, she really threw herself into the Baroque and made it live. The result doesn’t look “historical” but sensual, exciting. The possibilities I have seen through this process have made me want to delve even deeper into each of these eras, which I am going to do over subsequent seasons.

What historical source material did you use?
The earlier dances were notated in their own time by the choreographers. Baroque dance is especially well notated, and we had the assistance of Baroque dancer Justin Coates, who is fluent in that language. I did a lot of the costume research myself, because the costumes have a substantial effect on the dancing in some cases.

The research was actually half the fun; it was fascinating to read the advice given by dancing masters in their manuals. Renaissance dancing master Antonius Arena advises, “Always maintain a smiling aspect when dancing and, I pray you, a pleasant friendly expression. Some people look as if they are weeping and as if they want to shit hard turds…”

For a schedule of performances, go here.