The Half-Serious Style

The Half-Serious Style

The half-serious style (also called the demi-caractère), which together with the comic was much more popular broadly in European theaters than the serious style, is very poorly outlined in the sources, and consequently an element of speculation is unavoidable in any attempt to reconstruct it.

When speaking of this style broadly, the sources generally suggest that it was technically close to the serious style. Angiolini (1765), for example, writes that

The dance in the demi-caractère style is as close to la belle danse, or la haute danse [i.e., the serious style], as the dance of which I just spoke [i.e., the comic] is to the grotesque. . . . This style demands of its performers correctness, lightness, equilibrium, smoothness and grace. It is here that the arms (if I may be permitted the expression) make their first appearance in dance and are to be supple and graceful; in the previous two styles [of the comic and grotesque], they count for nothing, serving merely to allow the dancer to soar with greater ease.

There is some evidence, however, that the half-serious used a position of the arms (and thus a movement of the arms) different from that in the serious style, and the same goes for the position of the body as well, i.e., the torso. First of all, Dubos (1719: 1/495) states broadly that “dance today is divided into a number of characters [i.e., styles], and each of these characters on the stage has steps, attitudes [i.e., positions], and figures that are proper to it.”  Dubos, however, does not state what these distinctive “attitudes” were. Charles Didelot (1769-1837) appears to have maintained the system of distinct styles in Russia at a time (the early nineteenth century) when the system had already broken down and a single blended style emerged. Didelot’s student Adam Glushkovsky ([1851] 1940: 164) was to write retrospectively that

serious dances were performed to adagio and marcia music. Didelot always composed smooth-flowing dances for the main person, with various attitudes but seldom mixed with entrechats or fast pirouettes. The demi-caractère dancer performed to andante grazioso and allegro music; for him, Didelot composed graceful dances with an altogether different position of the body and arms, and made use of quick petits pas [i.e., steps suitable for petit allegro] and pirouettes of a different kind from those of the serious pas. And for the comic dancer, he would create a pas to allegro music mostly with different kinds of jumps, such as leaps in the air (tours en l’air) with a different movement of the body and arms. Thus, the audience saw in each dancer a particular type of dance.

In agreement with Dubos’s general statement, Glushkovsky indicates that “an altogether different position of the body and arms” was used in the traditional half-serious style.

Figure 1. Fifth position of the arms. “The right arm open and the left completely closed.”

It is worth noting here that according to Angiolini (1773: 54), “dance in its fundamentals, as you [i.e., Noverre] certainly know, has not changed in any way [since the time of Pécour (1653-1729)].” And Didelot’s training as a dancer almost certainly started in the late 1770s. And so there is no compelling reason to dismiss Glushkovsky’s remark as “too late.”

The only other known arm position available is so-called fifth position of the arms (to use Malpied’s terminology). This position was already known by 1700 and is described in Feuillet (1700: 97) and shown in the inset of figure 1. Feuillet also describes the shape of the “completely closed” arm elsewhere in his handbook; compare also Weaver’s rendering into English from his 1706 translation of Feuillet (figure 2). These same notational characters and captions are repeated in later works that derive from Feuillet.

Figure 2. Left: “the arm completely in front of oneself at height” Feuillet (1700: 97). Right: Weaver (1706: 55). A represents the shoulder, B the elbow, and C the wrist.

As a general principle, the height of the arms in realizing a position was variable:

The port de bras must be done low, mid, and high depending on whether the steps are low or high and strong. (Hänsel 1755: 135)

All three kinds of ballerini [i.e., dancers in all the styles] can move the arms in four ways, low, mid, high, and forced, this last kind called les grands bras by the French. (Magri 1779: 1/113)

On the basis of these statements, one would expect the following realizations of fifth position at different heights:

Figure 3. Fifth position at different heights.

Some of these are in fact shown in poses in the iconography, although whimsically altered (back-flexed hands):

Figure 4. Dancers in poses (Lambranzi 1716: III/47, 36).

Figure 5. Left and Middle: dancers in poses from costume designs; right: the equivalent of low fifth shown in Blasis (1820: pl. I, fig. 3), described as “opposition, épaulement du corps; demi-bras in opposition, and the legs in third position.”

Consider also the dancer on the right, inclining to the side away from the Wind, with his arms in forced fifth:

Figure 6. A detail from a mid-century depiction of a scene from a pantomime ballet showing a Wind in action.

The “forced” height (with the hand of the opposing arm raised well above the head) was, at least in theory, to be used more sparingly:

Les grands bras, or the forced arms, are, as was said, those used in tableaux, in attitudes, with the Furies and in other such actions. . . . Grotesque dancers make great use of these forced arms both in comic and transalpine roles. (Magri 1779: 1/114-15)

This is the grand or highest position of the arms . . . This position should never be used unless to express grandeur, extreme voluptuousness, or in grouping, the other four positions being sufficient for all ordinary purposes. (Théleur 1831: 45)

Practically, this means that the regular “high” carriage of the arms was that wherein the hand of the opposing arm was raised to a height level with the top of the head (“high 2” in figure 3), which then implies that “high 1” would be used when the leg was raised only to the height of the calf:

Figure 8. Top: fifth position at “high 2.” Bottom: fifth position at “high 1.”

Compare also Théleur (1831: 44): “The Fourth Position. This position is the three quarter arm, and should be placed as far distant above the half arm as the quarter is below it, which will bring the hands in a line with the top of the head.” As noted just above, Théleur reserved the highest position (with the hand well above the head) only for very grand moments.

Glushkovsky stated that the half-serious dancer used “an altogether different position of the body” as well, without stating how the position differed. The position of the body in the serious style when forming opposition involved a small sidelong inclination of the torso (and épaulement when on the diagonal). That is, the shoulders were both inclined and shaded, as shown on the right in figure 9:

Figure 9. Different positions of the body.

The difference then may have been that the half-serious dancer did not avail himself of the sidelong inclination of his counterpart in the serious style. The “square” and “shaded” have been assumed here. Compare the reconstructions of the sissonne ouverte in these two styles below:

Figure 10. A reconstruction of the sissonne ouverte: half-serious (top) and serious (bottom).

Fifth position also implies a different movement of the arm. In the serious style, the movement was localized around the elbow, as a so-called mouvement du coude (figure 11).

Figure 11. Mouvement du coude

Since the opposing arm in fifth position is directly in front of the body, it is physically impossible to take out or bring in the arm in a mouvement du coude. Indeed, Feuillet’s notation characters showing movement in and out of the position “completely in front” are described as mouvements de l’épaule (figure 12).

Figure12. A reconstruction of a mouvement de l’épaule.

The representation of the movement in Beauchamps notation strongly suggests that the hand was to describe a curvilinear path in moving in or out, as shown above (and in a similar fashion to that found in the serious style). As Angiolini noted above, “it is here that the arms (if I may be permitted the expression) make their first appearance in dance and are to be supple and graceful.

For high jumps, the following port de bras was used:

With capers, however, if one wishes to do one with force (straight up, to the side, to the back, out to the fore), the arms are taken down during the tempo [i.e., the preparatory bend], but in springing they are re-extended so that both arms come to lie in a straight line. From this, the following rule may be formulated: With the help of both arms, one can achieve height or elevation into the air off the floor. (Behr 1713: 47)

Figure 12. A reconstruction of the capering port de bras in the half-serious style.

It also seems likely that zigzagging – along with forward inclinations or nods when changing orientation, as reconstructed for the serious style – was also used in the half-serious. This is implied by Hogarth (1753: 148):

There are other dances that entertain merely because they are composed of variety of movements and performed in proper time, but the less they consist of serpentine or waving lines, the lower they are in the estimation of dancing-masters: for, as has been shewn, when the form of the body is divested of its serpentine lines it becomes ridiculous as a human figure, so likewise when all movements in such lines are excluded in a dance, it becomes low, grotesque and comical; but however, being as was said composed of variety, made consistent with some character, and executed with agility, it nevertheless is very entertaining. Such are Italian peasant dances, &c.

Figure 13. The high rounded arms performed with the contretemps de gavotte de côté (Feuilet 1700: 102).

In place of the high rounded arms used in the serious style with certain smaller jumps (such as the contretemps de gavotte de côté), as shown in figure 13, the half-serious dancer may have done a double mouvement de l’épaule. That is to say, both hands were first drawn in in front of the body (figure 14 right), and then thrown out following the line reconstructed in figure 12. Such a movement is in fact described by Feuillet as a “double mouvement de lépaule” (figure 14 left).

Figure 14. Left: “double mouvement de l’épaule from below upwards and from above downwards” (Feuillet 1700: 99). Right: a reconstruction of sixth position.

I mentioned before the possibility that sidelong inclinations of the head may have been done when the dancer was en face in an opposable position of the feet but with the arms not in opposition, as in an entrechat, for example. This practice was followed in the Cecchetti school of the early twentieth century, and Beaumont (1922: 26-27) provides a number of examples:

In advancing across the stage, the head should incline slightly on the side of the foot that makes the step forward. That is to say, if the right foot is advanced, the head must be inclined slightly towards the right shoulder, and vice versa.
In retiring across the stage, the head should incline slightly on the side opposite to the foot that makes the step backward. That is to say, if the right foot is withdrawn, the head must be inclined slightly towards the left shoulder, and vice versa.
It should be understood that the rules for the movement of the head when the dancer advances or retires across the stage obtain only during the execution of a pas. In walking across the stage, whether advancing or retiring, the head should be held erect.
When the dancer faces the audience and with one foot describes a rond de jambe à terre en dehors, so that the foot describes on the ground a semi-circle from front to back, the [27] head should be inclined to the side opposite to the foot that makes the movement. That is to say, if the right foot describes a rond de jambe à terre en dehors, the head is inclined towards the left shoulder, and vice versa.
When the dancer faces the audience and with the one foot describes a rond de jambe à terre en dedans, so that the foot describes on the ground a semi-circle from back to front, the head should be inclined to the same side as the foot that makes the movement. That is to say, if the right foot describes a rond de jambe à terre en dedans, the head should be inclined towards the right shoulder, and vice versa.
When the dancer faces the audience and turns his body to right or left away from the audience, the head must be inclined towards the side to which he turns.

In connection with a number of individual steps, Beaumont (1922) and Craske (1930) prescribe tilts of the head. Based on these descriptions, further principles can be extrapolated. In jumping steps performed en face and without any contrastive position of the arms, the head tilts during the plié and remains tilted during the rise into the air, but straightens upon landing, that is to say, at the end of the step.

I am inclined to think that this practice was at least partly inherited from earlier ballet. Certainly, sidelong inclinations of the head were known well before the twentieth century (figure 15).

Figure 15. Left: Auguste Vestris c1780; right: dancer from Théleur (1831: pl. 9).

And there is one clear allusion to a sidelong tilt of the head in a similar context in the eighteenth-century sources. In his description of the temps de courante en avant when performed in the ballroom minuet, Dufort (1728: 146) writes that “you can also raise the arms a little more [in the minuet port de bras], and with the head tilted somewhat towards the right, cast a glance at the toe of the foot that does the step, with the eyes upon it until halfway along its path, and then the head is brought back into its natural balance.” He adds that “if he who means to do this bend of the head is not certain of showing a most natural and unaffected gracefulness during its execution, it would be better to forgo it.” Dufort does not make clear whether the right or left is the gesture leg, but since the pas de menuet usually results in the right leg being free at the end, the gesture leg is likely the right here. Thus, the head apparently leans towards the gesture leg, as a kind of opposition.

I am inclined to recommend such inclinations for at least a few movements, notably the entrechat, cabriole under the body, and the bourrée en l’air.

These then are the main notable technical features of the half-serious style as I have reconstructed it.