Book Review:The Dancing Body in Renaissance Choreography

by Lord Isaac de Hugo

[ This article appeared in volume 1 of the Letter of Dance. ]

[I'd like to preface this article by saying that it's from an early issue, before my publication policies had set. Looking back on it, I think it's a bit over-strongly-worded; future submitters should keep their rhetoric toned down a bit. I've included it in this online edition because it was published, and does make a number of solid points... -- Justin]

Franko, Mark. The Dancing Body in Renaissance Choreography (C. 1416-1589). Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications, 1986. 102 pp., b & w illustrations.

The text includes an Introduction, Five Chapters, Notes and a Bibliography. In a rather oblique way, the author states that he is attempting to research the relationship between the Renaissance dancer and his/her audience. Despite what he claims, Franko actually seems to focus his writing on a discussion of the great "missing link" in Renaissance Dance. While we know a great deal about the music and steps of many dances through the numerous dance manuals that survive, Franko concurs with modern scholarship in asserting that the Renaissance dance manuals offer little information about how a dancer actually moves and executes the steps of the dances. This gap in primary source information constitutes the "missing link" in dance reconstruction, and the author appears to be attempting to locate and describe this "missing link".

Ultimately, Franko fails miserably with this book for at least two reasons. First, his turgid, pedantic, and opaque writing renders the content virtually incomprehensible. Consider this sentence in the concluding paragraph of the text.

"If a semiotics [oh, that word!] of dance is impossible in the Renaissance it is precisely because, despite the inherently ideological character of its strategy, gesture cuts across the previsions of choreography and forces us to radically reconsider the sense of codification in dance during this period." (78)

Consider also this sentence in the Introduction:

"I take the term theatricality, therefore, in its broadest sense, free of allusions to the theatrical conventions of dramaturgy, and yet also in its most radically primal sense as inseparable from the appearance of the human body and voice when inexplicably heightened and set into relief: theatricalized." (3)

Second, he does little more than beat around the bush when he tries to build his arguments or support his claims. He never seems to conclude just exactly what is the relationship between the Renaissance dancer and his/her audience (his avowed purpose), nor does he give us any concrete idea about how the "missing link" he has found can help us dance more authentically.

Nevertheless, no one can doubt Franko's meticulous research and breadth of knowledge. His expertise in the field and thorough documentation remain most impressive. (Obviously these strengths were enough to seduce the editors at Summa Publications into publishing this book, because Franko's writing is abominable and his theories are inconclusive.) Franko also takes great pains to ground his theories in conservative scholarship. For example, he defers to current research indicating that regional differences in dance execution existed across Renaissance Europe. Furthermore, he agrees with his fellow scholars that the Renaissance dance masters neglected to discuss dance execution, attitude, posture, and movement because this information existed elsewhere in Renaissance culture at a more fundemental level. Franko ultimately brings ideas and information from many sources to break new ground by asserting that the Renaissance conventions of oratory and of civility provide that fundamental system of movement -- the "missing link" in the chain of Renaissance dance reconstruction -- that explains how the human body should move and pose while dancing.

Franko bases his theory on analysis of language. By comparing dance manuals with oratory and civility manuals, he identifies strong similarities in vocabulary and meaning of language. He does make some interesting points, even if he fails to develop them clearly. Very simply, he argues that dance uses the language of rhetoric while civility (etiquette) uses the language of commerce. That is, dancers "speak" to their audiences through the steps they execute, while people quite literally "exchange" courtesies through a very rigidly scrutinized accouting system of manners. Unfortunately, Franko neglects to explicate clearly the application of this theory to the practice of dancing. He never tells us how we might use this knowledge to reconstruct the dances more authentically.

The author's thorough scholarship does give the book great value as a reference source. The Bibliography certainly is exhaustive and of great use to any serious student of the subject. The text is scrupulously and meticulously documented, perhaps documented to a fault. The notes, for example, constitute about twenty per cent of the volume of the entire work. Obviously, this makes the book difficult to read, for each fifteen-page chapter groans under the weight of forty to sixty citations. The problem here parallels that of Sutton's translation of Arbeau's Orchesography: the notes overwhelm, confuse and frustrate when they should be citing sources or explaining marginal details.

He cites materials from English, French, Latin, and Italian sources and, in doing so, provides original text and gives the translation. In fact, Franko includes more quotes from other sources than original thought, explication, or conclusions of his own. A good twenty to twenty-five per cent of the bulk is consumed by these citations and their English translations. Franko's over-reliance on quotes to explicate his ideas destroys the thematic unity of the work (if it had any in the first place). Ultimately, we are left with little more then a hodge-podge of quotes strung together in the worst undergraduate way.

The inclusion of all the original passages in the various languages seems more pretentious than informative. If he was trying to make his work readable (God forbid), he would not clutter the page with the originals. Since he so scrupulously cites sources, inclusion of the original text seems superfluous, because the meticulous reader could rely upon the author's excellent notes to find the originals for a check of his translation or for an examination of the particular passage in its correct context.

Granted, handling foreign passages and their translations in any scholarly work remains a no-win situation. Had he omitted the foreign passages, someone would have criticized the decision. In the particular case of this text, however, the inclusion of the scores of foreign passages compound the problem of the superabundant notes -- they unnecessarily pad the bulk of the book. Take away the foreign language passages and streamline the obsessive notes, and this text probably would not merit individual publication as a "book". Instead, this slim volume would probably shrink in size to that of a chapter in an anthology or a long journal article.

The Fourth Chapter contains the only truly detailed discussion on movement and the execution of Renaissance dance steps. Two of these discussions deserve mention here because of their potential value to students of the subject. First, Franko identifies patterns of movement in the Renaissance dance steps that correlate to phrasing patterns in the dance music. Specifically, he suggests that these musical and choreographic patterns build upon a repetitive rising and falling cycle. Stated more concretely, Franko lends support to the idea that a dancer should rise on the toes and then drop the heels in executing a pavan step. His analysis corroborates and expands Betty B. Mather's speculation in her Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque. Mather illuminates the flow of arcis and thesis imbedded in vitually all Renaissance dances, and she calls for the dance steps to incorporate this rising and falling action.

Purists in the field of Renaissance dance reconstruction denounce interpretations such as Mather's and Franko's. They would cringe at the sight of a pavan line that has variation along the vertical line. Fortunately, new scholars such as Franko are dissenting, and this dissent represents a much-welcomed challenge to the stifling control that the radically conservative purists have held over Renaissance dance reconstruction.

Second, Franko brings particular attention to the Renaissance notion of "fantasmata" in the fourth chapter. He urges dancers to perceive Renaissance dance not as a combination of pauses and steps, but as a never-ending flow of changes from stasis to dynamism. "Fantasmata" is that elusive moment of change from one to the other. This illumination of this important Renaissance aesthetic can help dancers understand how to "feel" the flow of motion as they move through a dance.

As a subordinate aspect of the concept of "fantasmata", Franko asserts that Renaissance aesthetics called for contrasts between stasis and motion in the dances. Again, his research and speculation on this point can help dancers understand the fundemental choreographic principles of Renaissance dance. He never applies any of these theories very well, however, nor does he show how we are to put them into practice when performing Renaissance dances.

Ultimately, Franko fails to enlighten us in the area of performance techniques for Renaissance Dance. Perhaps he demurs at dictating interpretive decisions in a field that allows little more then speculative conclusions. As he mentions early in his text, dance reconstructionists must rely on their own instincts and inferential reasoning abilities when performing period dances. While he meticulously lays out the theoretical underpinnings for his theories, he never follows through with a pragmatic discussion on the implementation of his ideas in performance.

This book represents research and thought on a rather lofty plane. It seems like a book that would find a more receptive and better educated audience about twenty years from now. Hopefully, by then more primary research, translation and reconstruction will exist and circulate in the general domain of Renaissance dance.

Only recently have we enjoyed the use of a complete translation of Caroso's Nobilita di dame. Negri's manual awaits translation, as do so many other primary documents. Very little of the music from Caroso or the other dance manuals is generally available either in modern musical form for our musicians to perform or in recorded form for us to hear. Most dancers look to the leading scholars in the field to translate, edit, explicate and reconstruct the primary sources for them to use. Not enough of this kind of work circulates, however, in the general population of students of dance. Such basic research, translation and publication ought to be the number one research priority. We look to Franko and scholars such as he to generate it. Without doubt he would sell many copies of a translation and recording of Beaujoyeulx's Circe. Even Orchesography could benefit from a re-examination by a knowledgeable and careful scholar such as Franko. He would certainly earn more royalties from such undertakings than from this current publication.