Videotape Reviews: Il Ballarino: The Art of Renaissance Dance

[ This article appeared in volume 2 of the Letter of Dance. ]

Il Ballarino: The Art of Renaissance Dance, 1990, directed by Julia Sutton and Johannes Holub, narrated by Julia Sutton. Dance Horizons Video, Princeton Book Company, PO Box 57, Pennington, NJ 08534. 1 videocassette (VHS), 33 min. ISBN 0-87127-170-2, $39.95.

Reviewed by Mistress Urraca Yriarte de Gamboa

There is now an instructional video available on Renaissance dance! Julia Sutton narrates a half-hour introduction to sixteenth-century steps and dance types. After introducing the period, the tape goes through demonstrations of the most common steps, and a few more advanced ones, showing them slowly from different angles. Then three dances, So Ben Mi Chi Ha Buon Tempo, Allegrezza d'Amore, and La Caccia d'Amore are used to show the steps in action. Subtitles label the steps as the dancers execute them, allowing the viewer to see how complex sequences are built up out of basic steps.

The first dance is a three-part balletto including a galliard section. The second is a complex cascarda for three. However, the third dance, a longways set for four couples, was chosen to illustrate how informal and light-hearted Renaissance dance could be. Dr. Sutton emphasizes its similarity to country dance figures. Her dancers flirt and poach and tease each other. She takes pains to remind people that however formal or not the occasion may have been, these were social dances, not stage dances.

If you have access to a live teacher familiar with Italian dances, you may not need this video. If you can visualize the steps and how they go together, you may as well go straight to the primary sources or to the translations that are now available. But since many people have trouble picturing these steps from written descriptions, and people who can teach Italian dances are scarce, this video removes a major obstacle for those who would like to learn but lack resources. It will surely be a welcome aid for many SCA dancers who would like to do more authentic period dances.

Reviewed by Sion Andreas o Wynedd

This is it, the first Renaissance dance video, and, wouldn't you know, the professionals beat us to it!

In this video, Dr. Julia Sutton gives us her interpretation of late 16th century dance, and I must stress that this is her interpretation. She runs though a basic step repertoire, and then presents three dances: So Ben Mi Ch'a Buon Tempo, Allegrezza d'Amore, and Caccia d'Amore.

On that basic level this tape is very useful. If a dancer lives in a place where getting experts to teach and demonstrate is next to impossible, then this is a good substitute. In this tape the demonstrators show the steps at various tempi from different vantage points. Dr. Sutton takes the time to remark on the style in which these dances ought to be presented, and then puts all this together in the presentation dances, which are performed by some of the best dancers in the field.

Do I have qualms about this video? Well, yes. Dr. Sutton and I have clear differences in the reconstruction styles we prefer. She uses Nobilta di Dame as her arbiter, so that whenever there is an interpretation problem, she turns to late Caroso, even for early Caroso and Negri dances where the step descriptions are different. (For example: she uses Caroso's Seguito Ordinario in So Ben Mi Ch'a Buon Tempo, when Negri's description of the step is in fact Caroso's Seguito Semidoppio; she translates the abbreviation .SP. as Seguito Spezzato when Negri says that abbrevature means Fioretto Spezzato.) She also has the steps performed in what I consider to be a rather exaggerated style, which struck me as too artificial and pretentious. Now, her reconstructions are valid (we must always keep the validity of differing interpretations close to our hearts), but they just don't thrill me. I would advise that when watching this video, one should abide by Ingrid Brainard's golden rule and check Sutton's versions against the originals. You may be surprised.

Qualms aside, if I were asked, "Is this tape worth the $40 price tag," I would say, "YES!!!," and I do! Dr. Sutton sank a lot of her own money in getting this tape produced the way she wanted it produced, and despite my reconstruction differences with Dr. Sutton, you might agree with her.

I encourage you to contact Dance Horizons and get a copy of this tape. Not only may it help you, but it also sends a message to the publishing industry that we want these products.

Music/Book Review: "English Country Dances" by the Boxwood Consort

Reviewed by Justin du Coeur

"English Country Dances", 1991, performed by The Boxwood Consort; Bill Litchman, Albuquerque, NM.

Dance Instructions to Accompany "English Country Dances", 1991, by William M. Litchman; Bill Litchman, Albuquerque, NM.

Address: The Boxwood Consort, 1620 Los Alamos SW, Albuquerque NM 87104. Cost: for the Tape -- $9 + $1 postage & handling; for the Booklet -- $4 + $1 p&h; for both -- $11 + $2 p&h.

Rebecca Gore, one of the subscribers to the Letter, was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of this book and tape some while ago. I thank her greatly; it's useful for me to know what is going on elsewhere in the world. Together, this tape and booklet provide a nice selection of English Country dance through the years.

Let's get the less-favorable part of the review out of the way first: the book is too expensive, at least on its own. It is a fairly slim pamphlet, just the size of an issue of the Letter of Dance. It provides instructions for all of the dances on the tape, but is fairly terse in all cases -- I wouldn't want to be a beginner trying to understand English Country from these instructions. The instructions should make decent sense if you've already done some English Country dance before, though. The Playford reconstructions are all based upon Cecil Sharp.

However, if you are buying the tape, you will probably want the booklet, since the dances are from a wide assortment of sources, and few people will have all of them already. All in all, it's worthwhile if you are getting the tape -- the $3 it costs as part of the package is high, but not unreasonable.

The tape itself I can be considerably more enthusiastic about. It's a consistently professional production, pleasant to listen to and generally danceable, with a broad variety of arrangements. It contains a selection of English Country dances from pretty much all periods, ranging from the first edition of Playford to the present day. The complete list of dances on the tape is:

As you can see from the list, it's not a collection for the purist -- the only dances that are more-or-less SCA period are Saint Martin's, Jenny Pluck Pears, and Heart's Ease. However, the rest is all very nice to listen to (and the reality is that many SCA groups will do any English Country, even the later stuff). The real purists should note that the instrumentation is not period (a concertina is quite prominently used throughout), but it is not jarringly unperiod either, and is better than the majority of the dance tapes used in the Society, I'd say.

All in all, while I would not urge people to rush out and buy it, it is entirely worthwhile for the English Country enthusiast, as well as for anyone looking for a few good period dances and a lot of good listening music. One can never have enough music...

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (