[ This article appeared in volume 3 of the Letter of Dance. ]
being an Exploration and Explication of a most Excellent and Manly
Form of Close-Contact Choreography
by M. Sion Andreas o Wynedd, (c) 1995
The reader will not learn how to dance bransles from this article. He will, however, learn something about the creation of those bransles -- their choreography, if you will. To learn about the structure of bransles, or any other sort of dance for that matter, one must resort to choreographic analysis, an examination of extant choreographies to determine what patterns exist and what formulae were used in the creation of the dances. This analysis requires the examination of a sufficiently broad sample group, and in the case of this article the sample group which will be the focus of the examination is the bransle from Thoinot Arbeau's Orchesographie.
There are twenty-four bransles, a large enough sampling that one may find choreographic patterns in it. Of similar importance is the fact that the bransle is the only dance form from the 16th century in which popular choreography seems to have been practiced. The type of bransle in which popular choreography was the norm is limited to be sure, although the dances within this type outnumber all others, but they are the sole examples we have from northern Europe that speak to the choreographer's art in action. Even though all bransles come from only this one source, if one is to understand northern European choreographic practices, one must begin with these bransles.
As was noted above, this article will not delve into the actual performance of the bransles. There are many sources which will teach one how to dance them, begining of course with Orchesographie itself, either in the original French or any of the translations or reprints of the last century. If the reader finds he cannot understand the terminology used in this article, he will need to review one of these sources for explanations.
In the twenty-four bransles tabulated in Orchesographie, Arbeau identifies four "classes" of bransles, and leaves one bransle otherwise unclassified. The four classes are the:
Basic 4 dances Mixed 5 dances Regional 3 dances Mimed 11 dances
The one unclassified dance, the Bransle de Haut Barrois, is best termed "Unspecified", and it will be examined, as in Orchesographie, immediately after the basic class.
The bransles which fall into the basic class are (along with a choreographic shorthand(1) description of the basic segment tabulated by Arbeau):
Double: Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr Single: Dl, Sr, Dl, Sr Gay: 4K (lrlr), 4K, 4K, 4K Burgundian: Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr
Also during his discussion of the basic bransles, Arbeau introduced the concept of the Division, a means of separating the aforementioned segments of bransles from subsequent sections. His example was for the "Double Bransle" and involves the replacement of the final half of the last Double to the right with a Fleuret of three Pieds en l'air, although he alludes to the existance of other methods by which a Division might be made and admits that it is acceptable to place Divisions in bransles other than the "Double Bransle".
The importance of the Division is that with it is introduced the concept of discrete segments within the bransle, segments which were and are open to manipulation by the choreographer, as shall be seen especially in the examination of the mimed bransles.
The Unspecified class contains only the one dance, but in terms of bransle choreography, it is an important basic dance due to the way it varied the steps.
Haut Barrois: Double (or Single) Bransle with the additions of Petits sauts on the steps
Unlike the "Burgundian Bransle" which also varied the way in which a basic step could be done, the variation in the "Bransle de Haut Barrois" was used extensively in other bransles. The variation of the "Burgundian Bransle," on the other hand, seems to have been restricted to the performance of that one bransle.
From these five dances, therefore, one can derive most of the choreographic materials which will be used in creating all nineteen of the other bransles. These choreographic materials include the basic bransle "steps":
Doubles Simples Pieds en l'air / Greves Fleurets (3 Pieds en l'air) Petits sauts
One also finds that one has three basic proportions:
Double (D D D D) 2:2 Simple (D S D S) 2:1 Gay (4K 4K 4K 4K) 1:1
In fact, were one inclined to be pedantic, one might argue that there are only two proportions: the Double and Single. The "Burgundian Bransle" and "Bransle de Haut Barrois" are both clearly "Double Bransles" in proportion, and the "Bransle Gay" may be viewed as nothing more than a "Double Bransle" with each half of the Doubles replaced by the four Pieds en l'air and therefore owning the same proportion. The practice of substitution which was noted above is therefore shown here to be an important basic practice in the construction of bransles.
The order of the day seems to have been to take these basic units and "mix-n-match" to come up with new dances, always following the specific choreographic considerations of whatever class of bransle was being created. When that is added to the substitution practice just mentioned, the derivation of the entire family of bransles is evident.
Arbeau does not really speak specifically on the manner by which new mixed bransles were created:
"The various bransles noted above represent the source from whence are derived certain other bransles composed of a combination of doubles, simples, pieds en l'air, pieds joints and sauts, sometimes vaied by the insertion of miscellaneous bars, in slow or quick time, as it pleases the composers or inventors ... And as fresh compositions and novelties appear, so they devise new series and bestow upon them what names they wish."
This reference to "they" would appear to mean the musicians who string together suites of irregular tunes for the purpose of dancing these mixed bransles, and although it is uncertain whether these mixed bransles were the creations of the musicians or of the dancers, it is certain that their creation was in the popular realm and not restricted to the dancing masters.
The problem with Arbeau's summary is that while he allows that mixed bransles were created, by someone, he gives no idea as to how a mixed bransle might be created. This is a product of the intent of Orchesographie, to teach how to dance, not to teach how to create dances.
An examination of the mixed bransles reveals that they all have one of the basic bransles, the "Double Bransle", as their core form.
Bransle: Core form: Cassandra: Double Pinagay: Double Charlotte: Double War: Double Aridan: Double
In these dances, the core form was augmented as extra music allowed, usually with Pieds en l'air, but occasionally with other steps and in other tempi. The resultant bransles rely so heavily upon the length of the music and the interpretation of that music that a more detailed analysis of why the Mixed bransles ended up as they did is not possible.
I should also note before leaving this class of bransle that Arbeau also left to the judgement of the dancer whether one would dance these bransles with grave steps as would be proper to a "Double Bransle" or with the Petits sauts of the "Bransle de Haut Barrois". No doubt they were at different times danced both ways, and this potential for interpretation makes the mixed bransles particularly appealing both to choreographers and to performers.
The regional bransles would appear to have been legion: "Many bransles take their names from the countries where they are customarily danced." This is all that Arbeau had to say on the subject. He followed that observation by giving the choreographies to only three of the implied multitude of bransles.
As with the mixed bransles, these regional bransles demonstrate that they too are derived, more or less, from the same basic step and proportion repertoire found in the basic bransles. Unlike the mixed bransles, however, these bransles do not use the "Double Bransle" as the main core form.
I must own that the connection between a regional bransle and a core bransle form, especially in the case of the "Trihory," may be difficult to envision. In the cases of the "Bransle de Poitou" and the "Scottish Bransle," the connection is much clearer.
It would appear that regional bransles took advantage of regional dance practices which were very specific and perhaps even stereotypical. These practices might be phrasing, as in the "Scottish Bransle," or step ornament as in the "Trihory." These practices were then grafted onto the existing bransle format.
The question as to who did the grafting to create these Regional Bransles, however, remains unanswered. Arbeau seems to assume that these dances were those native to given regions, although it seems just as likely that they were invented to demonstrate stereotypically regional dance moves and steps.
To create a regional bransle today would first require the identification of a similarly stereotypical dance practice in a contemporary region, preferably a mannerism which is independent of any single given dance. Then, that practice would be grafted onto one of the basic formats.
Unlike the mixed and regional bransles, however, there is good evidence in Arbeau's descriptions of the various mimed bransles that these dances were in fact popularly choreographed. In fact, although he never mentions names, he attributes the composition of several mimed bransles to specific groups of people, some "Knights of Malta" for the "Maltese Bransle" for example.
These mimed bransles are very derivative of the basic bransle forms, and the formula to which they are constructed is consistent and predictable. An interesting consideration is that two of these bransles were so "popular" that they broke with the pure form and used as their steps not the bransle repertoire steps, but rather the steps of two of the more popular light dances of the day, the coranto and the allemande. Even then, these bransles kept to the proportion of the closest allied bransle form, the "Double Bransle".
The formula for the choreography of these mimed bransles has long been popularly perceived, if never before demonstrated to my knowledge. The old SCA joke of the bransle as being: "Double to the left; double to the right; stand up; sit down; fight, fight fight" clearly reflects an intrinsic comprehension of the formula.
The mimed bransles were choreographed by adding miming sequences after a section of a core bransle form. Different mimed bransles used different core bransle forms, as may be seen below, although the "Double Bransle" was clearly the prefered core form.
Bransle: Core form: Maltese: Single Washerwoman's: Double Pease: Double Hermit's: Double Candlestick: Double (Allemande) Clog: Double Horses: Double Montarde: Double (Haut Barrois) Haye: Double (Coranto) Official: Double (Haut Barrois) Gavotte: Double or Simple (may be done as Haut Barrois)
In order to demonstrate precisely how these core and miming parts of the dance were fit together, the following shorthand code may prove useful.
C = Core bransle form (D) = Double (S) = Single (X) = Special form, defined in note (x2) = Sequence done twice through M = Discrete Miming sequence (T) = True Miming sequence (F) = "Faux" Miming sequence (x1) Sequence done once through (x2) Sequence done twice through; mirrored
The references to the core bransle forms are to the tabulation given by Arbeau as the basic sequence for that bransle. For example, the basic "Double Bransle" sequence is four doubles, as was shown earlier. The core form in the case of the mimed bransles must be qualified, however, as a straightforward and consistent use of the pure core form is not necessarily the standard practice. In those cases where the core form is done twice through, or one half of a time through, that variance is noted in the codification.
All miming sequences are different from one another by definition. There is only one qualification which has been represented in the codification scheme, the difference between a true miming sequence and a "faux" miming sequence. The difference is between what is accomplished by the sequence.
The true miming sequence has what Arbeau refers to as "mimic gestures". A person, as seen in the monk's bow in the "Hermit's Bransle", or thing, as in the pawing of the hoof in the "Horse Bransle", is clearly being mimicked.
The "faux" miming sequence does not clearly mime anything. It is a catch-all designation, meant to encompass everything that does not fit into the first, "true" class of mimings. Examples of this "faux" miming sequence include the "Haye Bransle" and the "Montarde Bransle", in which the miming sequence mimics nothing distinctly. Why Arbeau included these in the mimed bransles is never explained, but as they almost constitute another class of bransle, it was necessary to differentiate them in some way.
Coincidentally, the existence of a "faux" miming sequence would almost allow for the "War Bransle" to be classified amongst the mimed bransles were it not for the tempo change in the second half of that dance. As Arbeau does class the "War Bransle" with the mixed bransles, we may ascertain that any change in tempo between segments of a bransle is enough to relegate that bransle to the mixed class.
Beyond the difference between true and "faux" miming sequences, however, only the number of times the sequence is done is noted in the codification. Note also that no indication of the length of a miming sequence is expressed in this shorthand notation as the length of the miming sequence appears to be of less importance than the fact that the miming is occuring.
Bransle: Core Mimings: Additional Miming Maltese: C (S) M (Tx1) Washerwoman's:(5) C (D) M (Tx2) M (Tx1) M (Tx1) Pease: C (D) M (Tx2) Hermit's: C (D) M (Tx2) Candlestick:(6) C (X) M (Fx1) Clog: C (D) M (Tx1) Horses: C (Dx2) M (Tx2) Montarde: C (D) M (Fx1) Haye:(7) C (X) M (Fx1) Official: C (D) M (Fx1) Gavotte:(8) C (D) M (Fx1)
To make a mimed bransle, therefore, one ought first to decide on a core bransle form. Chose a person, thing or process to mime, construct a simple mime, and add that to the segment after the core bransle form.
Having choreographically analyzed the bransles now, and knowing the parameters by which these bransles were created in the 16th century, one may avail oneself of the same formulae and continue the practice of creating bransles, and in fact I think it an important process, both to practice and to encourage.
The bransle was certainly a larger form than just the twenty-four dances from Orchesographie. Arbeau himself mentions several other bransles in addition to the ones he tabulates: the "Bransle de Montierandal", the "Bransle de Hainaut", and the "Bransle d'Avignon" to name a few, and there are dozens more whose melody lines are recorded in various music collections from the end of the 16th century and early 17th century. Beyond the period references, there are several bransles which have survived through the centuries in the folk-dance repertoire in various places as well as in simple children's games like "Ring o' Roses".
I commented above that I feel it necessary that the creation of bransles continue in our Current Middle Ages, and in point of fact it does go on in a relatively authentic 16th-century mode. As numerous, if not moreso, are the liberties taken with Arbeau bransles, such as the nearly universal use of the Pied en l'air of the "Burgundian Bransle" in bransles where nothing in Orchesographie indicates its use proper, flirting games in the "Horse Bransle" or the "Pease Bransle", and the Ar n-Eilean-ne War variant of the "Montarde Bransle". Still, there are any number of locally popular, more or less original bransles which have arisen over 30 years, and it might be interesting to look at some of them to guage how well we have been doing.
Note that although the identities of the creators of many of these bransles are known to the author (and they range from teenagers in their first year in the SCA to Laurels in dancing with up to twenty years' experience), the identities do not appear next to the evaluation of the bransles. This evaluation is not meant to be a grading or criticism session, simply an exercise in determining how well SCA choreographers have understood the rules for creating bransles over the years, and since no definitive rules have ever before been published to my knowledge it is as much an examination of how well SCA choreographers have managed to extract the rules for bransle creation from the texts.
Bard Dance [Bransle]
Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr :
Tap left wrist, tap right wrist, turn in place, tap left wrist, tap right wrist, (keep right wrists together) switch places with partner.
[Mimed bransle: C (D) M (Fx1)
This bransle is a variation on the circle mixer. The tap of wrists is unprecedented in Orchesographie and in 16th-century dances altogether I believe. My feeling is that the innovation first appeared in "Duchess Rhondalyn's Pavane", possibily originally derived from a movement in the "Mannschaft Pavane", and it has since carried over into the current dance language. The exchange, while nice, is also unprecedented.]
Bransle la Boulette
Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr (That twice through) :
Women 4 Dl (Haut Barrois steps, come back to place) ; Men 4 Dr (The same way) :
In a Double, Out the same, Simple in, Simple out, Double in ; The same mirrored.
[Mimed bransle: C (Dx2) M (Fx2) M (Fx2)
Going into and out of the circle is unprecedented in Orchesographie, as are both the mixture of grave "Double Bransle" and light "Haut Barrois" steps and the stringing of two "faux" miming sequences. Actually, the "Haut Barrois" steps were given originally as country dance slips, which is one interpretation of this step.]
Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr :
Spin left, clap, spin right, clap (That twice through) :
[Mimed Bransle: C (D) M (Fx2)
This dance follows the lead of the SCA Maltese Bransle, but with the addition of spins; neither is found in Orchesographie in quite this form. When a spin or turn is found, it is not used for the purpose it is in this dance.]
Dl, Dr, Sl, Sr (That twice through) :
D in and out of the circle, men turn to the left to next place, D in and out, women turn to the right to next place.
[Mimed Bransle: C (Sx2) M (Fx1)
This dance is a rarity in the SCA, a mimed Bransle based on the "Single Bransle", although one should take note of the variation on the "Single Bransle" sequence which is used. The dance is in effect a circle mixer, and simple enough to be successful at it. I have not classified this dance as a regional bransle as I know of no characteristic Calontiri dance step or practice which is being presented in it.]
Champagne Bransle (Sometimes called the Dom Perignon
Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr (as "Burgundian Bransle" with Pieds en l'air) (May repeat) :
2 Dl (Haut Barrois,) 2 Dr (Haut Barrois) :
8 sauts (one per dancer around the bransle).
[Mimed Bransle: C (D or Dx2) M (Tx1) M (Tx1)
This dance makes use of a pun based on a comment in Orchesographie, that the "Burgundian Bransle" is often called the "Bransle of Champagne". There are two mimings added on to the core bransle form, in this case a Burgundian, as is found in the "Washerwoman's Bransle". As noted in the first part of the article, the use of the "Burgundian Bransle" double is unprecedented in Orchesographie's mimed bransles.]
Dragon's Lair Bransle
Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr :
Turn around, S in, S out (That twice through) :
[Mimed Bransle: C (D) M (Tx2)
This is an interesting use of the miming sequence not just to represent a thing or person, but to express part of a narrative, in this case looking for the dragon and going in and out of his lair (hence the name). This use of narrative has no precedent, however, in Orchesographie.]
Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr :
Turn around (mime cutting grain with sickle), mime shovelling grain into a barn (That all twice through) :
Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr :
Turn to face right and do 4 hops (stomping grapes), grab foot of person in front of dancer and mime nailing on a horseshoe (That all twice through.)
C (D) M (Tx1) M (Tx1) M (Tx1) M (Tx1) C (D) M (Tx1) M (Tx1) M (Tx1) M (Tx1)
This is an agglutative mimed bransle, and the extent to which the miming sequences have been piled up has little precedent in Orchesographie. The core sequence is doubled and each core sequence is followed by four miming sequences, or two sequences repeated ABAB. Certainly there are two miming sequences in the "Washerwoman's Bransle", but the extent of the miming sequences in this dance strains the formula for mimed bransles just a little bit.]
Henry VIII Bransle
Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr :
Women 6 Sl while man hayes thru them, at end woman to right of man leaps and he helps her turn 3/4 around out of the dance (dance continues until last lady puts the man out of the dance).
[Mimed Bransle: C (D) M (Fx1)
This is a wicked little parody of a dance which the choreographer has described as purely frivolous. I can see it being done in satirical glee at the French court to mock England. It is obviously little more than the "Official Bransle" with a twist and only barely managed to be included in this list due to its satirical quality.]
Knock-down Drag-out Bransle ("Another Bar Room Bransle")
Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr (That twice through) :
Punch with right hand, Kick with left foot, Sl, Sr, Punch with left hand, Kick with right foot, Women leap and men help them around to the next place :
The dance repeats but ends with the men leaping.
[Mimed Bransle: C (Dx2) M (Tx1) C (Dx2) M (Tx1)
This is a clever pun and the dance looks like a bar-room brawl from the outside. The miming sequence is different, due to the switch in who leaps -- men or women, from repeat to repeat, and this has no precedent in Orchesographie (although there is precedent for the practice in other contemporary sources).]
SCA Maltese Bransle
Dl, Dr, Dl, Dr :
Slow 3 steps in and clap, that back out and either clap or 3K.
[Mimed Bransle: C (D) M (Tx1)
This is a straight-forward basic mimed bransle. It is possibly one of the oldest SCA choreographies, and it enjoys a widespread popularity even today. It is a fairly decent translation of Arbeau's Maltese into a more regular dance, and it remains one of the most emulated choreographies in the SCA repertoire.]
Bransle Michelaine (Sometimes called the Running, Jumping,
Oreo Cookie Bransle)
Dl, 3K and Cadence (that 4 times through) (can be Haut Barrois doubles) :
Dl, fast Dr, Dl, Dr, fast Dl, Dr.
This is a straight-forward mixed bransle. Pieds en l'air and Cadence are mixed into a "Double Bransle" base. The second part makes use of Arbeau's reference to fast and slow music as found in the "War Bransle". It is the only mixed bransle which I have discovered in the corpus of SCA-choreographed bransles.]
Bransle Nou Pourier Ana Plus Mau (Also called the Nika-Nika
Dl, Sr, Dl, Sr (that twice through) :
D in, D out, S in, S out (that twice through.)
[Mimed bransle: C (2xS) M (Fx2)
I class this as a mimed bransle simply because it is nothing else. There are shades of Melusine Wood in this bransle, a normal "Single Bransle" which uses the same proportion for the pseudo-processional going into and out of the circle. This in-and-out is unprecedented in Orchesographie. The name means approximately, "Things can't get any worse".]
Sans Serif Bransle (Using the most common pattern; there are
Dl, 3K, Dr, 3K (that twice through) :
D in (men)/D out (women), same home (that twice through) :
D in (men)/D out (women), same back, but progressing one place "forwards" (that three time through) :
D in (men)/D out (women), same home (that once through).
[Mimed Bransle: C (1/2xD) M (Fx2) M (Fx3) M (Fx1)
This dance uses a very uncommon use of the miming sequences combined with a form of progression which is unprecedented in Orchesographie. The return to the first miming sequence at the end of the dance is likewise unprecedented.]
Dl, Dr, Dl, women make turn with a double in front of partner to other side, Dl, Dr, Dl, Rx (That twice through) :
Allemande Dl, ADr, ADl, ADr, ADl, ADr, Adl, 2 steps and partners face :
Women turn into circle while men turn out, turn back and clap, men turn in while women turn out, turn back and clap :
Partners palm right hands, left hands, change places and Rx.
[Mimed Bransle: C (Dx2) C (Xx2) M (Fx2) M (Fx1)
The new division in the first core section does not contradict practices found in Orchesographie, although it feels odd. The second core section, in another dance step, is unprecedented in Orchesographie altogether. The turns in the first mining section are unprecedented, and the palming exchange comes from the "Mannschaft Pavane", not from the bransle repertoire. An interesting dance in spite of the liberties taken with the form.]
Obviously, the bransle has not been ignored by SCA choreographers, and clearly the basic lessons in bransle construction were mastered long ago. The above examination reveals, however, two areas in which SCA choreographers have fallen short of the mark in working with the bransle form.
In the first place, the step repertoire is elaborated upon by SCA choreographers, who often seem to either have lost sight of the fact or have not known that the step repertoire and elaboration techniques used in Orchesographie were as restricted as they were. Steps and moves in SCA bransles are often pulled in from wildy inappropriate sources, and the result in such a case is a dance which has divurged a bit too far from sixteenth-century practice.
In the second place, there is a tendancy on the part of SCA choreographers to make the bransle a much more elaborate dance than it ever was in Orchesographie, in some cases a wildly more elaborate dance. Simplicity would appear to have been an essential quality of the bransles, especially the mimed bransles which most SCA choreographers emulate. Over-elaboration jars with that basic quality of the form.
We need to work more on these two areas to make our bransles better dances, if in fact constructing dances in the 16th-century manner is our object. Hopefully, this article will be of benefit to future SCA choreographers by having more completely outlined the manner in which bransles were constructed and to which future bransles ought to be constructed so as to be most appropriate to that sixteenth-century form.
Arbeau, Thoinot. Orchesographie. New York, Dover, 1967. Translation by Mary Stewart Evans with notes by Julia Sutton.
SCA bransles in this article were taken from various SCA manuals and publications and from email correspondence.
Thanks to the following people who read, proofread and offered commentary on this article: Rosina del Bosco Chiaro (Vivian Stephens), Valentine Christian Warner (Tom Tumbusch), Phelan ab Emrys (Jeremy Kessler), and Dafydd Arth (David Langford).
1 D=Double. S=Simple. K=Pied en l'air. Doubles for the `Burgundian Bransle' end in a Pied en l'air.
2 The proportion on this bransle, however, is the 2:1 of the `Single Bransle'.
3 This could also almost be interpreted as a mixed or even a mimed bransle except for the position in the text that Arbeau gives it.
4 Note the pseudo-miming sequence with Talons hausses.
5 Note the two miming sequences, a practice that is unique although the proportion is discernable in other contemporary dances.
6 This dance uses the allemande double throughout, although it keeps to `Double Bransle' proportions.
7 This dance uses coranto steps throughout, although it keeps to `Double Bransle' proportions.
8 Arbeau notes that the core of this bransle may use either doubles or singles.
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (email@example.com)