Book Review: On the Practice or Art of Dancing

[ This article appeared in volume 3 of the Letter of Dance. ]

by Delbert von Straßburg

Guglielmo Ebreo of Pesaro, De Pratica seu Arte Tripudii [On the Practice or Art of Dancing]. Edited, translated, and introduced by Barbara Sparti. Poems translated by Michael Sullivan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

This is the book that the students of 15th Century dance have been waiting for for a very long time -- a complete transcription and translation of a major dance manuscript of the period. This is Guglielmo's first work, the 973 manuscript from Paris.

The first part of the book deals with general information related to the manuscript. This includes a history of the life of Guglielmo (and indicators to how and why Guglielmo and Giovanni Ambrosio are the same person, Guglielmo having changed his name, moved to Florence, and converted to Christianity). There are also extensive notes on the rationale for the translation, including the details of the transcription of the Basse Danza and Ballo tunes included in the manuscript.

The second part of the book is the translation. A facsimile of the book may well have been illegible, and so Sparti has provided a facing-page transcription instead. This is by far the best method to provide a translation, and the two books I have in my dance collection that use this method (this one, and Kendall's translation of Negri's "Le Gratie d'Amore") are the most useful works that I own.

The translation is heavily footnoted, including the introductory sections, a method I prefer to endnoting (notes placed at the end of the book or chapter, rather than at the bottom of the page). Sparti has also used the footnotes to indicate places where the various Ebreo, Cornazano, and Domenico MSS differ from each other, which is useful when comparing different reconstructions of the same dance. However, in some cases I feel that she could have gone even further with these footnotes in comparing different versions; Gratioso invites this treatment, appearing as two very different dances in Guglielmo and Negri, but Geloxia almost demands it. Additionally, Sparti has not attempted to tackle the "extra" dances appearing in the Ebreo MSS other than 973, apart from the ones in the Giovanni Ambrosio manuscript, for which she provides a separate appendix. Perhaps this is because the book would have been "weighed down" with this extra information, when all she is really trying to provide is an accurate translation of 973. There is obviously some work still to be done in this area, and Sparti has certainly not "shut the door and put out the cat" for further research.

The music is provided in direct copy from the manuscript -- highly legible here as she has obviously gone back to the original sources, and in single tenor line in modern notation. Again, more work can be done here in creating 3 or 4 part arrangements, but Sparti has provided an invaluable starting point -- not only in publishing this information in English for the first time, but in providing a rationale for her reconstructions of the music.

Sparti provides an extensive glossary, listing all of the steps and other major dance terms used in the book. Here, again, she provides a wealth of information that could be used to reconstruct these steps, in some cases beyond all doubt; however where there is an element of doubt in the reconstruction Sparti acknowledges this doubt and provides all of the evidence for the reader to make up his or her own mind about the step. If this was anything other than a manuscript translation, I would have expected a section on "here is how I do these steps", but by not providing this information Sparti has again left the door open for further research and interpretation, which is A Good Thing.

Overall, I can say very little about this book that it doesn't already say for itself -- apart from "buy it now if you are in the least bit interested in 15th Century dance".

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (