Cambridge, Mass. — A hushed group of scholars recently watched a young woman bolt around a room at Harvard, feet flying out daintily but frantically, arms forming little frames for tiny moments in time. Tracing a smooth arcing path in front of their folding chairs while her feet whirred through small, complicated steps, she looked like a wind-up mouse.
When she curtsied, some laughed, some applauded, and some took notes. That's what happens when you do minuet steps double-time. The dancer, Margaret Daniels , who performs at more familiar speeds with the Cambridge Court Dancers and Les Fetes Galantes, was illustrating a paper by musicologist Rebecca Harris-Warrick at the fourth annual Dance History Scholars' conference. Racing through a minuet or doing a careening passepied (a fast minuet in its own right, positively frantic at these speeds) seems like a small, if strange, effort, but it just might change our concept of the 17th and 18th centuries.
It is possible that, at the court of Louis XIV, dancers in their white wigs and silks didn't just glide sedately through their paces. They may have cut the rug at speeds exceeding the Charleston.
The 18th century has been given a bad rap anyway, Miss Daniels feels. It was a time of both earthiness and high ideals which, looked at through the lens of the much more constrained 19th century, has gotten a reputation for being decorative and overrefined. Miss Daniels, accomplished at the subtle skills of early dance, is also, she laughs to admit, a fan of Louis XIV and his brilliant court, out of whose ballets sprang the first professional dancers. She and Dr. Harris-Warrick hope the zippy minuet will raise questions in the minds of dancers and scholars and make them try dances at different speeds, and that the real intentions of 18th-century culture will come to light.
The fast pace comes from a 1696 treatise by Etienne Loulie, a French music theorist who developed a mechanical device to indicate the exact tempo of music. Loulie's was a pendulum-type instrument called a chronometer which predated Johann Maelzel's metronome by over 100 years. Throughout the 18th century, musicians used his method and wrote down at what speed their works should be played.
Loulie's system was known to scholars, though some thought the speeds were twice as fast as they should have been. Even though baroque music rarely specifies any speed, the pieces that used Loulie's system had rarely been tried by dancers or musicians -- a symptom, says Dr. Harris-Warrick, of the split between musicologists and performers. She herself had learned baroque dance while getting a doctorate of music arts at Stanford, one of only a few schools that emphasizes both aspects of music, she says. At musicology-oriented schools like Harvard and Berkeley, she says, the attitude is that ''music should be seen and not heard.''
In order to see and hear the music, she decided to use a real, live dancer, and Miss Daniels agreed to illustrate. Dancers and musicians performing early works have been consulting each other for years, comparing what feels right to each in hopes of getting closer to the speed and the spirit of how the material was performed. But Miss Daniels's performance with Mrs. Harris-Warrick's paper is a rare collaboration between a scholar and a performer. It also constituted a question to the assembled dance scholars: Could this work? And a challenge: Dr. Harris-Warrick wants scholars and dancers to try the dances themselves.
''There's defininetly good reason for skepticism. I think that this has to be carefully evaluated,'' says Dr. Harris-Warrick, a small, serious woman with black hair and glasses. She is married and has two children but still has the eagerness-in-denim aura of a young graduate student. She is not trying to prove Loulie's theory, but to test it out, she says. ''The people who came up to talk to me later were people that enjoyed it and said, 'This is a can of worms and we're glad that you opened it,' '' but she is still hoping to hear from people who think of the minuet as irrevocably dignified and stately: ''I would like to know if they have some basis for it other than a gut reaction that 'this is crazy.' But even if they have that, I'd like to know that, too.''
It wouldn't be too surprising if dancers were the ones to tell us about cultural history; dance was central to 17th-and 18th-century culture, with balls at Louis's court so formal that courtiers were actually performing, rather than just going to a party. Most French baroque music is dance music, and people in the provinces were eagerly studying choregraphies from the court balls supplied by dancing masters.
It is not enough to be limber, fleet of foot, and musical. Performers of early dance must also be scholars, ferreting out what shreds of information remain about how dance was performed. Music of the baroque period came with few instructions, rarely mentioning how fast it was to be played. And dances consist of complicated step patterns and music which must be coddled, along with lots of extra information, imagination, and practice before they can become the delightful escapades and displays they were meant to be.
''You have to do everything, that's what I love about it,'' Miss Daniels says. ''In a way, I'd love it if I could just be a dancer and have somebody tell me what to do - go to class in the morning, rehearse in the afternoon, perform at night. But I like thinking and research. . . . I like sitting in the library, poring through all these old treatises, trying to figure out, trying to bring back to life'' some dance that hasn't been performed since, say, 1712.
On a page, the dance, printed under its music, looks like step-diagrams for sandpipers. But the feathery lines, small circles, curlicues, and crosshatches are a stream of complex information set down in the shape the dance should take. There are squares, circles, and more complicated designs that would look nice in wrought iron. This method of notation was devised by Beauchamp, a dancing master of Louis XIV, and published by Feuillet in 1699.
Twentieth-century dancers can work out the patterns in the notation with their feet. But that's not enough, as Catherine Turocy of the New York Baroque Dance Company pointed out in a paper at the Harvard conference. There are gestures to figure out, and they must express whatever it was the dance meant in the first place -- not to mention where it was danced, to what music, and in what costumes. From there they can speculate on the arms and head, and the feeling they will project. Perhaps, now, the speed has been spelled out for them, but ascertaining that will take work, too.
Miss Daniels does take dance classes, but she also studies old paintings, listens to early music, and consumes every other shred of information about 18 th-century culture she can find. Her room, in a small house she rents in Cambridge, is full of reprinted and photocopied treatises in the thick, flowing writing of a time before typewriters. Reproductions of 18th-century paintings hang on the walls, and in the living room is a small harpsichord. A 17 th-century corset she is lending a friend is at the bottom of the stairs. But there is also the bulky shoulder bag all self-respecting 20th-century dancers saddle themselves with.
Every once in a while, she says, putting her hand under her chin in a light, brief gesture, she will catch a glimpse of herself in a mirror, tilting her head in the proper antique manner. Miss Daniels is tiny and wears her thick, dark blond hair up. She has finely plucked eyebrows, a soft but strong voice, and a delicate manner which belies her ability to gallop through the passepied. Talking to her, even though she's dressed in blue jeans and a turtleneck, is not a wholly 20th-century experience. But she insists that she and her colleagues are not going back in time. They are, they feel, bringing certain 18th-century qualities forward.
Early dance is full of subtlety and intrigue, she says. The art of nuance may have peaked in the language a woman could speak by the way she held her fan. And she prefers the 18th to the 20th century for dancing because the former is not athletic. She also enjoys the fact that, in the court of Louis XIV, the male and female dancer were on an equal footing. Though there were virtuoso pieces for men to do in solos and pairs, when they danced with a woman, they usually danced the same or complementary steps.
There weren't any of the heroic, woman-on-a-pedestal style lifts that came in in the 19th century. This reflects the temper of the age, she feels. Eighteenth-century women ''were much more gutsy and able to do all kinds of things'' than they were thought to be in high society of the 19th century, she says. She says that the 18th century was a ''womanly'' time, and that she finds the 20th century ''harsh'' by comparison. ''I think if we can try and portray some of those qualities we might open a window on something. A different way of looking at the world. Even if it's only a little glimpse, I think it's enriching.''
Investigating Loulie's tempo system may make that glimpse a little more detailed. The way 20th-century dancers were comfortable minuetting has been taken by musicians to be the way to play minuets. But though Miss Daniels found dancing at the Loulie system's speeds ''weird'' rather than comfortable, she points out that the nobility of Louis XIV's court weren't accustomed to ease, and took a lot of dancing lessons. Theatrical dancers could very well have been bolting around drawing rooms with silk shoes clattering. Or moving with exacting languor, standing on one leg for long moments, as indicated in one of the rare choregraphies which uses the Loulie tempo and turns out to be much slower than had been imagined.
Both Rebecca Harris-Warrick and Margaret Daniels admit that these tempos leave doubts. Some of the dances do look outlandish. But Miss Daniels thinks that with work, they could be much more interesting than what 20th-century dancers have been comfortable doing. She points out that when 18th-century music was first being rediscovered, it was played too slowly, ''like dirges.'' And she has always wondered about an illustration of a Rameau opera which shows a woman doing the minuet with her hair ribbons flying. ''Maybe she's going a little faster than we think.''
Maybe everyone was going a little faster. ''We tend to think that people in the past are old fogies. . . . They were lively people. You have to take into consideration the costume, which was heavy and binding and limiting to some extent. But then you go as far as you can in those limitations and you can actually do a lot.'' She plans to at least try everything she dances this year at Loulie's speeds.
Dr. Harris-Warrick insists the tempos should be danced through: ''It's definitely here -- real evidence from the 18th century. I think it has to be dealt with.''