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The Queen of Baroque Dance

Catherine Turocy turns a dance stage into a time machine and brings the Baroque world into ours

by Jerome Weeks 11 May 2017 3:18 PM
Catherine Turocy

Catherine Turocy is one of the leading experts and performers of Baroque dance. She's fused scholarly research with reviving the 'lost art' onstage. She co-founded the New York Baroque Dance Company 40 years ago, and it remains the premier ensemble of its kind in America. Turocy has been hailed for choreographing works by Handel, Rameau, Mozart and Purcell - with performances at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and throughout Europe. She was knighted by France for her efforts. Who knew the 18th century still had such life in it?

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Video: Dane Walters

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Baroque. Powdered wigs, splendid music and ornate architecture, all of it from the 17th and 18th centuries.

In fact, talk about ornate, the Baroque era even invented opera, that grand, elaborate, sometimes preposterous fusion of theater, spectacle, music and dance. Yet for centuries afterwards, early Baroque operas by Handel, Rameau, Monteverdi, Charpentier and the British composer Henry Purcell were rarely performed. Fashions changed, opera changed. These works now seemed too static, too ornamental.

But over the past 50 years or so, these same early Baroque operas were rediscovered and revived. Which brought up a problem: What did their original dances even look like? Ballet? The ballet we know now only became codified in the late 19th, early 20th century. The Baroque era is all pre-ballet. And today, in dance schools, very little of that dance work, very little before 19th-century ballet, is even taught. It’s like studying literature and never reading anything earlier than Dickens or Tolstoy.

“So,” Catherine Turocy says,  “this is a huge stumbling block for historical dance. There’s nothing to hang on to. Seriously, dance has not had a long history of intellectual curiosity.”

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Catherine Turocy watches a rehearsal of ‘See Even Night Herself is Here’ from Henry Purcell’s ‘The Fairy Queen.’ Photo: Dane Walters

As a choreographer and the co-founder of the New York Baroque Dance Company, Turocy is internationally acclaimed for recreating and re-inventing the dances of the 17th and 18th centuries — for bringing scholarly research and making it dance on the stage. Turocy may live in Dallas with her husband, James Richman, director of the Dallas Bach Society, but, fittingly enough for a dancer, she seems to flit everywhere. Currently, she’s raising matching funds to perform in Cuba, she just finished choreographing a rediscovered opera by Rameau with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale in Berkeley. In Colorado, she added period movements to a classical French comedy by Pierre Marivaux and she’s in the process of preparing Henry Purcell’s ‘The Fairy Queen” for Dallas. It’s planned for an unusual production this fall with the Dallas Bach Society.

An unusual production for an unusual work. In keeping with the fluid, extravagant nature of the early Baroque, ‘The Fairy Queen” is something of a shape shifter, an in-between work. Written in 1692 as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ it’s been called a masque, a ‘semi-opera’ (a uniquely British Baroque form) and even an attempt at ‘the first Broadway musical.’ But the entire score was lost soon after the composer’s death in 1695 at the age of 36. It wasn’t recovered until early in the 2oth century. (And it wasn’t until the revival of interest in countertenor roles that operas like ‘The Fairy Queen’ or Handel’s ‘Julius Caesar’ really returned to the stage.)

The dances in these Baroque operas can seem strange to us — with their intricate minuets, masked characters and hoop skirts that hide the dancers’ legs. In Tchaikovsky’s 19th-century ballets, for example, we’re used to seeing dancers soaring – rapturously. The image of a bird taking flight is always there. Baroque dancers generally aren’t so arduous or gymnastic: They’re more liquid, they flirt, they float. Baroque dance can often seem like ballroom dancing elevated to a more elegant, theatrical, symbolic plane. The movements of the dancers appear effortless, even though they’re actually complicated and courtly. Meaningful. As a performer herself, Turocy often conveys what a gentle pleasure it must be – gliding gracefully, cloud-like.

Turocy was drawn to the Baroque because it was this other world. It was the Age of the Enlightenment, an age that confidently organized everything along the same clear principles — from government to astronomy, society to art, philosophy to gardening. They all reflected the same stately worldview — as did Baroque dance.

So, I ask Turocy, “in order to understand why a dancer moves his hand – like this – I need to know the entire cosmos behind it?”

“Yes!” she says and adds gleefully, “And I can teach you if you’d like to learn! I know, it’s crazy, but that was the basis of their performance style.”

Turocy didn’t know it at the time but she began her career path back to the Baroque when she was 13 in Cleveland. A representative from the American Ballet Theater saw Turocy perform at her ballet school and declared that although Turocy was perfectly nice, she’d never develop the long, tall physique that choreographer George Balanchine deemed the only ideal for a ballerina.

“So then my teacher translated that as ‘You’ll never have a career in ballet.’ ” She begins to laugh at the memory. “I basically cried for a year. My parents really had no idea what was going on.”

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Glenda Norcross, masked, rehearsing See Even Night Herself Is Here.’ Photo: Dane Walters.

So at Ohio State, Turocy studied choreography and modern dance. But she also met Shirley Wynne, who happened to be one of the very few Americans studying historical dance, dance that was pre-ballet. And after moving to New York to continue pursuing a dance career, Turocy eventually chose historic dance over modern dance. Modern dance was exploding at the time (Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor). But there was no one performing the Baroque. Research into it remained primarily an isolated, academic matter.

Besides, Turocy says, she instinctively rebelled against the modern dance idea of the performer as puppet, expressing no emotion, conveying no individual character or interpretation. So in 1976, along with fellow Ohio State alum Ann Jacoby, Turocy formed the New York Baroque Dance Company. Then, during the 1980s, Turocy won two NEA grants to go to London and Paris and search through archives for historic dance notations, for diaries, memoirs, paintings – anything to help her re-envision Baroque dances.

“Baroque ballet basically went to sleep for a couple hundred years,” says Glenda Norcross. “And then it was revived, and Catherine, of course, is responsible for a lot of that.”

Norcross teaches ballet at Brookhaven College. She performs with the New York Baroque Dance Company — she became a convert through one of Turocy’s many summer workshops.

“Catherine’s workshops incorporate maskwork, fencing, dancing with a fan,” Norcross says. “And the kind of work we do with fans is a language.”


Eighteenth-century dance notations for a minuet.

The workshops are essentially an immersion in the mindset and training of the 18th-century stage performer. If you’re a painter, you can gaze at a Gainsborough portrait or a Fragonard landscape and gain some sense of that long-ago age – as well as the painter’s own craft. You couldn’t do that with dance — the 18th century really didn’t exist on stage. So Turocy wanted to bridge dance scholarship with live performance. She believes every dancer needs to move inside this ‘Baroque bubble,’ this world of integrated meanings where, unlike in most modern dancework, the performer plays a character in a story, a story outlined on stage in gesture, posture, costume and mask.

Now, all this immersion in the Baroque can sound a little like an elegant, artsy version of a Civil War reconstruction. But Turocy often creates dances ‘in the style of’ a Baroque master, she choreographs original dances and works in a wide array of collaborations. She recently ran a workshop for Lil Buck, the master of that snaky form of street dancing called jookin. He played Apollo with a dance ensemble in the rather Baroque gardens of Versailles.

Besides, despite all its formal patterns, Turocy insists, Baroque dance actually encourages improvisation. “It has the excitement of jazz,” she says.

For their work with the French Baroque, Turocy and Richman were knighted by France. Officially, they are ‘chevaliers.’ One example why: In 1982, English conductor John Eliot Gardiner asked Turocy to choreograph a production of Rameau’s Les Boréades , a 1763 opera that had never been performed. Therefore, the opera actually made its world premiere that year at the Festival d’Aix en Provence – and Turocy became its original choreographer.

In 1995, the couple moved to Dallas when Richman became director of the Bach Society – and Turocy became the interim chair of SMU’s dance department. Meanwhile, Turocy’s ensemble has continued to perform at Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center and festivals in Germany and France.

Yet after 40 years, she confesses a little bewilderment. Her New York Baroque Dance Company is still one of the few professional ensembles of its kind in all of America.

Partly, Turocy believes, the Baroque remains ‘foreign’ to Americans because we never really experienced a Baroque period (except in Latin America). “That’s when we rebelled!” she exclaims. “That’s when we broke away.” In effect, we rejected the Baroque: the kings, the courts, the traditions. America wanted to be draw on the rational parts of the Enlightenment while trying to extricate ourselves from the rest of Europe’s entangling cultural and political history.

In contrast, in almost any major city in Europe – Paris, London, Vienna, Munich, Madrid — it’s impossible not to turn a corner and step into the Baroque, to breathe its air: the Baroque cathedrals, Baroque palaces, Baroque buildings turned into Baroque museums, even government institutions and legal systems that sometimes seem perfectly Baroque. “I’ve often thought about finding one’s personal self-expression in an art from so long ago,” Turocy says. “But walking around there [in Europe], there’s still a reverberation in time. There’s still something from the period that comes through. Artists there see it as a continuation. It’s a tradition to draw on.” In some cases – notably France – it’s even a commanding presence; it was one of the country’s artistic and royal high points.

But this means that in America, even with all of Turocy’s acclaim, Baroque dance remains something of a curiosity.

“It may never change!” she wails with comic angst. “This might be it! I don’t know! But I’m still going to work.”

True. There’s ‘The Fairy Queen’ this fall in Dallas, of course. There are also summer workshops in Seattle and Hawaii to plan, plus the possible trip to Cuba. That rediscovered opera by Rameau given its American premiere recently in Berkeley? It may go to New York.

And Turocy still finds ways to bring her Baroque world into ours. She has a two-year project developing a dance component – for a digital planetarium in New Mexico.


Have you given up anything to pursue your art?

I’ve always tried to look for a balance in terms of personal life and professional life, so I don’t really feel I’ve given up anything. Maybe I gave up on a narrow vision of myself when I was 13. [Not pursuing classical ballet] certainly made me look further into modern dance and other forms of dance. But I had been choreographing since I could walk. My first piece was in kindergarten. So I really just saw myself as someone who expressed myself through dance.

Why or how did you come to Dallas?

The first thing that occurred is that we had to leave New York. In 1993-94-95, crack was very big at that time. And every corner was a crime scene. We were fleeing too many bullets.  There was one incident in particular when my two sons, Andrew was three or four and Edward was about one, and we had a playdate with other mothers in Central Park, and I was pushing the stroller, and I just sensed when I see the police that something bad was happening. It turned out the police were chasing a thief, and shooting, and the thief runs right by the trash can where, by then, we were hiding, and he threw his gun away right in the trash can in front of us.

And so, when I went home, I said, ‘Jim, I think we have to move. This is just too dangerous.’ And that was one incident, there were many others. But it’s strange when you open up your mind to different possibilities. Soon after, a telephone call came through to Jim from the Dallas Bach  Society, asking him to come down to conduct and consider becoming the director. And basically, that was what happened.

How has living in North Texas influenced your art – your ability to practice it, the art itself?

It’s been liberating being in Texas for me, as the director of a company. When you’re in New York and you’re on top of things, you’re so close to everybody, so close to all the problems. They somehow have a way of piling up. It creates a certain relationship between the director and the dancers. But with me being in Dallas and having the company continue, it shifted the relationship. It made me more of a mentor. I started developing dancers who could choreograph, who could teach, who could be rehearsal directors. It made for a freer exchange. And I think the dancers also felt they could take on more responsibility. So it kind of changed the nature of the company.

Now everybody in the dance company can read the dance notations. So if we need to do something quickly, they can download the dance notation from 1710 and learn it at home, then we all meet at rehearsal and we’ve cut the rehearsal time in half by doing that.

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Turocy at home. She turned the green medal awarded her by the French government as a chevalier, or knight, into a pendant necklace. Photo: Dane Walters

And it’s given me a better view of life outside of New York, which is always good. It’s made me more passionate about giving these summer workshops, whether it’s in Santa Barbara or this year, it’s going to be in Seattle. The whole point is to teach the teachers, to reach the whole level that’s going to disseminate the information.  And I think when you’re in New York, you expect everyone to come to you. But when you’re not in New York, you can see [laughs] that, yeah, it’s kinda hard for everybody to come to you.

So I actually think it’s made my world larger.

Do you have any rituals or procedures you follow before choreographing a work?

Normally, I do a lot of research ahead of time, and then I’ll just listen to the music as I’m cleaning the house. And then as it gets closer to the rehearsal period, I’ll try to get up at four in the morning, when it’s very quiet, no one’s going to ask you anything, and I just think and sit. Sometimes, I lay down and go into a half-dream state and then visualize what’s happening.

Then, in the next couple of days, I’ll get the score and start writing down my notes, so that when I get to rehearsal, I already have every measure planned – with the idea that whatever I don’t need or whatever needs to be changed will be changed in rehearsal because I think the performers are extremely important in the creative process, and one needs to allow some room for that.

So I mostly want to come to rehearsal with a container that has all the ideas in it, and then I just put more things in or take things out.

Sounds like soup.

Yeah! Soup is a good idea. So you have to keep tasting it.

Did you know the chevalier was going to happen, you were going to be ‘knighted’?

No, I had no awareness that there was a process going on — you have to be nominated and then you have to be reviewed, and you don’t know any of that’s happening. You just get this letter in the mail.

A letter in the mail? There was no official ceremony?

No! Yes [laughs], there was a ceremony which was like being knighted which was done at the French Cultural Services in New York.

Did you kneel or bow and they, you know, blessed you with a sword?

Well, there was kind of a blessing, yes, on both shoulders and the head. I didn’t have to kneel, though.

Done by whom?

The French cultural attache in New York.

He has that official authority?

In the colonies, yes, he does.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length. Top mask image: shutterstock.