Goucher troupe dances its way into history

October 07, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

From the stately figures of an 18th century minuet to the racy rhythms of pre-World War I ragtime or the acrobatics of World War II jitterbug, Choreographie Antique does it all.

What began as a Goucher College student project to bring to life the dances of the Baroque period (1690-1780), has become a highly sought after living-history dance troupe.

"It started as a learning tool, then expanded into living history and is now interdisciplinary," said Chrystelle T. Bond, a former professional dancer who chairs the Goucher dance department.

Since 1988 the troupe has grown to 22 members, most of them Goucher students, though alumnae and a couple of husbands are included.

Over the years, its repertoire has expanded to embrace American and European culture as expressed through 350 years of dance.

After the Baroque era, 19th century ballroom dancing is divided into the periods from 1800 to 1814, 1825 to 1845, and the ragtime period from 1890 to 1914. In all, about 115 vintage dances have been choreographed.

"We have taken dance as a performing art and, using a cultural and historical perspective, have made it a humanity," Ms. Bond said.

"We need at least two more men in the group, if they have two arms and two legs and can breathe," laughed Ms. Bond, who used a little spousal pressure to coax her husband, Tim, into joining the troupe. She said "he really got involved with it" after square-dancing.

For Jayme Kay Klinger, a 21-year-old senior from Sunbury, Pa., dance is life. An aspiring dance historian, she said four years in Choreographie Antique has shown her how dance evolved from the formal court dances of the aristocracy to the racy rhythms of the Jazz Age and the free-spirited jitterbugging of the 1940s.

To enhance a dance's authenticity, the dancers learn the manners and customs of the various periods. One technique, the language of the fan, demonstrates the intriguing ways people used fans to communicate. The elegance and manners of the early period -- which are researched as carefully as the intricate dance patterns -- has made it a favorite for the dancers.

And, there is the opportunity to "play dress-up" and travel back through time. Amber Gaidis, 19, of Olney, said this is one of the best things about belonging to the troupe.

L "It's neat to see how they danced in other times," she said.

While the old European dances are the favorites, Natasha

Kirjanov, 20, from Reading, Pa., also enjoys the snappier rhythms of pre-World War I ragtime and the jitterbug.

"The Baroque dances are very stately," said Ms. Kirjanov, who is majoring in biology. "I like the subtle flirting and communication of the dances, the language of the fan. When we perform, it's so different from rehearsals. We're in costume and it's totally acting, like stage performing."

Susie Gillmor, 18, of Key Largo, Fla., is another jitterbug fan. She said performing archaic dances is fascinating because she can do it "for fun." "It's an interesting contrast to ballet and modern dance," she said.

Often, the troupe performs in locations contemporary with their dances. These places include Carroll Mansion, the 1840 House, Peale Museum and Mount Clare in Baltimore; Hampton Mansion in Towson; Paca House in Annapolis, and the old State House in St. Mary's City, as well as at Mount Vernon and the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, Va.

Ms. Kirjanov said this "creates an atmosphere like we are actually living in those days."

Authentic re-creation is no accident, but the result of painstaking research into all aspects of a dance and the period in which it was performed, Ms. Bond said.

Costumes are specially designed for dances from the earlier eras, while actual vintage clothing is used for those dances from the later periods.

Old books and manuscripts are researched and translated to re-create the intricate steps of Baroque dances, which followed a pattern around the ballroom. Prints and engravings show body positions, how men and women bowed, how men removed their hats during a dance.

Ms. Bond is presently collaborating with a researcher in Stockholm to reconstruct a Swedish contre-danse of the early 18th century.

Researching 20th century dances is comparatively easy. Recordings, films, even old Arthur Murray footprint patterns document dances of the ragtime and jitterbug eras.

Ms. Bond said the troupe performs dances of the European courts and the nobility because those from the lower classes were not scored and diagrammed.

In the Baroque period, courtiers had nothing to do but find new ways to amuse themselves. Dancing masters were employed to create ever-newer and more intricate dances to keep the courtiers busy learning the latest fashions, instead of plotting against the king.

Wealthy American colonists aped English and French manners and dances until about 1790, when an American middle class began to emerge.

They still copied from the upper crust, but their "dances weren't as fancy, their clothes were less expensive and their hairdos weren't as elaborate," said Ms. Bond.

For dances of the 17th to mid-19th centuries, Choreographie Antique performs to period music performed by Musica Antiqua, a local chamber music group. Ms. Bond said Goucher is forming jazz and chamber music ensembles "so we will be able to work with home musicians, too."

During its performances, the group also invites spectators to join in and learn simple steps.

Choregraphie Antique's next local public appearance will be at 1 p.m. Nov. 8, at Merrick Hall at Goucher College.

The dancers will perform a program of music and dance from 1800 to 1814.

The performance is sponsored by the Baltimore-Washington Chapter of the Jane Austen Society. Tickets are $15 each.

Information is available from Joyce Loney, (410) 859-1397.

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