With Drawn Sword He Dances     

by Michael M.Hewer



As a fencing master specialised in stage fighting, one is never safe from surprises. This summer I had the opportunity to dive during three weeks in French 18th Century, and at a place like the sunny California.

The invitation came in December ‘97 and let me forget every other thing important to me in this instant. "Dear Michael, we would like to have you for our workshop." Catherine Turocy, "Big Boss" of the New York Baroque Dance Company, organised a baroque dance workshop for professional dancers in Napa, California. This contact had been realised by a good friend, the choreographer Edith Lalonger. We prepared a similar project in Paris.

Waugh - Hollywood. However, a look on the map instructed me that Napa is situated 80 miles north of San Francisco, in a wonderful valley full of vineyards, and some hundred miles away from Hollywood. As a basic Central European, who never left his old continent, I could not really imagine the immense American distances. This was only the first of many interesting discoveries.

With Sword Drawn He Dances

Mr. Jarvis, wine producer in Napa, sponsored everything. The Jarvis Conservatory created by him made funds, a modern theatre and rehearsal room available. The workshop: "With drawn sword he dances... education of the French nobleman in 18th Century" predominantly addressed itself to professional dancers. Exact details of my participation could not be clarified as two other fencing specialists, Richard Pallaziol and Maestro Ramon Martinez, were also invited as teachers. Therefore, supported by Edith Lalonger and her personal searches, I had to carry out some preliminary work in the French national library. It seemed that in those days fencing and dancing were often taught by the same person and in the same premises. According to my opinion, there must have been a mutual influence. However, except some choreographies of this time, which contained quite clearly fencing items or whose topic was fencing, I could not discover anything interesting.

Thus, with mixed feelings I flew to California in the middle of July. The welcome in the Jarvis house was as warm as the first contact with Catherine Turocy, their assistants Deda Colonna and Carlo Fittante, and the other 18 participants in the workshop. Among other information, I heard that I was designated for a role in the final performance.

During the first week, I took part in training, whereby I became painfully conscious that my three-year ballet formation dates already over 15 years ago. Nevertheless, this week was full of information; it gave to me the opportunity to study the repertoire of movements of the baroque dancers. The similarities between individual fencing positions of the 18th century and baroque movements of the same time were striking yet. The practical work was completed in the afternoon by theoretical instruction. Information about the social structures of the 18th century alternated with music studies and choreography teachings.


The first clue came from these theoretical instructions. The French nobleman was trained as dancer. Louis XIVth was an outstanding dancer and choreographer. As stated by the documents, education was predominantly limited to leg and foot movements. Arms and hands executed so-called "ornaments". Very important in fencing of this time was the work of arms and hands, like the changes of hand positions from pronation to supination. This was complemen-tary to the legwork of the dancers. In a letter to his commanders Louis XIVth wrote, that dancing supports the fencing and fighting. It provides for speed of the legs and helps the fighter to shift easily his weight and change the direction without losing his equilibrium. He decided that his soldiers would study dancing beside the normal fencing lessons.

Dancing had also a social function. The dancer learned that each human was surrounded by a personal sphere, a kind of bubble, which determined the contact with other items of a social group,. The arm position of the dancers symbolised this sphere, in which they moved on a narrow stage without influencing and touching each other. This training helped them at court, where hundreds of aristocrats circled around the king, everyone in his own bubble. We can connect this theory wonderfully to fencing. With the sword, I describe a personal sphere. The parades limit and mark it, make it visible for a potential opponent. The attack finally is the penetration into the opponents’ bubble, over-coming the boundaries indicated by the parades. We can see that dancing and fencing are com-plementary. The aristocrat did not only profit from well-balanced body training, but also learned to maintain ground in a hard social order.


The first two weeks were rich of meetings with other disciplines. Like me Arne Zaslov had studied with Jacques Lecoq in Paris and presented a master class in mask work. Here we found the basic idea for a parody of the "Jeux de Paumes" with masks of the Commedia dell’Arte, which we integrated later into the final performance. Richard Pallaziol showed us stage fencing. We had very much fun in doing it, but looking back it must be said, that his fencing style works far better with a 15th century rapier than with a "epée de cour" (small sword) of the early 18th. Therefore, movements he presented were frequently in opposition to movements studied in the baroque dance. It went better with Ramon Martinez who held a 2-day seminar at the end of the second week. Maestro Martinez runs a school for historical fencing in New York. He presented Italian and Spanish style of the 15th and the 16th century. With him, the dancers discovered things they knew, because especially in his lesson about the Spanish style he often mentioned circular spaces and spheres. I never found this technique described in such a clear and simple way as he did.

In the second week a wonderful co-operation developed between the choreographer Carlos Fittante and me. With four dancers, Carlos studied a sarabande from the 18th century after an old notation. Outgoing of an engraving from the same time, I completed this choreography with sword work. It was amazing to see how easily the movements could be transferred in fencing motions. Sometimes sequences had to be modified, but since fencing could be integrated organically into the dance, this was not a problem for the dancers. After a one-week work, the result was a wonderful choreography of a sword dance in the French baroque style.


In the last week, there were plenty of rehearsals and the construction of the performance. In my role as "Monsieur Coupé, Master of arms" I had to integrate much text in a foreign language. Beside the stage rehearsals of the sword dance, I had also to create a historical fencing lesson in the style of the old French masters Labat, Danet and La Perche, which initiated the show. Again, I was surprised how easily the dancers learned the French fencing positions. The ballet evening "With Drawn Sword He Dances " was a full success.

After weeks of intensive work it is always hard to leave a team. Catherine Turocy had offered to all the participants of the workshop a time full of rich experiences. The meetings with Arne Zaslov and Ramon Martinez and the musical support of James Richmond were very interesting. Moreover, Deda Colonna and Carlos Fittante two outstanding co-workers with rich knowledge assisted Catherine.

Obviously, there is a relationship between baroque dance and the French fencing style of the 18th century. Which one influenced most the other is difficult to tell. However, I believe, that dancing integrated more items of fencing than the opposite. That is only one of many open questions, which can be clarified only in co-operation with other dancers and choreographers.

Last, thanks all those with whom I had the luck to work during three weeks and all those, which spend so many time with our daily problems. Of course, without them nothing could have been done. I hope that this meeting with Catherine Turocy will not remain the first and only one.


©Cie.STICS 1998