Thirteen Strings: Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière dances in the footsteps of the Baroque

Marie-Nathalie Lacoursiere

Listen to the music of J.S. Bach and you can hear it dance.

The Baroque period was built on dance. The royal courts celebrated with dance and people studied the steps of the chaconne, the gavotte, the minuet and the rigaudon along with many more now seemingly arcane steps.

But these dances are not arcane to Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière. She has built a career on moving with the times — of the 17th century, that is. She is the co-artistic director of Les Jardins Chorégraphiques and Le Nouvel Opéra in Montréal as well as the stage director and choreographer with the opera productions of Clavecin en Concert directed by Luc Beauséjour. 

Lacoursière will be doing her thing with Thirteen Strings March 22 at Dominion-Chalmers in a concert of Baroque music by di Gatti, Geminiani (Corelli), Campra, Rebel and the dean of the French baroque composers Jean-Baptiste Lully, who led dramatic music at the royal court of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King.

Marie-NathalieLacoursière in costume and mask for a rigaudon

She says she just fell into Baroque dance.

“I have a theatre background,” she said in an interview with ARTSFILE. She also studied music, playing the piano and taking some singing classes.

After studying theatre, her interest in music returned. She went back to Laval University for a BA in Music and there were also classes in dance, another interest of hers.

In the mix, there was a Renaissance dance class taught by a woman who was doing a lot of historical dance in the U.S.

“I started to take the Renaissance dance and wanted to start a Baroque class.” She had played a lot of the music for various dances from the 17th century.

“I started to study it.” But her interested deepened when she started to read about the form, she found notation was available to explain the various dance steps. The Baroque period produced the first notation for dance.

“That’s how I got really interested. There was something exciting about discovering a manuscript and reading about the steps and finding out the relationship between the music and the dances.”

For her, one thing led to another and by the time she finished her BA in voice she was also a Baroque dancer.

Her theatre training took her into working on productions of plays by Molière for example, and commedia dell’arte. All these strands in her education are serving her well today. She is a stage director, a Baroque dancer and occasionally she will be singing alto in some productions. She also plays the recorder.

It all relates to the period that holds her interest, she said. It also means that she could work in the field.

It helps that there are early music companies in Toronto and Montreal that are interested in what she can do. In fact she met Kevin Mallon, the music director of Thirteen Strings, in Toronto.

“He was one of the people who really encouraged me. We did many shows together including a tour of New Zealand.”

A lot of Baroque music in France, which was the cultural heart of the era, was built around dance even in what we call the opera, she said. It was solidified by the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.

“We know that French dancers would travel to the various royal courts in Europe. Sometime they would go because they were the stars of their era. In England, for example, they would perform at places such as Drury Lane.

“They would dance on important occasions.”

The dance steps were published regularly and the various courts would have dancing masters who would teach the steps to the courtiers and the royals.And everybody would watch each other and assessing the quality of their moves. It must have been kind of like a 17th century version of Line Dancing. Oh my Achy Breaky Baroque-y heart.

In her show in Ottawa, Lacoursière says she will try to show the variety of the French tradition.

“I will do a choreography which will include a piece of music called La Folia, which is a song that many composers of the period played with,” she said. The concert itself is titled Les folies de Versailles, so there is a resonance there, she said.

She has variations of steps for a woman to dance with a Folia and she’s added some male steps. She’s mixed up all the variations in her own solo performance all in period dress.

She will also do a minuet and gigue. And she will also dance dressed as a bird to show the kinds of characters that would have been part of an opera.

The climax of the evening will be Les Caractères de la danse by Jean-Féry Rebel which features a variety of dances from the period.

“What’s interesting is that we know that it was done by women who did their choreography,” she said. There is a report in the form of a poem which describes the various characters, from old men to young girls, in the dance. The poem helped Lacoursière establish her own presentation which lasts about eight minutes.

She is always on alert for new information that is emerging about dance in the 17th century. But she has a modern understanding that combines with what remains of the historical record to evolve her presentations. She’s not an early music purist.

“I will be in Boston in June where I am choreographing (Steffani’s Orlando) an opera for the Boston Early Music Festival. After awhile, you create, you don’t try to just reproduce” the past.

“We can’t think like the people of the period. Knowing the repertoire” helps her create a new performance. “It’s good to know the material and then try to do something else after you study it. You need to know your craft.”

After all that study, she’s not sure she would have wanted to live in the 17th century. “Probably not. I would like to be a little fly on the wall to know what I get wrong and right.” But, she said, that was not a great time for women.

Thirteen Strings presents Les Follies de Versailles
With Baroque dancer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: March 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.