Early ballet dancer Pierre Beauchamps (1636-1705) was the ballet tutor of King Louis XIV of France and was regarded among the finest dancers of his time. He was the first to define the five basic positions of ballet.
Early ballet dancer and choreographer Pierre Beauchamps made significant contributions to the art form of ballet as it evolved into modern times. The art of ballet, which originated in Italy during the 1400s, had migrated to France through the effort of Queen Catherine de Medici in the 1500s but remained nebulous as an art form for another hundred years. It was not until the arrival of Beauchamps and the Academie Royale de Danse in France, at the behest of Louis XIV, that the dance became a codified discipline. Beauchamps was considered to be among the finest dancers, and it was during his lifetime that ballet was transformed from a popular pastime of royalty into a serious art form that attracted large public audiences.
Pierre Beauchamps was born in 1636 in Versailles, France. His family members were traditionally musicians and dancers who entertained the monarchs of France. He was also a distant cousin to the playwright Jean-Baptiste Moliere, a member of the Mazuel family that also was popular with French royalty. Over several generations, the two families had established a dominant position within the royal court of France. Perhaps most prominent among the Mazuels was a great-uncle to Beauchamps-and great-grand-father to Moliere—named Guillaume Mazuel. Along with violinist Christophe de Beauchamps (an uncle to Pierre Beauchamps), Mazuel was a member of the orchestra of Louis XIII. As the Beauchamps and the Mazuels performed regularly for the king, the influential relationship between the two families and the French monarchy had solidified by the time that Pierre Beauchamps was born.
By early adolescence Beauchamps, with his extraordinary affinity for the dance, had attracted the attention of the royals. As early as January 23, 1648—no more than 11 years old at the time—he appeared on the bill of the Ballet du dereglement des passions, a performance at the Palais Cardinal. He possessed a natural ability for the execution of graceful ballet movements and leaps that defied gravity. By 1650 he had received an appointment as the private ballet tutor of Louis XIV of France and thereafter worked with the king daily for approximately two decades. In 1660 Beauchamps performed personally in the ballet of Cavalli's Xerse at the celebration of the royal wedding of Louis XIV to the Spanish Princess, Maria Theresa (the Infanta).
Also as a teenager Beauchamps began to perform for his cousin, Moliere, who produced a number of comedie-ballets. The Moliere troupe operated initially under the name of the Illustre Theatre, and later as the Troupe de Monsieur. After extensive research, recent experts have failed to determine the full extent of Beauchamps's earliest involvement with the Moliere productions. It is certain that he danced in nine of the Moliere-Lully premieres and received top billing in the livres (libretto) on multiple occasions. John S. Powell suggested in Music and Letters that it was a very young Beauchamps who composed the music for Moliere's royal production of Les Facheux in the 1650s. It has been established with reasonable certainty that by 1659 the relationship between the dancer and the playwright assumed an increasingly formal and professional nature. Beauchamps spent the ensuing 12 years working with Moliere's troupe and performed as a dancer in a wide variety of roles, ranging from dramatic to comic characters, and portrayed a number of beings, from sprites to heroes of epic proportion.
Also performing in the Moliere programs during the 1660s were Louis XIV and the members of his court. Beauchamps and the king were seen in performance together specifically in Le Mariage ford in 1664, Le Sicilien in 1667, and in Les Amants magnifiques in 1670. By 1670 when Louis XIV abandoned his dancing because of his aging constitution, the art form of ballet had evolved into a professional discipline. Subsequently in 1674 Beauchamps assumed a position with the Academie Royale de Danse, founded by his former pupil, the king. It was Beauchamps who first defined the five basic positions of the dance, making it possible to choreograph increasingly intricate movements and simplifying the process of teaching the art form to new dancers. Largely as a result of the teaching innovations associated with Beauchamps, the casual pastime of ballet began a centuries-long evolution into a serious art form.
Still in his teens, Beauchamps began to work as a choreographer. It was the occasion of a masquerade presented on February 3, 1656 that marked the approximate beginning of his career in choreography. The program, produced by the royal choreographer Jean-Baptiste Lully, was followed within one month by another Beauchamps-choreographed Lully production, La Galanterie du temps. Soon afterward Beauchamps choreographed the 1657 Ballet des plaisirs troubles at the Louvre, and from that time forward his skills were widely recognized.
On May 18, 1659 he choreographed a performance to celebrate the engagement of Louis XIV and the Infanta. The earlier production of Moliere's Les Facheux, to which Beauchamps may have contributed both music and choreography, was performed at least two more times for the royals, including a commissioned presentation in 1661 for a gala hosted by the French minister, Nicolas Fouquet. The production surfaced again, in November of 1661, and played for 44 public performances in Paris at the Theatre du Palais Royal. When in 1661 King Louis established the Academie Royale de Danse and placed Lully in charge, Beauchamps stepped into an appointment as Intendant des Ballets du Roy (royal choreographer).
As Beauchamps contributed to the advancement of ballet as a pastime for the denizens of the royal court, the dance as a fine art evolved simultaneously in the public sector. There, too, Beauchamps left the distinctive mark of his talent. Records that have survived through the centuries from the account books of Moliere's theatre company indicate that Beauchamps received payment for his services— presumably choreography—for a number of Moliere's ballet productions in the 1660s and later. When Le Manage force opened on February 15, 1664 and played for 15 performances at Theatre du Palais Royal in Paris, Beauchamps was on the payroll. In 1671, Beauchamps ascended to the post of Moliere's ballet master near the end of a 146-performance run of Pomone. Beauchamps replaced the original choreographer, Anthoine Des Brosses, for that show, which opened on March 3 in a Left Bank facility known as the Jeu de Paume de la Bouteille, marking the debut of the Moliere Academie d'Opera in Paris. Beauchamps continued with the Moliere Academie during the summer of 1671, simultaneously involved not only as a choreographer, but also as the orchestra conductor and as dancer for Moliere's Psyche. That production had opened on January 17, 1671 in the Grand Salle des machines at the Tuileries Palace. The production and its elaborate scenery moved to the Palais Royal where it opened on July 24, with performances continuing into October. The show reopened again in late January of 1672 and continued into March of that year. Two months later, beginning on May 24, it was Beauchamps who commandeered a series of ten performances in a revival of Moliere's production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. He then choreographed Le Mariage force, which opened for the first of 14 performances on July 8. The production featured all-new music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Also that summer, Beauchamps signed a contract with Moliere, extending their collaboration through 1672. Thereafter Beauchamps and Moliere continued in a collaboration that lasted until Moliere's untimely death in February of 1673. Their work during that time included a production of Psyche that ran from November 11 until January 22, followed by Le Malade imaginaire, which was Beauchamps's final work with Moliere. Le Malade premiered on February 10, one week before the death of Moliere. Beauchamps remained with the troupe to assist with the transition while Moliere's widow prepared to assume control of the company. At that same time, and quite unexpectedly, Lully—who coincidentally had resuscitated the Academie Royale de Danse from an earlier bank-ruptcy—usurped the Moliere's playhouse venue by royal decree, leaving Moliere's troup without a stage.
Beauchamps, who had fallen from Lully's favor during his earlier collaboration with Moliere, was left with few options other than to contribute his services as a choreographer with Lully's royal academy troupe. For the remainder of the 1670s Beauchamps worked in choreography and dance at the Academie, along with Moliere's former onetime choreographer, Des Brosses. Beauchamps was intricately involved in the instruction of the dance, and it was during that time that he began to define and to codify the art of ballet. He described the five basic postures and devised a system for describing each move. Although he failed to seek publication for his system of ballet, it served nonetheless as the basis for later systems and brought the art to a new level of grace and creativity.
In 1680, Beauchamps succeeded the original director of the Academie, Francois Galand du Desert, by royal appointment; and in 1687, coincidental with the death of Lully, Beauchamps retired from the Academie. He relinquished his post as director to his pupil, Guillaume-Louis Pecor. According to eighteenth century critic Raguenet, as quoted by Powell, "They [Beauchamps and Lully] have carried these [ballet] pieces to a higher degree of perfection than anyone in the world will ever attain." In semi-retirement, Beauchamps worked privately on demand as a dance teacher for the high-ranking bourgeoisie and as a composer and choreographer for the Jesuits in Paris. Even in his 60s, it was said that Beauchamps retained his remarkable agility and continued to perform high leaps with apparent ease.
It was during the era of Beauchamps and Lully that many dramatic improvements came about, which helped ballet in its evolution as one of the major cultural arts of the twenty-first century. It was during Beauchamps's lifetime that public performance venues—beyond the confines of the royal courts—began to appear. During much of his career dance remained the exclusive domain of men, and Beauchamps often performed in the role of a female character, opposite Louis XIV. It was not until 1681 that female dancers were introduced into the ballet. Yet even with the debut of the first prima ballerina, Mlle. Lafontaine in the 1800s, some time elapsed before the heavy clothing and high-heeled costumes were replaced. Another two centuries would pass, however, before the perfection of the dramatic art of toe (pointe) dancing, a feat that was perfected by Marie Taglioni in the 1800s.
Beauchamps's codification, although never published, served as the basis for a subsequent system that was devised by one of his students, Raoul Auger Feuillet. The Feuillet, published as Choregraphie ou l'art de decrire la dance, appeared in 1700; it was among the first such systems to see publication. An English translation appeared in 1706, entitled Orchesography. It is interesting to note that Beauchamps made no secret of the fact that he found his inspiration as a choreographer from watching the birds on the Paris streets. He insisted that by strewing grain for the pigeons and observing the movements of the flock in the scramble for food, he was inspired to choreograph the ballet. Beauchamps died in 1705.
Christian Science Monitor, September 25, 1998.
Music and Letters, May 1995, p. 168(19).