Choruses on Stage
In Search of the Origin of Choral Theatre Practices

Alain Platel „C(h)œurs“, Les Ballets C. de la B. (2012)
Alain Platel „C(h)œurs“, Les Ballets C. de la B. (2012) | Photo (detail): © Chris Van der Burght

Does anyone nowadays know that choirs were originally closely entwined with dance? Inspired by classical tragedies, this aesthetic mode was revived in the French dance-music theatre of the 17th century and led to “chœurs dansés” being regarded as an obligatory component of opera compositions until far into the 19th century. Contemporary choreographers are now once again drawing on this aesthetic concept in very diverse ways and with remarkable success: the chorus is gaining new impetus in and through dance! 

If one takes a look at the contemporary chorus scene, then it is hard to believe that the ancient Greek Χορός (chorós) originally meant a dance venue, also a dance group and finally a cultish round dance in connection with singing. In particular, singing accompanied by dancing was an integral component of early Greek tragedies. In the pursuit of the revitalising tendencies of this theatre practice since the Renaissance, dance choruses (chœurs dansés) continued to play a central role, particularly in French opera aesthetics – from the first tragédies lyriques to the drames lyriques of the late 19th century. 

Hence the French art critic Jean-Baptiste Abbé Dubos (1670–1742), whose renown extended far beyond the borders of France, devoted himself in his Réflexions critiques sur le poésie et sur la peinture (1719) to an in-depth study of the purportedly antique theatre dance, which he described as primarily a gesture art. His observations instantly arouse associations with the chœurs dansés of the tragédies lyriques based on the model by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687): as in the case of natural gestures, dance gesticulation did not have to be comprehensible in itself, its main function was to accompany the singing declamation whereby the recitation and acting could be performed by two persons respectively or by one and the same person. Most important was that the expressive gesticulation as well as the rhythmic-metric form of these gestures coincided directly with the recitation. They were “gestures in accordance with the musical recitation” explained Dubos and finally described them as “dances that were no more than demonstrations made by the choristers to give expression to their feelings”.

The dramatisation of dance by choral singing

Under this premise, the direct correspondence of chorus and dance movements in French music theatre finds its aesthetic base: on the one hand, dance movements were to be more easily understood by means of choral singing and, at the same time, the singing gained gestic expression while, on the other hand, the reference to antiquity was intended to legitimise dance as an artistic language of expression. Finally, it thus became possible to expedite the generally favoured dramatisation of dance, which was to place it on a level with  the then predominant arts of poetry and painting. Yet even more significant than the reference of Lully’s chœurs dansés to antique theatre practice is the artistic consequence connected with this, i.e. that – according to Dubos – the dance gestures to express intense emotions had developed primarily with and from choral singing. The essential expressive movements required to develop a <I>ballet d’action</I> – or the later narrative ballets – were thus initially oriented to choral singing.

Dance operas with choruses

Sasha Waltz: „Dido and Aeneas“ by Henry Purcell (2005) (YouTube)

One is tempted to place this aesthetic concept in connection with Sasha Waltz’ interpretation of Henry Purcell’s first and only opera Dido and Aeneas (2005) – especially since her version of a dance opera is much closer to the emphatically spectacular French theatre genres of the 17th century than the comparably purist English theatre ideal of that time. This seems, for instance, to have inspired Mark Morris’ choreography of the same composition from 1989. Of seminal importance in the revival of choreographed operas in the 20th century was of course Pina Bausch with Christoph Willibald Gluck’s reform operas Iphigenie enTauride (1974) and Orpheus ed Eurydike (1975) in interpretations which were regarded at the time as unusual and idiosyncratic.
Pina Bausch: „Iphigenie en Tauride“ by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1974), Liceu 2010-11 (YouTube)
Pina Bausch: „Orpheus ed Eurydike“ by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1975) (YouTube)

In all these examples singers performing on or beside the stage are “doubled” by dancers – in free adaptation of Abbé Dubos, yet moved and moving with the entire body instead of merely with gestures - in order to give effective emphasis to the singing (including but not limited to a chorus) and at the same time opening up a deeper level of meaning to the dance. This could be achieved by a direct visualisation or by a more freely interpreted illustration of emotionally expressive melodies, or also by disengaging the dancing performance from the musical one – not so much on the rhythmic and tonal level as on the semantic level.

To choreograph: to write singing into the space by means of dance 

John Neumeier's „Saint Matthew Passion“ by Johann Sebastian Bach (1981), Hamburg Ballett (YouTube)

Further alliances of singing/chorus and dance such as, for example, in John Neumeier’s Saint Matthew Passion (1981) or Uwe Scholz’ Große Messe (1998) receive a specifically religious slant. Or they lead to creative ensemble choreographies that are as musically sensitive as they are idiosyncratic, such as Martin Schläpfer’s choreographic engagement with Johannes Brahms Deutsches Requiem (2011) or Adriana Hölszky's Deep Field (2014). Meanwhile, others mutate – as in Alain Platel’s magnificent choreography  C(h)œurs (2012) – to a politically and also trans-culturally timeless, humanitarian message: they merge into explosive choral compositions, performing to extracts from operas by Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and highlighting here the dangers incurred by pathetically exaggerated mass singing and unfettered collective forces, moved and moving in both dance and song.
Martin Schläpfer „Deutsches Requiem“ by Johannes Brahms (2011), Ballett am Rhein (YouTube)
Martin Schläpfer and Adriana Hölszky „Deep Field“ (2014), Ballett am Rhein (YouTube)
Alain Platel's „C(h)œurs“ (2012), Teatro Real Madrid (Youtube)
Jean Baptiste Abbé Dubos’ “Réflexions critique sur la Poësie et sur la Peinture”, Paris 1719, esp. the “Section XIV: De la Danse ou de la Saltation théatrale. Comment l’Acteur qui faisoit les gestes, pouvoit s’accorder avec l’Acteur qui recitoit. De la Danse des Chœurs”, 3. vol., p. 253ff. Dubos’ arguments were reprinted several times until far into the 18th century, sometimes also revised, and were translated into English, Dutch and German (Amsterdam 1740 and 1760, Leiden 1774, London 1748, Copenhagen 1760/61).