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The Equestrian Ballet: The Pageantry of Dressage

Cynthia Hodges, M.A.

With the fall of the Greek Empire, the art of equitation was lost for nearly 2000 years. Fortunately, the principles were preserved in Greek General Xenophon's books, Horsemanship and The Calvary Commander, written around 400 B.C. Xenophon's ideas of beauty and harmony formed the basis for the renaissance of equestrian art that occured in the 16th century in Italy. Grisone, the Neapolitan nobleman, is credited with the rediscovery of the art of riding and was thus known as "the father of the art of equitation" by his contemporaries.

Grisone, however, did not follow Xenophon's humane methods to the letter. It was Antoine de Pluvinel (the student of a student of Grisone) who brought Xenophon's ideas back to France, where he eventually became Louis XIII's riding master. Pluvinel resurrected Xenophon's ideal of harmony with the horse and indoctrinated Francois Robichon de la Guerniere in these humane principles. Guerniere later became one of the most influential equestrians ever known as riding master to Louis XV. Guerniere's tenets, as described in the 18th century, are still used by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna today. This is, in part, due to the influence of Max Ritter von Weyrother, head rider of the school in the early 19th century.

The development of the ballet proper begins in the 16th century with medieval mounted contests of martial skill being influenced by three other factors. The first is an allegorical ideal: tournaments began to be fought for the reputation of one's city, or for the beauty of a lady, etc. The second is the increased use of spectacle. A procession to show off one's sumptuous clothing assumed enormous proportions in accordance with the fictional framework. The "mostra," as they were known, thus became as important as the combat. The third element is the introduction of dressage and the Baroque ideal of raising the horse to a work of art through equitation, by combining complex movements to form a picture of flowing grace. The dressage training itself generally took place in an indoor manege or riding hall, where the horse was taught the haute ecole. The high school movements, or airs above the ground, are now only taught at the Cavalry School in Saumur in France, and at the Spanish Riding School. With the mixing of these new elements, the medieval tournament developed into a new type of equestrian festivity, the carrousel, which Watanaby-O'Kelley describes as such:

A carrousel thus consisted of a procession with floats, horsemen, footmen, and musicians usually divided into groups called quadrilles, of recited or sung speeches, of a mock combat with pre-ordained outcome and/or of competitions involving running at the ring or at the quintain. (Watanaby-O'Kelley 205)
The final refinement was added in the second half of the 16th century: the equestrian ballet. Von Holleuffer describes it in the following passage:
Equestrian ballet (la Foule, from the Italian, la Fola) is an exercise where several riders on horseback perform various figures to the sound of instruments. This exercise was also invented by the Italians, who decorated their carousels with a great many inventions, which produced a surprising yet pleasing performance.

For this exercise, well-trained, perfectly schooled horses and very talented, skillful riders are challenged, because of the difficulty, to observe the regularity of the ground, and to preserve the horse's training, position, and rhythm of the gaits.

It should suffice if I give an example of this exercise, in order to remind one of the idea of all ballets. One stands in a straight line along both walls or both tracks of the arena, on each side are four riders, who, depending on the length of the arena, stand ten to twelve steps from each other. They must face each other from opposite sides. Furthermore, three more riders must stand in the middle of the arena, one of which stand exactly in the middle, the other two stand on either side at an equal distance. These eleven riders must stand on three lines, and the horses' heads must face one end of the arena. The eight riders along the wall, that is, the four on both sides of the arena, ride a half-circle and change hand continuously on the spot. From the three standing in the center of the arena, the one in the middle turns in pirouette; the other two ride voltes, one to the left, the other to the right.

When the carousel leader signals, they must all go forward together, or halt and perform a reprise either of courbettes, or in the movement their horses have been schooled in, and with this, end...

Toward the end of the 16th century, the ballet was very popular in Italy. The most famous riding schools were n Rome and Naples. Other nations developed the ballet, in order to perfect themselves. The princes and the nobles enjoyed performing these exercises. Here, one could show off one's abilities to serve his prince with honor, and success in acquiring bravery and skill, which when dedicated to the soldiery, are inseparable. (von Holleuffer 230-231)

The earliest known ballet was held in Paris in 1581 for the wedding of the Duc de Joyeuse and the Queen of France's sister. The ballet originated, however, in Italy and was most common at Italian courts in the late 16th and during the17th centuries up to the 1680s. The form experienced a brief period of popularity in France from 1580 to 1615, coinciding with the life of Pluvinel. Dressage was slow to come to the German-speaking countries because of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), but thereafter flourished at such places as Vienna, Dresden and Munich. The last actual performance of the Baroque period is believed to have taken place in Parma in 1732.

The form continued to be popular after this, albeit on different terms. The manege built in Vienna by Fischer von Erlach the Younger for the Austrian Emperors was completed in 1735, and there are many accounts of equestrian ballets throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in the Austrian Empire. Examples are the occasion of the Congress of Vienna (1814) and the entry of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth into Prague in 1854. The Spanish Riding School still performs the equitation of the 16th and 17th centuries, but without the Baroque trappings.

The most famous equestrian ballet of all was performed for the wedding of Emperor Leopold I to his first wife, the Infanta Margarita Teresa, who were married in 1666. The horse ballet became even more important when it was learned that Cesti's opera, Il Ponso d'Oro, was not going to be done on time. A combined effort on the part of Sbarra, the poet, Bertali, the composer of the arias, Schmelzer, the composer of the dance suite, Carducci, the choreographer, and Pasetti, the designer of the floats created a truly remarkable ballet called La contesa dell' aria acqua. Festa a cavallo, Sieg-Streit dess Lufft und Wassers. Freuden Fest zu Pferd and was performed on January 24, 1667 at the court in Vienna.

This ballet begins with an entry procession of enormous dimensions in groups with floats, an operatic introduction in which the elements debate which of them produced the lovely Maragarita, whose name means both pearl and flower. This is followed by a balletic mock-combat in seven figures, which ceases with the entry of "Eternity," whose temple lowers to earth, revealing the immortal spirits of the 12 Habsburg Kaisers. They, in turn, are followed by Leopold, mounted on his horse Speranza, and dressed (according to a 1694 document) in ancient Roman clothing with a breast plate of the finest gold, studded with jewels. He wore the imperial crown and carried the sceptre. Upon his entry, he performed a series of courbettes to the accompaniment of trumpets.

The ballet proper thus begins with 12 figures and an exit procession carried out by 49 riders. The two important dimensions for any ballet are: the horizontal dimension in the patterns made on the ground, and the vertical dimension, the individual airs they perform. The caprioles were performed to a dance suite composed by court composer Johann Schmelzer. The emperor was always at the center of each figure, the culmination is the twelfth and final figure, where he stands at the center of a great star, with the other participants emanating out like rays of light.

Such a ballet must have been a rare feast for the eye. The words of Johann Gottfried Prizelius perhaps echo our own thoughts. In 1777, he wrote wistfully, "Why does one no longer see the likes of this?"


Azzaroli, A. An Early History of Horsemanship. EJ Brill, Leiden; The Netherlands, 1985

DeKunffy, Charles. Ethik im Dressursport; ein Leidenschaflicher Appell. Stuttgart: Kosmos, 1997.

Holleuffer, B. H. von. Die Bearbeitung des Reit- und Kutschpferdes zwischen den Pilaren. Hahn'sche Buchhandlung. Hannover: 1882.

Podhajsky, Alois. The Complete Training of Horse and Rider in the Principles of Classical Horsemanship. Melvin Powers Wilshire Book Company. USA

Watanaby-O'Kelly, Helen. "The Equestrian Ballet in Seventeenth-Century Europe: Origin, Description, Development" German Life and Letters 36, no. 3 (April 1983): 198-212.

© Cynthia Hodges
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