Benoît Magimel as 14-year-old Louis XIV in the 2000 film Le roi danse (‘The King is Dancing’). YouTube

The dancing Sun King

French king Louis XIV liked to use dance as a way of projecting his absolute power. A year before his glorious coronation, he embodied the rising sun – dressed as the sun god, Apollo – in the centre of the planetary system.

Murielle Schlup

Murielle Schlup

Freelance art historian and cultural scientist

“L’État, c’est moi” ("I am the state") are the famous words attributed to Louis XIV (1638-1715), which he is thought to have declared before Parliament in April 1655, and which would become the guiding principle of monarchic absolutism. There is now some doubt about whether he ever really said the words, but either way, Louis XIV lived and embodied the centralist all-powerful figure at all levels of society like few others before or since. The whole of French court culture, which was a Baroque synthesis of all the arts, revolved solely around the absolute monarch. Ever since Catherine de’ Medici had married into the French royal family in 1533, dance in particular had taken on a key role. Male nobles devoted themselves to dance on the stage of the court theatre, while both sexes practised baroque dance (or belle danse) at the many balls.
The several-hour-long Ballet Comique de la Reine of 1581 represents a milestone in ballet history and is the oldest ballet whose score still remains.
The several-hour-long Ballet Comique de la Reine of 1581 represents a milestone in ballet history and is the oldest ballet whose score still remains. Catherine de’ Medici introduced Italian court dancing to France, which evolved to become ballet. Wikimedia
As the ultimate expression of mastery over body and mind, a talent for dance was a key asset in a successful court career, where it was all about ‘acting’ the perfect courtier to win over – and retain – the king’s favour.  Dance also produced its own stars in Paris akin to war heroes, some of whom were said to have been “high-ranking members of society” as historian and abbot Michel de Marolles recalls in his memoirs.

An allegory of the victorious kingdom

You might say that Louis XIV was predestined to have a passion for dance as his birth was celebrated with a performance of the Ballet de la Félicité at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Dance played an important part in his education, and he is thought to have diligently practised his style and expression on a daily basis, under the guidance of the best dancing masters. In 1651, he appeared on stage at the court theatre, where he proved at the age of 14 that not only was he an accomplished ballet dancer, but that he was able to use ballet as a political tool in an exceptionally skilful manner. In the first weeks of 1653, the royalist forces overpowered the opposition Fronde in a series of revolts against the French court and government that had been raging since 1648. The government was composed at the time of the queen mother, Anne of Austria (in place of the king, who was still a minor), and the de facto ruler, prime minister Cardinal Mazarin, hated by the nobility and commoners alike.
Skirmishes along the walls of the Bastille during the Fronde. Painting by an anonymous artist, Château de Versailles.
Skirmishes along the walls of the Bastille during the Fronde. Painting by an anonymous artist, Château de Versailles. Wikimedia
To celebrate his victory, Louis XIV commissioned a lavish ballet performance, which can be viewed as an allegory of the restoration of right and order, and as subjugation of the nobility to the victorious monarchy. At the same time, the Ballet Royal de la Nuit was a declaration of war directed at revolutionaries of all persuasions and was instrumental in the process of cementing the king’s absolute power. His spectacular performance in this ballet marked the beginning of a sophisticated PR campaign, and gave a foretaste of his coronation in 1654 and the declaration in 1661 that he would govern alone. The Ballet Royal de la Nuit was performed for the first time on 23 February 1653 at the Salle du Petit-Bourbon in Paris. It was not a narrative ballet as became established from the mid-18th century, but instead consisted of a series of sections with allegorical, mythological, exotic and chivalric elements. As ballet was not an art form in its own right at the time, the performance combined elements of music, dance, drama, song and recitation as a composite work of the performing arts. The central and unifying message of the spectacle was that the death of Louis XIII, the king’s father, was like the night descending over France. The darkness brought disaster (culminating in the Fronde), which Louis XIV successfully defeated, leading the nation out of uncertainty and back to the light thanks to his divine right to rule, which promised France a glorious future.
The perfect piece of self-promotion: the face of the young king is easily recognisable as a portrait in this costume study. Whether Louis XIV did not in fact wear a mask on stage – contrary to custom at the time – is not recorded, but is quite possible given the message the performance was designed to convey. Bibliothèque nationale de France

Triumphant performance as the sun god

The king played six different roles in the Ballet Royal de la Nuit: an hour, a game, a drunkard, a questioner, a madman and – in the explosive final scene – the rising sun. In this final scene he appeared as Apollo, the mythological god of the arts and the sun. His appearance on stage followed that of the Morning Star, played by ‘Monsieur’, the king’s younger brother, and the Dawn, carrying the dew and the twelve hours of the day in her chariot. As she exits the stage, she says: “Le soleil qui me suit c’est le jeune LOUIS” (“The sun that follows me is the young LOUIS”).
Clip from the film "Le roi danse" (‘The King is Dancing’), 2000. YouTube
Using sophisticated special effects and mechanical stage technology devised by the architect and stage designer Giacomo Torelli – nicknamed the Grand Sorcier (‘the Great Magician’), the king was hoisted onto the stage on a sort of rising platform. He appeared wearing a sun ray tiara and lavish plumage. His magnificent costume covered in gemstone appliqués and gold embroidery reflected the sun motif all over. The king glittered and sparkled in the glow of a thousand candles. Wearing pointed high heels, he danced tiny, articulated steps across the stage, exuding elegance and regal grace. His open arms and gracefully spread hands supported the balancing act, in which he appeared to float, raised above all that is earthly, as a life-giving central star in the middle of the planetary system.  Louis was accompanied by carefully selected courtiers and professional dancers, singers and acrobats, representing various virtues, including honour, mercy, temperance, mastery and glory. Like planets, they rotated in their orbits around the sun, thereby symbolising the dependence of the nobility on the infallible, all-powerful and absolutist ruler.
Cover and inside of a score edition from 1690.
Cover and inside of a score edition from 1690. Bibliothèque nationale de France

The birth of the Sun King

Among the enthusiastic spectators was Cardinal Mazarin – who was also the king’s godfather – and the queen mother Anne of Austria, who must have seen this as proof that her son was indeed a miracle child and was destined for greatness. Following three miscarriages in her earlier years and after 22 years of childless marriage – the couple were estranged and therefore lived apart – Anne unexpectedly fell pregnant at the age of 37, and nine months later, gave birth to her first healthy child – a long-awaited heir to the throne.
Anne of Austria in a painting with her two ‘miracle’ sons, the Dauphin Louis, and behind him, the younger Philippe, known in the court as ‘Monsieur’.
Anne of Austria in a painting with her two ‘miracle’ sons, the Dauphin Louis, and behind him, the younger Philippe, known in the court as ‘Monsieur’. The happy mother is praying to the Holy Trinity, supported by St Benedict and his sister St Scholastica. Wikimedia
The Ballet Royal de la Nuit was a huge success and was performed a further six times. The iconic role of the sun god was like a second birth for Louis XIV, who from then on was known by his famous nickname ‘the Sun King’, and the sun henceforth became his favourite symbol. Louis was not only an active dancer and a fan of court ballet, but also its greatest patron. In 1661, he founded the Académie royale de danse and made his most important teacher – dancer and choreographer Pierre Beauchamp – its first ballet master. Beauchamp had a major influence on the development of ballet, and is credited with codifying the five basic positions that form the basis of modern ballet. Together with the Académie royale de musique, which was also founded by the king, in 1669, the academy of dance later became the internationally renowned Paris Opera.  Over the course of his reign, the dance was increasingly performed by professionals, and moved away from the court ceremonial style – a development which Louis welcomed as he could no longer keep up with the professional dancers. He danced for the last time on stage in the comedy ballet Les Amants Magnifiques by Molière and Jean-Baptiste Lully, in 1670.
Away from the ballet stage but with the graceful posture of a dancer in fourth position: Louis XIV in a portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701.
Away from the ballet stage but with the graceful posture of a dancer in fourth position: Louis XIV in a portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701. Wikimedia

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch
www.nationalmuseum.ch

Design: dreipol   |  Realisation: whatwedo
Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).