“In order to play dance pieces correctly, you must learn to dance it.” Thus spoke my recorder teacher this past Friday. A tall order, considering that Baroque dance has become a specialized and rarely-performed art inaccessible to most people. Thankfully, the next day, I had the thrilling privilege to “get up close and personal” with this alluring and elegant art form by attending the season finale of the Newberry Consort’s 2011-2012 season. Entitled Les Caractères de La Danse, this outstanding and highly memorable event not only featured some of the nation’s best period instrument players, but also two of the nation’s foremost Baroque dancers, Paige Whitley-Baugess and Thomas Baird.

In this most delightful and enlightening program which masterfully rotated dance numbers with exquisite and rarely-performed French Baroque vocal cantatas, Whitley-Baugess and Baird most definitely captured the hearts and attention of all those present, greatly unveiling many of the mysteries surrounding Baroque dance to me. Daintily skipping and sweeping across the stage in in historical choreography and vibrant, elaborate period costumes, they proceeded to impersonate a wide spectrum of colorful characters, ranging from cheeky pre-teens to vivacious sailors and stately court dancers. The costumes proved especially attractive; they were neither hokey nor stuffy, but tasteful and delicate. Because I had been expecting court costumes – complete with powdered wigs and for Baroque dancers, the variation of the characters and their costumes pleasantly surprised me, giving me a whole new perspective on Baroque dance as an art that was also one of all 18th-century folk, not just the upper-class.

Even more noteworthy, Whitely-Baugess and Baird constantly engaged their audience by interjecting more “human” aspects into their performance, especially in the form of gesture, pantomime, and facial expressions. Disgust, infatuation, sneakiness, and even flirtation were so realistically portrayed the audience often giggled and burst into laughter. Especially hilarious was the dancers’ delightful harlequin parody on the classic Greek tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, which was later modernized by George Bernard Shaw and then transformed into the musical classic My Fair Lady. In this masterful farce, Whitley-Baugess and Baird – clad in colorful harlequin costumes – frequently interacted with the audience and constantly emphasized the comic, over-exaggerating their pantomime/ facial expressions and making use of grotesque – or, in layman’s terms, inverted and exaggerated for the sake of comedy – Baroque dance moves. To add the finishing comic touches to this most noteworthy number, Whitley-Baugess and Baird made use of unexpected minor props such as a fake sausage and live daisy – highly brilliant and pleasantly surprising, yet only accenting the routine and rhetorical messages without distracting from the main focus of the dance.

The most delightful dancing was accompanied by some of the most delicate and dancelike period instrument playing that I have ever heard in person. Led by energetic and technically brilliant Baroque violinist David Douglass, the small yet potent ensemble of Baroque strings, oboe/recorder, and harpsichord all blended together perfectly for a tinkling and mesmerizing period instrument sound. Dance rhythms, crisp articulation, and the elusive, hard-to-grasp notes inegales technique were masterfully executed, complementing the dancers’ steps and fusing the music-dance connection into my musically bewildered and knowledge-hungry mind. Especially notable was the exquisite oboe-playing of Debra Nagy – who performed her instrument with such perfect, smooth tone reminiscent of ice cream melting in one’s mouth – and the crystal-clear, agile soprano voice of noted Baroque diva Ellen Hargis – which sparkled to its fullest during the rare French Baroque vocal cantatas in which she starred. For the finishing touches, young harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner also provided a thoroughly sparkling continuo accompaniment which conjured up images of a clear, fresh summer night complete with a gentle breeze and twinkling stars. So subtle and delicate an effect, yet so noticeable and a perfect complement to the pleasant spring night outside. Overall, this evening not only proved most enchanting and worthwhile, but it more importantly served as a hugely inspirational, life-changing experience to me in further revealing to me the secrets of the art of Baroque dance and of historical performance in general. Perfect timing for such a concert in my life, and a perfect finale to the Newberry Consort’s 2011-2012 season. Bravo to all!