The King Who Danced

Bust of Louis XIV, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1665, Diana Salon, Grand Apartment, Palace of Versailles

Bust of Louis XIV, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1665, Diana Salon, Grand Apartment, Palace of Versailles

Louis the XIV, known also as Louis the Sun King, was the King of France from the year 1643 until he died in 1715. He remains the longest-reigning monarch of any European country and was responsible for a great many feats, for better or worse, including the building of Versailles. But he is less well known as a dancer who often starred in performances of the ballet at the time.

It is conjectured that Louis’ mother, the Queen, spent so much time with him at the theater and enjoying fine cuisine that, from a young age, Louis XIV also gained a passion for these pastimes as well. The King became the chief patron of the Académie Française. He supported the advancement of Classical French literature and became the backing to such writers as Molière, Racine and La Fontaine, names that we know even now, especially Molière, who’s gifts of satire were unrivaled in Paris. Louis was also the patron of many exceptional artists of the period, including Charles Le Brun and Pierre Mignard.

But in the realm of music, composers and musicians such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, and François Couperin were the backbone of the King’s personal interests and these musicians, Lully especially, often contributed to the production of ballets. Louis was a danseur who performed around eighty roles in forty different ballets. It could be argued that King Louis was practically a professional dancer as the number of performances rivals those of a truly dedicated artist. Louis not only performed in traditional ballet but also took roles in Molière’s comédies-ballets, which were an art form that combined drama with dancing. At one point in his dancing career, King Louis performed as Apollo and Neptune in the same performance of a ballet, Les Amants Magnifiques. His choice of roles mostly held some semblance of the divine, or royally inspired heritage though at times he would assume the role of a Moorish gentleman or an Egyptian.

It has been speculated that the King was merely vain and interested in pursuing his own propagandist causes with his ballet appearances. But the sheer number of performances, and his desire to adopt even mundane roles until he assumed the lead roles later in each ballet also suggests that he might have truly loved dancing and the ballet. We might see then more than just a patron of the arts in the the longest-lived King of Europe, but an artist himself. It is certain that he left a mark on ballet and helped to create the ballet as we know it today.

French Film released in 2000, entitled Le Roi Dance

French Film released in 2000, entitled Le Roi Dance

A danseur, as they would have called him in France, or a ballerino, in Italian. There is a modern movie adaptation in French which was released in the year 2000, Le Roi Danse (The King is Dancing) and directed by Gérard Corbiau. It displays the relationship between King Louis XIV and his court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, who came to France from Italy to write ballet instead of Italy’s more favored form of opera at the time. The movie was nominated for several awards as well as achieving great acclaim at international film festivals. It’s a visceral study of the life of a danseur, not just the King of France, and one that’s worth viewing.