The False Step

It's a hot, stagnant summer night at the extravagant Palace of Versailles, 13 miles outside Paris. Inside the château, Louis XIV, the Sun King, surveys his courtiers. Elegantly coiffed ladies fan themselves, perched on the edge of their chairs. The men stand by, each posed with a hand tucked into his brocade vest, a foot precisely pointed out and away, not a sag or a snag to be seen in his stockings. Strains from 24 violins, a harpsichord and a symphony worth of lutes, flutes, oboes and bassoons fill the heavy air. All eyes are on one couple, who dance to the popular melody, "La Mariée," written by Jean-Baptiste Lully. The brilliant court composer and musician is not here to witness this evening's festivities. He's been dead for a decade, killed in his prime by a freak accident. But if Louis XIV was the architect of the extravagant evening dances that dominate the summer activities at Versailles, Lully was his chief builder.

At the court this night there is an air of expectancy among the nobles. No one talks but for the occasional murmur, tactfully hidden behind fan or hand. The graceful pair continues: one step left. The music pauses. A toe is pointed, then tapped twice. Gliding in a wide circle, the couple ends with a bow to the king, which is followed by a well-timed flourish on the harpsichord.

Enthusiastic applause fills the room. But this is not what the courtiers have been waiting to see. Not even the excitement of seeing the Sun King, who had danced with his usual grace and skill earlier that evening, could compare with the anticipation of seeing the next dancer.

A boy steps forward from his assigned place among the spectators and bows deeply to the king. Earlier, he had boasted that he possessed the grace of a swan, and he even suggested that he should be recognized as the finest dancer of his generation. The courtiers now wait impatiently for his debut in front of the king.

As he bows to the assemblage, there is a rustling as the spectators shift for an unimpaired view. The orchestra strikes the opening chords. Finally, the young nobleman begins to dance. The crowd holds its collective breath. One measure, then four pass while the boy dances, until suddenly, he falters. Flustered, he stands up on pointed toes, raises his chin and arrogantly flourishes his hand in the air. A twitter is heard from somewhere in the audience at such an affectation. Still, few could have guessed the boy's next unhappy move.

With yet another stylistic flourish, he continues. But the heel of his shoe turns under, spilling him onto the dance floor. Laughter spreads through the room, and even a chuckle can be heard from the usually aloof king. Red-faced, the boy knows he must leave. A point in his favor, however, is the manner in which he executes his parting courtesies: slowly, not rushed, though he is obviously anxious to be gone.

The young boy, the son of Montbron, was ruined and wouldn't return to the court for a long time. But few felt sorry for him. Everyone in the room had experienced the same performance pressure that had caused the boy to fail. After all, it was the boy himself who had boasted so mightily of his skill. He had committed the greatest error a courtier at Versailles could make—a faux pas. Indeed, this poor boy had literally made a false step. And all the courtiers knew that they, too, were only one step away from a similar fate.

The details of this event and many others come from the writings of a minor noble, the duc de Saint-Simon, who copiously recorded his observations about court doings in his multivolume memoirs.

Life in the court of Louis XIV glittered with all the splendor of a fairy tale yet was filled with all the intrigue of a Presidential election year. And it was the famed composer Lully who presided nearly as regally as the king himself for almost three decades over the intrigue of the court's entertainment spectacles. Known for his ferocious temper, but politic enough to avoid the pratfalls of the dreaded faux pas, he was celebrated both at home and abroad.

Born in Italy in 1632, Lully came to the French court as a valet when he was 14 years old. He played the violin and eventually came to the attention of the king.

As if to the manner born, Lully knew just how to maneuver his way through the court hierarchy. Collaborating with Molière, the pair created the comédies-ballets, shows that delighted the king. Lully's talent and his political skill soon won him the appointment as head of the Académie Royale de Musique, giving him the authority over all music composed in France—a power Lully was to exercise with an iron baton.

Lully's own contribution, the tragédie en musique, combined ballet with dance numbers, spoken verse, sung pieces, musical interludes and, most important, a meaningful plotline. These masterful entertainment displays, similar to the modern opera, sometimes included a hundred or more performers, all to please the lavish French tastes of the time.

In a career spanning some 30 years, Lully composed and choreographed hundreds of ballroom dances; movements from his operas were adapted to the ballroom as well. "La Mariée," from Lully's Les nopces de village, would be danced in the royal ballrooms for the next century.

Bitterly abusive in rehearsal and vicious in maintaining his court standing, according to some accounts of his final days, his sudden and rather ironic death could have been met with more than a few unkind snickerings among the courtiers.

It was during a performance in January 1687 that Lully accidentally stabbed his foot with a cane that he'd been using to direct his actors, perhaps in a fit of rage at some unknown contretemps. The wound became gangrenous, and he died a couple of months later on March 22.

Life at court without Lully went on. There were the king's morning dressing ceremonies to attend his afternoon walks about the garden, and his hunts to be ridden (always to the lilt of flutes and the riffs of exuberant horn players).

But in fact the life and vibrancy of court entertainment had forever changed.

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