The World in a Folly Garden: Dancing ‘Round the Ruins / Le Désert de Retz
Le Désert de Retz, an 18th-century French folly garden located adjacent to the Marly Forest, was built by François Henri Racine de Monville to resemble a world in miniature. Appearing as a collection of ruins, each structure references an ancient civilization. The central element, Le colonne détruit (Broken Column), which disguised an elegant country abode, evoked a giant temple destroyed by the gods. Built on the cusp of the French Revolution, the architect’s reference to ruins seems to have reflected the mood of the moment. Pairing evocative views of the site with historic dance notations conceived by R. A. Feuillet, the dance master of Louis XIV, the Romantic garden is presented as a performative space.
“Built on the cusp of the French Revolution, the architect’s reference to ruins seems to have reflected the mood of the moment.”
Referencing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century court ballet and the ways in which it served to establish ideals of bodily comportment while reinforcing the primacy of the French monarchy, I have introduced these visually dynamic dance diagrams into my work as a means of referencing the choreographed nature of the historic garden. Designed as a complex mise-en-scéne, each site is built upon a trajectory designed with the idea of promenade, where relationships between elements are revealed as one ‘goes through the steps.’
When we read photographs of gardens, we imagine ourselves moving through terrain that may compel us to circle, weave, rise to our toes, or sink to obtain some obscure view. If we observed a bird’s eye view of such trajectories they might resemble a dance. When we “read” dance notation, we observe an overall line of movement or ‘tract’ indicative of locomotion. Placed on the tract are dashes, circles, and curved lines signifying the particulars of any given dance. If we come from the world of baroque ballet, with a glance we “dance” La badine or Rigaudon. Looking at these arcane signs today, we can only imagine the steps. Either way, we engage in a virtual dance. This is also true of a compelling photograph. My interest in juxtaposing these alternate representational forms rests in the idea of introducing a parallel language and metaphor for the experience of moving through historic French gardens. Though static, both forms reference a history of the body moving through space within a highly codified context. Within the exhibition space viewers are called upon to engage with the work on a mental and a bodily level, while entering into the choreography of ruin.
“My interest in juxtaposing these alternate representational forms rests in the idea of introducing a parallel language and metaphor for the experience of moving through historic French gardens.”