The passacaglia is a Spanish theatrical dance featured in the 17th century French operas by Jean Baptiste Lully and in the works of other composers of the first half of the 18th century. An equal of the chaconne in terms of its dance form and rhetoric, the passacaglia is a slower, variation composition, whose tone remains rather solemn and sentimental. Used as part of theater choreographies, the passacaglia became a showcase solo or partner dance.
The Spanish word passacalle originally denoted a street song, and first appeared in European music as a form of prelude or ritornello. As of 1640, Spanish musical sources defined the passacaglia as a dance, and such was its classification upon its adaptation at the French court. Towards the end of the 17th century and in the early 18th century, the passacaglia along with the chaconne and the sarabande were the most popular stage dances in France. The dance declined in the second half of the 18th century, superseded by newer dances. As a theatrical dance, it requires tremendous technical abilities and clear expression, especially when it comes to hand gestures. Played in the 3-measure metre, the passacaglia is performed in a quick and lively tempo, as certified by its fundamental step, the pas de passacaille, which is a combination of the jetté and the fouetté. Most of the surviving choreographies have been devised for solo female dancers (e.g. Passacaille d’Armide, Passacaille d’opéra Scilla), and the notation of steps attests to the immense difficulty, if not virtuosity, required of the performer, including such steps as the triple cabriole, triple pas chassé, entrechat, sissonne, and the contretemps, as well as a number of pirouettes. Some of the greatest dancers of the era would have themselves portrayed while dancing the passacaglia.
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Larousse-Bordas, Dictionnaire de la danse, Paris, 1999.