About 40 minutes into the coronation of King Charles III, six officers in red tunics solemnly placed three embroidered screens on the mosaic floor of Westminster Abbey. They stood still for a moment, then moved the screens in perfect unison to form a tight shelter from the eyes of the public. To the propulsive strains of Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” each man dropped an arm to his side, took a step sideways and fell into another perfect formation — two angled inward on each side, framed by two men facing out. Then, as one, they bowed their heads.
For the religious, it was the most sacred moment of the ceremony, the anointing of the king with holy oil. When the men removed the screens with the same perfect synchronization, Charles was revealed, kneeling in a simple white shirt, surrounded by four gold-and-white-robed clerics, their hands raised in benediction.
The formal design of the officers’s economical movements, the stirring music, the revelation of the tableau: These were as powerful and suggestive as great theater or great dance. As with the funeral rites for Queen Elizabeth II in September, the choreography of ritual surrounding the coronation was extraordinarily powerful.
Almost no gesture was spontaneous. From the start of the procession from Buckingham Palace, featuring around 200 horsemen and military personnel, through the ceremony in Westminster Abbey to the procession back to the palace, with 4,000 members of the armed forces, the intent and meaning of each moment was as deliberate as an intricate dance.
Despite Charles’s much discussed intentions to slim down the ceremony and promote a more modern monarchy, the coronation drew powerfully on gesture, pomp, symbolism and ritual. The fabulous Ascension gospel choir offered the sole hint of contemporaneity, with their stylish white outfits, soaring rhythms and swaying bodies (“The only loose pelvises we may see in hours,” a friend texted). Almost entirely, the ceremonial formality of the coronation resembled an elaborate masque, in which each gorgeously costumed participant played his or her part in creating collective meaning.
When the king arose after the anointing, the priests dressed him first in a white linen shift, representing purity, then in a ornate gold silk robe. One by one, symbols of regalia were brought to him — spurs, the sword of offering, the orb, the sovereign’s ring, two scepters. The gestures were slow, deliberate, arcane. After Queen Camilla’s crown was placed on her head, she nervously ran her finger around her forehead under its rim, tucking her hair in — and looking momentarily like an actor who had forgotten how to play the part.
In the procession back to Buckingham Palace, thousands of troops progressed in perfect unison in multiple formation, like an immense corps de ballet moving across a vast stage, then curved with sinuous perfection around the fountain in front of the palace.
The stylized swing of a gold staff (every third beat) by the leader of a marching brass band; the splendid blue plumes on the six white horses escorting the gold carriage bearing the king and the queen; the intricately timed crossing of different groups through the palace gates — like ballet, here was spectacle and beauty tempered by discipline and focus.
But the best bit of pageantry came toward the end. The troops stood absolutely still after lining up on a huge lawn, facing the newly crowned monarchs, while “God Save the King” played.
Then the parade commander shouted an order and every person on the field placed both hands on their heads. “Headdress!” the commander shouted, and in perfect sync, bearskins, caps and helmets were removed and held at breast height. “Three cheers for His Majesty the King, and Her Majesty the Queen!” he shouted. There was a moment of silence. Then he called out, “Hip, hip, hooray,” and 4,000 people raised their headgear into the air, creating a moment of sublime choreographic synchronicity.
It was the kind of mass movement that can be sinister, impersonal. But here it combined formality and exuberance. It was a choreography of celebration.