The Grand Ballet, Grand Dance and Serious Dance on the London Stage

During many, if not most, seasons between the mid-1710s and late 1750s the bills for performances at Drury Lane and Covent Garden included an entr’acte Grand Ballet, Grand Dance or Serious Dance. Usually no details of these dances were volunteered, other than the names of the principal performer (or performers) with the enigmatic addition ‘& others’. Why were these dances so named? What did their differing titles mean? How many dancers were involved in these choreographies? Like so much about dancing on the London stage in the 18th century these are difficult questions to answer satisfactorily.

The term Grand Dance already had a long history in London’s theatres by the time it appeared in the bill for a concert held at Drury Lane on 4 January 1704. James Shirley’s Cupid and Death of 1653 includes a Grand Dance, as do Purcell’s semi-operas King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692). Both of Purcell’s grand dances are chaconnes. The libretto for The Fairy Queen specifies a ‘Grand Dance … of Twenty four Persons’. The suggestion is that a Grand Dance has both an extended musical form and a large number of performers. The Drury Lane concert seems to have been a selection of music, mainly by Henry Purcell, culminating in ‘The Sacrifice’ from King Arthur and the Grand Dance. It seems likely, therefore, that the latter was one of Purcell’s chaconnes, although only six dancers were named in the advertisement. Was it the music, rather than the number of dancers, that made a dance a Grand Dance?

Serious dancing was first advertised as such early in the 18th century. It was sometimes billed together with, and in contrast to, comic dancing. More often than not, serious dances seem to have been duets. Only during the 1716-1717 season was there a billing for a ‘new serious dance, compos’d by Moreau’ for as many as eight dancers – four men and four women (in fact, three men and three women together with the two ‘French children’ Francis and Marie Sallé). Thereafter serious dances with a group of dancers became more common in advertisements.

The title Grand Ballet does not appear in advertisements before the mid-1720s, with the ‘Grand Ballet by ten Persons of different Characters’ performed at Michael Poitier’s benefit at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21 April 1727. If he did not introduce the term ‘Ballet’ to the entr’acte dance repertoire, Poitier seems to have a hand in popularising it. The 1727 Grand Ballet may well have been his choreography and the ‘Characters’ were perhaps drawn from the commedia dell’arte.

During the 1730s, the terms Grand Ballet, Grand Dance and Serious Dance began to be used together, and seemingly sometimes interchangeably, in advertisements. These almost never provide clues as to the music for the dances and rarely give more than the names of one or two of the principal dancers (often the company’s leading dancers). With the near ubiquitous use of ‘&c.’ or ‘& others’ for the remaining performers, we have few clues as to the usual number of dancers required for a Grand Dance or a Grand Ballet. In later posts, I am going to look more closely at the various billings for these three types of entr’acte dance to see if it is possible to glean further information about them.

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Who was the first female professional dancer on the London stage?

There has been much debate, over many years, as to the identity of the first actress to appear on the London stage following the Restoration. Nobody seems to have bothered to ask who the first female professional dancer might have been. It is fair to point out that this is, probably, an even more impossible question to answer. There simply isn’t enough evidence to work with. There was stage dancing in London from at least as early as 1660, even before the arrival of Charles II to reclaim his throne. Who were the dancers? Were any of them professional dancers, as we understand the term? Were any of them female professional dancers? Mostly we don’t know.

Using The London Stage as the principal source of information, the first dancing to be reported for the period is Le Ballet de la Paix recorded in a printed scenario dated 1660. There are many questions surrounding this piece which, if it ever was performed, may have been given in London during spring 1660 just before the King’s restoration. However, there are no hints as to who may have danced in it. During the years immediately following the Restoration, all the reports on dancing in London’s theatres come from the diary of Samuel Pepys. They are quoted in The London Stage. His earliest mention dates to 5 February 1661, when he saw Glapthorne’s Argalus and Parthenia (a pre-Restoration drama) which was ‘pleasant for the dancing and singing’. Presumably the cast danced and sang, but we don’t know who they were.

Pepys’s first reference to a particular dancer came when he saw Davenant’s The Law against Lovers (an adaptation from Shakespeare) at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 18 February 1662 and commended ‘the little girl’s (whom I never saw act before) dancing and singing’. She was probably Mary or ‘Moll’ Davis, whom Pepys would subsequently mention quite often. Around 18 months later, he took note of Winifred Gosnell in Davenant’s The Rivals at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 10 September 1664, remarking ‘Gosnell comes and sings and dances finely’. Of course, both were first and foremost actresses and cannot be described as professional dancers, at least not according to 21st -century ideas.

Moll Davis apparently began her stage career in 1660. John Downes, prompter at Lincoln’s Inn Fields from the 1660s and author of Roscius Anglicanus, or an Historical Review of the Stage published in 1708, named her as one of Sir William Davenant’s four ‘Principal Actresses’ whom ‘he boarded at his own House’ when he formed his company. Some years later, in a diary entry for 11 January 1668, Pepys reports the opinion of ‘Pierce’ who said of Moll ‘she is a most homely jade as ever she saw, though she dances beyond anything in the world’. As I mentioned in another post, Pepys thought ‘little Mis Davis’ a far better dancer than Nell Gwyn. Like her more famous counterpart, Moll Davis left the stage in 1668 after becoming yet another of Charles II’s mistresses. The poet Richard Flecknoe wrote ‘To Mis: Davies, on her excellent dancing’, publishing his verses in Epigrams of all Sorts in 1669.

Dear Mis: delight of all the nobler sort,

Pride of the Stage and darling of the Court,

Who wou’d not think to see thee dance so light,

Thou wer’t all air? Or else all soul and spirit?

Or who’d not say to see thee only tread,

Thy feet were feathers! others feet but lead?

Atlanta well cou’d run, and Hermes flee,

But none e’er moved more gracefully than thee;

And Circe charm’d with wand and magick lore,

But none, like thee, e’er charm’d with Feet before.

Thou Miracle! Whom all men must admire

To see thee move like air, and mount like fire.

Whoe’er would follow thee or come but nigh

To thy perfection, must not dance but fly.

Who trained Moll Davis to achieve a style and technique that was so much admired?

Pepys first met Winifred Gosnell in 1662. His diary entry for 12 November that year describes her as ‘pretty handsome’ and ‘with a good voice and sings very well’. Some days later, he commented that she ‘dances finely’. Miss Gosnell became, very briefly, companion to Mrs Pepys and only later joined the Duke’s Company as an actress. I have mentioned elsewhere Pepys’s reaction to her singing and dancing in Davenant’s The Rivals in 1663. Her stage career seems to have lasted until at least the 1680s, but when she petitioned the Lord Chamberlain about her discharge from the company she described herself as a singer rather than a dancer or even an actress.

So, the player with the best claim to be the first female professional dancer on the Restoration stage is Moll Davis. If she does not quite fit our definition of a ‘professional dancer’ she seems to have had the skills to be accepted as one.

Moll Davis

Moll Davis. Engraving by Richard Tompson after a painting by Sir Peter Lely, 1675-1690.

 

A Year of Dance: 1666

England continued to be involved in the second Anglo-Dutch War, with sea battles in June and July and a raid on Holland in August 1666, but the most significant event of the year (as destructive of property as the plague of the previous year had been of life) was the great fire of London in early September.

Great Fire of London

Anon. The Great Fire of London. Ludgate in flames with St Paul’s Cathedral (in the background) catching Fire (c1670)

The blaze left much of the city in ruins and it would take some years before life returned to normal. London’s theatres, in what was becoming the ‘West End’ were too far from the city itself to be directly affected. They reopened in December 1666 following their 18-month closure because of the plague. With so few performances in 1666, it is hardly surprising that there was no mention of dancing.

In France, the Queen Mother Anne of Austria died on 20 January 1666 (N.S.). Louise de la Vallière gave birth to Louis XIV’s daughter on 2 October (N.S.). She was known as Marie Anne de Bourbon and then, after she was legitimised, as Mlle de Blois. The first danced entertainment of the year preceded the death of the Queen Mother. The mascarade Le Triomphe de Bacchus was performed at the Palais Royal on 9 January 1666 (N.S.) with a cast entirely of male professional dancers. Pierre Beauchamps danced Bacchus. That year’s ballet de cour was delayed until mourning for the Queen Mother was over. The Ballet des Muses was first given at St Germain-en-Laye on 2 December 1666 (N.S.) and continued to be performed until February 1667. Louis XIV renewed his dance partnership with his sister-in-law Madame, who was indisputably the ballet’s leading female dancer. They appeared together in the 4th Entrée as a Berger and Bergère, in the 6th Entrée as an Espagnol and Espagnolle and in the 14th and final Entrée as a Maure and Mauresque. In addition, Madame appeared among the ladies of the court as the leading Pieride in the 11th Entrée. The King also danced as Cyrus in the 8th Entrée and as a Nymphe in the 12th Entrée. The latter marked his last appearance in a female role.

Dancers on the London Stage

Back in 2015, I wrote a short piece about dancing on the London stage from 1660 to 1760, a topic that still receives scant attention from dance historians. In the course of writing a recent post about one particular set of dances performed in London’s theatres, it crossed my mind that I should also pursue the dancers who worked there. Many of them have never featured in dance histories, which generally confine themselves to the same few famous names.

London’s best-known dancers, in their own time as well as ours, were quite often from Europe. They came from France in particular, but also from Italy as well as what is now Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. There were also many native-born dancers in London’s theatres, although they seem (more often than not) to have taken supporting roles to the visiting European stars. Claude Ballon and Marie-Thérèse de Subligny were acclaimed when they came to London in the years around 1700. Hester Santlow and John Shaw were two English dancers who always took leading roles – they were quite definitely not members of the corps de ballet.

We can only really trace the dancers in London’s theatre companies from the early 18th century, when newspaper advertising takes off. Even so, although this gives us records of their performances and, if we are lucky, the repertoire of individual dancers, there is still very little other evidence about their lives and careers. We know of very few portraits, even of the most famous dancers.

By the early 1700s, the playhouses and the opera house seem to have had small dance companies alongside the acting companies. There was also a dancing master, who may or may not be identifiable as such, who was a dancer, choreographer and (probably) the teacher of the actors and actresses of the main company. He would (probably) have been responsible for teaching new repertoire to the other dancers and even rehearsing them, in the group numbers at least. (The leading dancers would probably have taken care of their own solos and duets). I will take a look at some of these men in future posts. There is very little direct evidence of the dancing master’s status and duties – these have to be inferred from occasional references to him or his work. If there were any female dancers who fulfilled this role (and we know that some professional female dancers taught dancing), their status was never mentioned.

The dancers themselves had a range of skills and experience. In the early 18th century many of the female dancers were also actresses, even those who had a level of dance virtuosity equal to that of the visiting French ballerinas. At the same period, most of the leading male dancers (English as well as French) were solely dancers. Several English male dancers were, by repute, able to match the skills of their French counterparts. Lower down the rankings, male as well as female dancers had to deploy a range of performing skills. So far as we can tell, many of the native-born dancers on the London stage had some training in French belle danse, but probably as many did not.

The leading dancers in each company performed regularly in the entr’actes and, from the late 1710s, would take the principal dancing roles in pantomime afterpieces. Ballets, as we understand the term, only came into their own in the later 1700s (although the first example of the genre, John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, dates to 1717). Pantomimes also needed a number of players who included dancing among a range of other skills. These supporting performers rarely, if ever, gave dances in the entr’actes unless they had a popular dance speciality. Actors and actresses were called upon to take part in country dances within plays – they rarely danced otherwise.

So, there is quite a range of lives and careers among the dancers on the London stage from 1660 to 1760, and beyond, ripe for investigation. As and when I write about them, I will use their repertoire to try and appraise their dancing skills as well as their status within the dance companies.

A Year of Dance: 1665

In 1665 the most significant event by far for England was the great plague of London, which took hold during the summer months and lasted until early 1666. The court moved to Salisbury in July 1665 and only returned to London the following February. The country was in the midst of the second Anglo-Dutch War, which began in March. (The first Anglo-Dutch War had been as long ago as 1652-1654, under the Commonwealth). An equally important event was the birth of a second daughter to the Duke and Duchess of York – Princess Anne would become Queen in 1702. Charles II’s third illegitimate son George Fitzroy, by Barbara Villiers Countess of Castlemaine, was born on 25 December 1665. He would later become Duke of Northumberland.

The diarist John Evelyn recorded a masque at court on 2 February. Samuel Pepys provided some additional details in his diary entry for the following day:

‘Then Mrs Pickering … did, at my Lady’s command, tell me the manner of the masquerade before the King and court the other day. Where six women (my Lady Castelmayne and Duchess of Monmouth being two of them) and six men (the Duke of Monmouth and Lord Arran and Monsieur Blancfort being three of them) in vizards, but most rich and antique dresses, did dance admirably, and most gloriously.’

There are no mentions of dancing in the theatres up to their closure, because of the plague, on 5 June 1665. They did not reopen until the autumn of 1666.

In France, Louis XIV’s mistress gave birth to two sons during 1665, one on 7 January (N.S.) and the other on 27 December (N.S.). Both babies died during 1666. The ballet de cour for 1665 was the Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus, in which the King’s sister-in-law Madame appeared as the goddess in the first Entrée with her husband as the Morning Star. She made her second appearance in the final Entrée as Roxane, with Louis XIV as Alexander the Great. The professional ballerina Mlle de Verpré appeared in the second Entrée of Part 2 as Daphne with a noble dancer, the Marquis de Beringuen, as Apollo. Another comédie-ballet by Molière and Lully, L’Amour Medecin, was given at Versailles on 15 September (N.S.) as an entertainment for a hunting party. It was later performed before the public at the Palais Royal in Paris.

 

 

Dances on the London Stage: L’Allemande

Guillaume-Louis Pecour’s ballroom duet L’Allemande was first published in notation in Paris in 1702. It had originally been performed by Claude Ballon and Marie-Thérèse Subligny in the ballet Fragments de Mr de Lully that same year.

Allemande Pecour

Pecour. L’Allemande (Feuillet, 1702), first plate

Its ensuing popularity was such that it was published again by Pierre Rameau in his revised version of Beauchamps-Feuillet notation within his Abbrégé de la nouvelle méthode in 1725, alongside other much-loved ballroom duets. L’Allemande was also included in the second and third editions of Rameau’s treatise, published around 1728 and 1732. Magny included the dance in his Principes de choregraphie, published in Paris in 1765. This marked its last appearance in notation, for which Magny had given the dance a different tune. In her catalogue of surviving French dance notations, La Belle Dance, Francine Lancelot notes several manuscript versions of the duet some of which vary from the original.

With such a popular choreography, it is perhaps surprising that no dance with the title L’Allemande was (apparently) advertised by London’s theatres until 2 January 1735, when Mlle Chateauneuf gave it as a solo at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. When she returned to London for the 1739-1740 season, this time appearing at Drury Lane, she reprised her solo L’Allemande. The following season, again at Drury Lane, she was advertised with the dancer Muilment in a duet entitled L’Allemande. The dance was obviously very popular, for it was given in the entr’actes more than 20 times between 30 September 1740 and 5 May 1741. There is no evidence to tell us what sort of dance either the solo or the duet L’Allemande were, but could the latter have been Pecour’s famous choreography of nearly 40 years earlier? Both Mlle Chateauneuf and Muilment had been described as ‘lately arriv’d from Paris’ on their first appearances at Drury Lane, on 13 September 1739 and 18 November 1736 respectively, so they are likely to have encountered the dance there. If it wasn’t Pecour’s L’Allemande, then the duet given in London must surely have included what became known as the ‘allemande’ hold, in which the two dancers interlace arms behind their backs for some sequences of steps. This was a particular feature of Pecour’s choeography, depicted in the 1702 notation because of its novelty.

Allemande Hold Pecour

Pecour, L’Allemande (Feuillet, 1702), second plate (detail)

When the allemande re-emerged in the 1760s, as a contredanse (a type of cotillon) and then a duet, this arm-hold was still much used.

There seems to be no particular reason for the billing of an allemande in London’s theatres during the 1730s and 1740s. The dance was, presumably, part of Mlle Chateauneuf’s repertoire and became popular with audiences when she introduced it to London.

There were a number of other allemande dances on the London stage around the same period, some of which may have been trying to capitalise on Mlle Chateauneuf’s success. Two were given at benefit performances for the dancers concerned: La Pantomime de Suisse et D’Alemande performed by the ‘French Boy and Girl’ at Covent Garden on 13 May 1740; and a ‘Comic Dance call’d L’Allemande’ given by Picq and Sga Campioni at the same theatre on 18 April 1745. There was a ‘New Dance call’d Les Allemands Joyeux’ given by Lalauze and Mlle Auguste at Covent Garden a handful of times during the 1741-1742 season, which sounds like dancing Germans rather than a purportedly German dance. And what was the ‘New Grand Ballet called Les Allemandes’ performed by Cooke and Sga Campioni with supporting dancers at Covent Garden several times during the 1745-46 season? Following this ‘Grand Ballet’, the allemande was not to return to the London stage until the 1767-1768 season, when the entirely new dances entitled ‘allemande’ had become the rage.

 

 

A Year of Dance: 1664

Socially and politically, 1664 seems to have been a quiet year with no events of importance in either France or England.

In London, there are two tantalising references to dance performances. In January 1664, the play Pompey the Great was given at court. ‘After which a grand Masque is Danc’d before Caesar and Cleopatra, made (as well as the other Dances and the Tunes to them) by Mr John Ogilby’ (quotation from The London Stage, Part 1, which provides no source). The lack of further information is frustrating. Ogilby is now more widely known as a cartographer, but in his early years he had been a dancer and a dancing master and he seems to have plied his old trade alongside newer ones as a translator and a publisher. Pepys continued to be on the lookout for dancing actresses. On 10 September 1664, he saw Davenant’s The Rivals at Lincoln’s Inn Fields ‘which is no excellent play, but good acting in it; especially Gosnell comes and sings and dances finely’ adding (as an admirer of good music) ‘but for all that, fell out of the key, so that the musique could not play to her afterwards, and so did Harris [Henry Harris the actor, who took a leading role in the play] also go out of the tune to agree with her’. Was her dancing better controlled than her singing (and would Pepys have known whether it was or not)?

In Paris, one cultural event was the first performance of Le Mariage forcé a comédie-ballet by Molière and Lully given in the apartments of the Queen Mother at the Louvre on 29 January 1664 (N.S.) and then in the public theatre at the Palais Royal a couple of weeks later. The production featured Mlle Du Parc, a dancing actress, as Dorimène a young coquette. In the Ballet du Roy, which was scattered throughout the play, Louis XIV danced in the third Entrée as an Egyptien (a Gipsy). On 13 February 1664 (N.S.) the Ballet des Amours Deguisés was given at the Palais Royal. Louis XIV danced as Regnaut in the seventh Entrée, and the ballet included not only the Queen as Proserpine in the fourth Entrée but also Mlle de Verpré as Gouvernante d’Egypte in the second Entrée. The presence of the Queen in the cast presumably precluded Mlle de Verpré from dancing alongside the King.

The event of the year was the fête Les Plaisirs de l’Ile Enchantée given at Versailles over several days in May 1664. The entertainments included the Ballet du Palais d’Alcine with Mlle Du Parc as the sorceress Alcine. The King did not take part, so Mlle Du Parc danced the final Entrée with Pierre Beauchamps as Roger. The performance ended with a spectacular firework display depicting the destruction of Alcine’s palace.

Alcine's Palace

Les Plaisirs de l’Ile Enchantée (1664), Plate 9