I am currently learning another of the most famous ballroom dances of the 18th century, Mr Isaac’s The Rigadoon. I first worked on this lively duet some years ago, but I never performed it and I’ve had to start on it afresh. The Rigadoon, like much of the rest of the ‘English’ baroque dance repertoire, rarely (if ever) features in workshops in the UK. Perhaps this is because these dances are choreographically idiosyncratic – and difficult. This is a pity, since they have much to offer in helping us to understand the dancing of the period and they are sheer pleasure to dance.
The duet is, of course, a rigaudon. The music has been attributed to James Paisible, the French recorder player who made his career in London, but this is by no means certain. Mr Isaac’s The Rigadoon has been dated as early as 1695. It was first published in 1706 in A Collection of Ball-Dances perform’d at Court, notations by John Weaver of six of Isaac’s choreographies. That same year, the dance also appeared in a different version notated by the dancing master Siris and published in his The Art of Dancing alongside Pecour’s ball dance La Bretagne. Siris’s The Art of Dancing was a rival to Weaver’s translation of Feuillet’s Choregraphie.
Weaver evidently passed his notations (or rather, the plates on which they were engraved) to the music publisher John Walsh, who reissued The Rigadoon along with other dances by Isaac around 1708 and again about 1712. Walsh published a second edition of Weaver’s Orchesography around 1722. In a late response to Siris, Weaver added notations of The Rigadoon, The Louvre (Pecour’s ball dance Aimable Vainqueur) and The Bretagne. Orchesography was reissued, with its dances, around 1730. Within thirty years of its first appearance in print, Isaac’s The Rigadoon had gone through at least six editions.
Weaver drew particular attention to Isaac’s dance in Orchesography, by including four steps from it in a ‘Suplement of Steps’ at the end of his step tables.
The steps, and Weaver’s comment on how graceful and unusual they are, provide a glimpse of English choreographic taste as exemplified by The Rigadoon.
Isaac’s The Rigadoon seems to have been continued to be taught and given in the ballroom for many years. In his 1729 poem The Art of Dancing, Soame Jenyns (referring to the invention of dance notation) wrote:
‘Hence with her Sister-Arts shall Dancing claim
An equal Right to Universal Fame,
And Isaac’s Rigadoon shall last as long
As Raphael’s Painting, or as Virgil’s song.’
A few years later, in 1735, Kellom Tomlinson referred to The Rigadoon several times in his manual The Art of Dancing. In describing ‘the Slip’, i.e. the glissade, Tomlinson wrote:
‘ … twice slipping behind, is in the Rigadoon of the late Mr. Isaac, where, in the Beginning of the Tune, the second Time of playing over, it forms a perfect Square, which is no small Addition to the Beauty of the said Dance; …’
Tomlinson mentions a number of notated dances in The Art of Dancing. Are these the choreographies he taught to his own pupils, including Isaac’s The Rigadoon?
Twelve years later, in his Essay on the Advantage of a Polite Education published in 1747, Stephen Philpot also referred to Isaac’s The Rigadoon since he featured the dance in his own teaching practice. The ball dance may well have survived into the 1750s. On 19 March 1752 at the Covent Garden Theatre, Cooke and Miss Hilliard gave ‘A Ball Dance call’d the Rigadoon concluding with a Minuet’. The performance was a benefit for Cooke. On 12 May 1753 at Drury Lane, Mr and Miss Shawcross danced ‘The Rigadoon and Minuet’ for his shared benefit. If these performances were indeed Isaac’s The Rigadoon, then the dance must have continued to be taught in dancing schools for more than fifty years.
I will take a closer look at the choreography of The Rigadoon in a later post.