As a dancer and a dancing master, John Weaver had deep concerns about the status of dancing. In An Essay Towards an History of Dancing, published in 1712, he tried to address these. His ‘Prefatory Introduction’ set out Weaver’s underlying aim:
‘an undeserved Contempt has been cast unwarily on this Art, as Low and Mechanick; I have here endeavour’d to set it in its true Light; and to shew, that it is an Art both Noble and Useful; and not unworthy the Encouragement of all Lovers of Elegance and Decorum; …’
His strategy for establishing dancing as an ‘Art’ was to link not only its past but also its current practice to classical antiquity.
In the final chapter of his Essay, entitled ‘Of the Modern Dancing’, Weaver laid the foundations for what he would call a ‘Dramatic Entertainment of Dancing’. He wanted the London stage to present dancing that was something more than the ‘Motion, Figure and Measure’ seen in the technically accomplished French dancers who were so successful there. Weaver’s ambition was to present dancing that could rival drama. Appealing to classical antiquity, he wrote:
‘Stage-Dancing was at first design’d for Imitation; to explain Things conceiv’d in the Mind, by the Gestures and Motions of the Body, and plainly and intelligibly representing Actions, Manners and Passions; so that the Spectator might perfectly understand the Performer by these his Motions, tho’ he say not a Word.
Weaver’s concept of the mute art of dancing was one in which the body provided a means of expression as powerful as the spoken word. He wished to imitate (and improve upon) ‘that surprising Performance of the Pantomimes’ he had written about in his Essay Towards an History of Dancing.
There had, of course, been ballets well before Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus. The English masque of the early 1600s and the French ballet de cour, which reached its apogee in the mid-17th century, gave a central place to dancing. However, both were dependant on spoken and sung words to express emotions as well as unfold the story. The same was true of French opera, from the tragedies en musique of Lully to the opéra-ballets of Campra and others. The English semi-opera, which became popular in the 1690s thanks to Purcell’s music, used dance simply as part of divertissements alongside the drama. In none of these works did dance stand alone.
Weaver must have been familiar with the semi-operas and obviously knew a great deal about French dancing, even if his experience of French opera was limited. The underlying reason for his dissatisfaction must surely have been that all the dancing he saw was merely decorative. It embellished the arts of music and drama, but fell short of being an art itself. Weaver’s appeal to the ‘Pantomimes of the Ancient Greeks and Romans’ who (in his Preface to the published scenario for The Loves of Mars and Venus) he characterised as ‘Dancers that represented a Story or Fable in Motion or Measure; Imitators of all things, as the Name of Pantomime imports’ offered a way forward.
He had an example closer to hand in the commedia dell’arte, whose exponents were once again finding their way into London’s theatres in the early 1700s. In his Essay, Weaver wrote of ‘that surprising Performance of the Pantomimes, the Ruins of which remain still in Italy; but sunk and degenerated into Pleasantry, and merry conceited Representations of Harlequin, Scaramouch, …’ describing the players as ‘these modern Mimes inimitable’. He could not help admiring their expressive abilities, depending on actions not words. He admired (grudgingly) the French dancing of his own time, too. In ‘Of the Modern Dancing’ he set down its virtues as well as what he saw as its vices.
John Weaver worked in theatres where drama and dance were juxtaposed and intertwined at almost every performance. He was that rarest of combinations, a scholar as well as a dancer. His ambitions for dancing, and the means by which he chose to pursue them, sprang out of both his theoretical reading and his practical experience. Weaver’s bold experiment of 1717 was enough of a success for him to follow it with another ‘Dramatic Entertainment of Dancing’, Orpheus and Eurydice in 1718. This failed and he did not return to the genre until 1733, when he created The Judgment of Paris in which he abandoned his early ideals by introducing songs.
My focus in these posts is his first great venture with his new genre, The Loves of Mars and Venus, the very first modern ballet.