In the 1716-1717 season, Hester Santlow was Drury Lane’s leading dancer and one of the company’s leading actresses. Who was she and how might she have danced Venus?
Hester Santlow’s date and place of birth and, indeed, her origins remain unknown. Her name seems to be French in derivation (St Loe) and her family were, apparently, not connected with the theatre. What evidence there is suggests that she was born in 1693 or 1694 (see my 2007 book The Incomparable Hester Santlow). She made her stage debut as a dancer in 1706, adding acting to her professional skills in 1709 when she appeared as Miss Prue in Congreve’s comedy Love for Love. Thereafter, she pursued a double career as both a dancer and an actress. Her acting roles show her as a light comedienne – her most popular roles included Harriet in Etherege’s The Man of Mode and Miranda in Mrs Centlivre’s The Busy Body. She was much admired in breeches roles such as Hellena in Aphra Behn’s The Rover. In tragedy, she was best suited to such roles as Ophelia in Hamlet and Cordelia in Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear, both of which she played for many years.
As a dancer, Hester Santlow had no peer on the London stage. She was trained by the Frenchman René Cherrier and had dances created for her Anthony L’Abbé, royal dancing master and a leading choreographer. L’Abbé’s solo ‘Passagalia of Venüs & Adonis’ (to music from the opera by Desmarets), published in notation in the mid-1720s, remains a testimony to her virtuoso technique and her expressive powers.Her impact is well described by the dancing master John Essex in his Preface to The Dancing Master (his translation of Rameau’s Le Maître a danser).
Hester Santlow married her fellow actor and Drury Lane manager Barton Booth in 1719. Her career ended in 1733, following the death of her husband. During her final season on the London stage, she created the role of Helen of Troy in Weaver’s last ballet The Judgment of Paris.
In Hester Santlow, Weaver had a Venus ‘Goddess of Love and Beauty’ who could both dance and act. Unsurprisingly, she has the greatest range of gestures in the ballet after Weaver himself as Vulcan. He used her dancing skills and her expressive abilities to the full. He also took every chance to show off her beauty. Another contemporary described Mrs Santlow as ‘a beautiful Woman, lovely in her Countenance, delicate in her form’. She is one of the very few dancers of the 18th century for whom we have several portraits.
Venus is first shown ‘in her Dressing-Room at her Toilet’ surrounded by the Graces with Cupid and the Hour (probably Flora). She ‘rises and dances a Passacaile’ first solo and then with the other women. The choreography could have shared features with L’Abbé’s ‘Passagalia’. The ‘Dance … of the Pantomimic kind’ with Vulcan which follows is worth its own post. Weaver entrusted a significant number of gestures to Venus, although she has a far narrower range of ‘Passions’ which have less powerful physical expressions. She is, however, allowed to improvise ‘Coquetry. … seen in affected Airs, given herself throughout the whole Dance’. In scene 4, with Mars, Mrs Santlow’s gestures are again improvisatory – ‘reciprocal Love’ and ‘wishing Looks’. Were these expressions stock-in-trade for Mrs Santlow the actress, or were they new to her?
In the final scene, Venus has to express ‘Shame’, ‘Confusion’ and ‘Grief’. Weaver provides gestures for the first and last of these, leaving her to find her own way of showing ‘Confusion’. How and with whom did Venus dance in the closing ‘Grand Dance’? Were there echoes of her ‘Pantomimic’ dance with Vulcan in scene 2 and of her gestures and dancing with Mars in scene 4? If there were, with her breadth of dance repertoire and her acting skills, Hester Santlow could surely have encompassed them all.