Who was John Weaver? How did he create the role of Vulcan in his ballet The Loves of Mars and Venus?
John Weaver was born in 1673 in Shrewsbury, the son of a dancing master. By the mid-1690s, he was himself a dancing master in the same town, but by the end of that decade he was probably in London working in the theatre as a professional dancer. His earliest known billing is at the Drury Lane Theatre on 6 July 1700, when he appeared in ‘a new Entry’ with two other dancers. Few advertisements for theatrical performances survive from this period, so it is very difficult to chart individual performers’ careers, but the bill suggests that Weaver was an established member of the Drury Lane company. The handful of advertisements that mention Weaver in the first years of the 18th century indicate that his forte was comic dancing, although as a dancing master he would surely have had a thorough knowledge of the serious or ‘French’ style and technique of dancing for both the ballroom and the stage. He returned to Shrewsbury to teach dancing in late 1707 or early 1708.
Weaver returned to Drury Lane for the 1716-1717 season to create and dance in The Loves of Mars and Venus. We do not know whether he danced in his own early pantomimes, The Shipwreck and Harlequin Turn’d Judge, but his later repertoire of entr’acte dances included English Clown, Lads and Lasses, Irish Trot and Sailor and His Lass. None suggest the sophisticated refinements of the serious style of dancing. Weaver went on dancing at Drury Lane until the end of the 1728-1729 season, when he was 55 years old. His last visit to London came in 1733, when he created his final work for the stage The Judgment of Paris, after which he returned to Shrewsbury and his dancing school for good.
There is no known portrait of John Weaver.
In the scenario for The Loves of Mars and Venus, Weaver provides a pen-portrait of Vulcan drawn from classical authors.
The description suggests that he portrayed Vulcan as lame in his ballet, following contemporary depictions of the god.
Weaver continues to draw Vulcan’s character throughout The Loves of Mars and Venus. The god first enters part way through scene 2 to a ‘wild rough air’. When he joins with Venus in the ‘Dance being altogether of the Pantomimic kind’, Vulcan’s passions are powerful – jealousy, anger, anguish are among them – and strongly expressed. Anger has ‘The left Hand struck suddenly with the right; and sometimes against the Breast’. His accustomed habitat is ‘Vulcan’s Shop, to which scene 3 opens showing the Cyclops as they work to ‘a rough Consort of Musick … adapted to the particular Sounds’ hammering and filing arms and armour for the gods. This provides the soundscape for the Entry danced by Vulcan and his workmen.
A different side of Vulcan appears when the shop is shown again, with the god ‘leaning in a thoughtful Posture on his Anvil’. Weaver is not explicit about his mood when he dances alone as the Cyclops complete the net that will enable his revenge on his wife and her lover. Did he maintain Vulcan’s lameness as he danced? Did he express pleasure, as Weaver’s gesture ‘Pleas’d at some Contrivance’ indicates, or something darker?
Vulcan must have dominated the final scene of The Loves of Mars and Venus. His control of the action reaches its highest point in the ‘insulting Performance’ he and the Cyclops give before the imprisoned Mars and Venus. Even after the arrival of the other gods, Vulcan remains the most active figure on stage as Weaver performs ‘Triumphing’, described as ‘To shake the Hand open, rais’d above our Head, is an exulting expression of Triumph’. How did Weaver show Vulcan’s responses as Neptune tries to persuade Vulcan ‘at length’ to forgive Mars and Venus? Vulcan must have taken part in the ‘grand Dance’ which concludes the ballet. Was this dance in the serious style or was it closer to a country dance in its steps and figures?
Vulcan’s dances post questions of genre, style and technique which are not easy to answer. All of them must have been ‘comic’ but what did this mean in practice? I will try to return to the subject of comic dancing in a later post.