Is there any evidence that male dancers lifted their partners in stage duets in the early 18th century? The short answer is very little. I know of only one report that says, incontrovertibly, that it happened. The Grub Street Journal for 8 January 1736 included a letter in which the writer complained about a duet by Michael Poitier and Catherine Roland.
‘Every one who has seen her dance knows, that at the end of the dance she is lifted by Poitier, that she may cut the higher, and represent to the whole house as immodest a sight as the most abandoned women in Drury-lane can shew. Her whole behaviour is of a stamp with this; for during the whole dance, her only endeavour is to shew above her knees as often as she can.’
The dance may well have been within the ‘Grand New Ballet Le Badinage de Provence’ first given at Drury Lane on 22 October 1735 and repeated numerous times that season. This letter, by ‘Cato’, needs careful analysis to disentangle the various issues the writer is addressing. However, there is no doubt that Poitier lifted Mlle Roland.
The surviving theatre dance duets, many for a man and a woman (although there are quite a few for two men as well as two women), definitely do not include any lifts. The two dancers perform alongside one another and rarely even touch hands. The lack of any references to, or notation for, lifts (assuming that Beauchamp-Feuillet notation could indeed record such moves) suggests that they did not form part of the vocabulary of serious dance.
I did wonder whether the nature of the costumes worn at the time might clinch any argument against the use of lifts, but I am not sure. I believe that women’s bodices were less rigidly boned and their skirts shorter than those acceptable in polite society long before La Camargo is said to have shortened her skirts (for skirt lengths, see my post ‘Long Skirts or Short?’ The various versions of Lancret’s portrait of Mlle Camargo also suggest light boning in her bodice). So far as the feasibility of lifts in such attire is concerned, I am inclined to draw a parallel between dancers’ stage costumes in the early 1700s and those in modern ballroom dancing. For the latter, men wear formal suits with jackets that fit tightly and have tails, while the women have long full skirts to their dresses (as well as heeled shoes). As everyone who watches Strictly Come Dancing knows, there are lifts aplenty in ballroom dancing!
Returning to the 18th century, the problem is that we have a very tiny snapshot of what was actually danced on stage. There is no information from the professionals themselves (beyond the relatively few theatrical choreographies created by a handful of leading ballet masters). Pierre Rameau’s promised treatise on theatrical dancing does not survive, if it was ever written and published – although I doubt that it would have mentioned lifts, whether or not they existed, as he probably would have meant it for members of the audience rather than professional dancers.
The passage quoted above seems to indicate that lifts were not a normal part of the serious style. It is unlikely that modern ballet’s supported adagio existed, if only because the technique of early 18th-century ballet has only the beginnings of the movements that would develop into the developés and grands ronds de jambe that are integral to ballet’s adage. So, there is little likelihood that stage duets included lifts associated with these slower movements. The report of Poitier and Mlle Roland apparently describes a lift to allow her to perform more brilliant batterie, so were lifts used elsewhere for this purpose? They certainly exist in modern ballet, although (so far as I know) their history for this purpose is yet to be traced. Back in the 18th century did such lifts belong to the comic genre, about which we know much less? The one pictorial source we have from this period, Lambranzi’s Neue und curieuse theatrialische Tantz-Schul of 1716, provides no evidence.
So, in answer to the question in my title, I think that there were lifts in early 18th-century ballet but only in certain genres and in particular contexts. If Poitier and Mlle Roland were the first to introduce them to the London stage, they were unlikely to have been the last – whatever the strictures of ‘Cato’.