I have been doing some research for an article, for which I have been looking through 18th-century newspapers. Although it has nothing to do with my topic, a piece in the Courier and Evening Gazette for 11 January 1799 caught my attention with a detailed account of an evening of private theatricals. The entertainment was given at Lord Shaftesbury’s house in Portland Place on 7 January 1799 by his ten-year-old daughter Lady Barbara Ashley-Cooper and some of her friends.
‘Lady Barbara’s entertainments consisted of two pretty little Dramatic Pieces; and for the purpose of performing them a Theatre was fitted up in one of the largest apartments, by the Painters and Machinists from Drury-lane House. ̶ Scenery all new, and Orchestra for the Band, seats for the audience rising behind each other, and every thing was constructed to make it a perfect Theatre.
The first performance was a little French piece in dialogue, by the three eldest Miss Bouveries. … The audience bestowed great applause on the performance.
The second piece was the favourite Ballet of Little Peggy’s Love, as represented at the Opera House. This was got up under the care of Madame Hilligsberg, who for two or three weeks had been instructing all the performers, and superintending the rehearsals, and who on Monday night still acted as directress.
The Dramatis Personae were as follows:
Jamie ………………… Lady Barbara Ashley Cooper
Old Man ……………. Miss Bellasyse
Old Woman ………. Miss J. Parkyns
Lady ………………….. Miss C. Bouverie
Peggy ……………….. Miss Parkyns
Dancers, the three Miss Parkyns, and the two youngest Miss Bouveries.
This little fairy groupe rivalled the Opera House and Drury-lane in the correctness and spirit, the characteristic gestures and deportment of their performances. Lady Barbara was wonderfully happy in Jamie, and the Lord Chancellor [Alexander Wedderburn, Lord Loughborough, one of the guests that evening] seemed to be quite delighted with his little countryman. Hilligsberg had instructed her to turn in her toes, and adopt aukward gestures and attitudes, in which she was so successful, that a stranger could scarcely have believed her to be so graceful and accomplished as she really is in her own character.’
All of the performers must have been children. The newspaper account includes details of the dancers’ costumes and volunteers the information that the performance began at six and concluded around eight, after which the company went to play cards before going into dinner. The evening was a celebration of twelfth night.
Little Peggy’s Love (sometimes billed simply as Peggy’s Love) had first been performed at London’s King’s Theatre on 21 April 1796, advertised as ‘a new Dance in the Scotch style’ and with ‘the Pantomime and Principal Steps composed by Didelot’. The music was by Bossi. Mme Hillisgberg had, presumably, originally taken the title role, since the performance was for her benefit. Peggy’s Love had most recently been revived at the King’s Theatre and would be given further performances the same season. Although described as a ‘Dance’ it was evidently a small-scale ballet.
Charles-Louis Didelot was one of the most important choreographers of the late 18th century. He had first worked in London 1788 to 1789 and had returned in 1796 for a stay that would last until 1801. Madame Hilligsberg, who had been a pupil of Gaëtan Vestris in Paris, had first appeared in London late in 1787. She danced at the King’s Theatre throughout the 1790s and until 1803. One of her specialities was to dance in male attire.
The report of this private theatrical performance suggests that children were learning steps and choreographies that related to the stage in their dancing lessons. Other sources of the time indicate the same, among them the early 19th-century social dance manuals that include steps and sequences that would now be identified with classical ballet. Some of the dancing at late 18th and early 19th century balls must have been truly accomplished.