During many, if not most, seasons between the mid-1710s and late 1750s the bills for performances at Drury Lane and Covent Garden included an entr’acte Grand Ballet, Grand Dance or Serious Dance. Usually no details of these dances were volunteered, other than the names of the principal performer (or performers) with the enigmatic addition ‘& others’. Why were these dances so named? What did their differing titles mean? How many dancers were involved in these choreographies? Like so much about dancing on the London stage in the 18th century these are difficult questions to answer satisfactorily.
The term Grand Dance already had a long history in London’s theatres by the time it appeared in the bill for a concert held at Drury Lane on 4 January 1704. James Shirley’s Cupid and Death of 1653 includes a Grand Dance, as do Purcell’s semi-operas King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692). Both of Purcell’s grand dances are chaconnes. The libretto for The Fairy Queen specifies a ‘Grand Dance … of Twenty four Persons’. The suggestion is that a Grand Dance has both an extended musical form and a large number of performers. The Drury Lane concert seems to have been a selection of music, mainly by Henry Purcell, culminating in ‘The Sacrifice’ from King Arthur and the Grand Dance. It seems likely, therefore, that the latter was one of Purcell’s chaconnes, although only six dancers were named in the advertisement. Was it the music, rather than the number of dancers, that made a dance a Grand Dance?
Serious dancing was first advertised as such early in the 18th century. It was sometimes billed together with, and in contrast to, comic dancing. More often than not, serious dances seem to have been duets. Only during the 1716-1717 season was there a billing for a ‘new serious dance, compos’d by Moreau’ for as many as eight dancers – four men and four women (in fact, three men and three women together with the two ‘French children’ Francis and Marie Sallé). Thereafter serious dances with a group of dancers became more common in advertisements.
The title Grand Ballet does not appear in advertisements before the mid-1720s, with the ‘Grand Ballet by ten Persons of different Characters’ performed at Michael Poitier’s benefit at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21 April 1727. If he did not introduce the term ‘Ballet’ to the entr’acte dance repertoire, Poitier seems to have a hand in popularising it. The 1727 Grand Ballet may well have been his choreography and the ‘Characters’ were perhaps drawn from the commedia dell’arte.
During the 1730s, the terms Grand Ballet, Grand Dance and Serious Dance began to be used together, and seemingly sometimes interchangeably, in advertisements. These almost never provide clues as to the music for the dances and rarely give more than the names of one or two of the principal dancers (often the company’s leading dancers). With the near ubiquitous use of ‘&c.’ or ‘& others’ for the remaining performers, we have few clues as to the usual number of dancers required for a Grand Dance or a Grand Ballet. In later posts, I am going to look more closely at the various billings for these three types of entr’acte dance to see if it is possible to glean further information about them.