Dances on the London Stage: Blouzabella

On 8 June 1703, the entr’acte entertainments at Lincoln’s Inn Fields included a duet by Prince and Mrs Elford entitled Blouzabella. The dance must have been at least moderately successful, because it was repeated on 11 June by (according to The London Stage) L’Abbé and Mrs Elford. Blouzabella was revived at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1703-1704, 1704-1705 and, for the last time, in 1711-1712 when it was given at Drury Lane. At each of these revivals it was danced by Prince, initially with Mrs Clark and finally with Mrs Bicknell.

The title of the dance suggests that it was a comic number. Blowzabella is the vulgar, ostentatious and shameless wife of the hero of Thomas Durfey’s The Famous History of the Rise and Fall of Massaniello, inspired by the Italian fisherman who in 1647 led a revolt against the rulers of Naples. Durfey’s play was first given at Drury Lane in May 1699. According to The London Stage, Massaniello was short-lived, although both it and the entr’acte dance it inspired may have enjoyed more performances than are recorded there.

There are some puzzles about this duet and its performers. We know all too little about Mrs Elford and her repertoire, except that the sparse surviving evidence suggests that she was an accomplished exponent of belle danse. She is generally advertised in serious dances and her one recorded choreography is a passacaille danced as a duet with the young Hester Santlow, probably in 1706 the year Mrs Elford left the stage. She seems an unlikely performer of a duet that draws on the antics of a low comedy character.

Mrs Elford regularly danced with Anthony L’Abbé, but the suggestion in The London Stage that they danced Blouzabella together is very likely to be wrong. The original advertisement for the performance says:

‘Also an Entertainment of several Dances by Monsieur Labbe, Mrs Elford, and others; particularly the Wedding Dance, and Blouzabella. The Medley Dance by Mr Prince and his Daughter. …’

The wording ‘and others’, together with Prince’s appearance on this bill as well as the one for 8 June, suggests that it was he and not L’Abbé who danced Blouzabella with Mrs Elford. As for Prince’s later partners, we know next to nothing about Mrs Clark and Mrs Bicknell was well-known as a comic actress as well as a dancer, although her range did not usually extend to low comedy.

Prince’s appearance in probably all of the known performances raises the possibility that he was the choreographer of Blouzabella. Who was Mr Prince? Was he the Joseph Prince who married Judith, the daughter of the dancing master Luke Channell, in 1678 and was in his mid-forties in the early 1700s? Or was he perhaps a son of Joseph Prince, who might then have been in his early twenties?

Any research into dances on the London stage must be undertaken with caution. Even well into the 18th century we cannot be entirely sure who danced these choreographies, where, when or with whom. Nor can we always be sure what sort of dances they were. Durfey’s Massaniello has several dance numbers, some of which were serious, so was Blouzabella not as comic a dance as its title might suggest?

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