Minuets on the London Stage

Those of you who are familiar with the minuet probably know it best as the pre-eminent ballroom duet of the 18th century. Some will have encountered it within the figure dances in Edmund Pemberton’s An Essay for the Further Improvement of Dancing, published in 1711, while others may have learnt one or other of the notated minuets. How many of you have discovered that the minuet, in various guises, was regularly performed in London’s theatres throughout the 1700s? I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of these stage minuets.

Some time ago, I compiled a list of entr’acte performances of minuets on the London stage between 1700 and 1760. Extensive as it is, the list certainly has omissions, since the surviving advertisements do not always provide full details of the dances performed each evening. The earliest mention is a solo Minuet, performed with a Chacone and a Jigg by the dancer Miss Lindar at Drury Lane on 30 October 1717. This is very unlikely to have been the first solo minuet given in London’s theatres. The ‘Menuet performd’ by Mrs Santlow’, published in notation within Anthony L’Abbé’s A New Collection of Dances in the mid-1720s, may well date to between 1708 and 1712 – although there is no advertisement to confirm this. I have danced this choreography many times and I love the intricacy of its steps, its subtly allusive figures and its unusual use of the stage space. Here is the final plate of the dance, which I think shows all of those characteristics.

Menuet Solo 1725 21

Hester Santlow is not billed in a solo minuet until 25 March 1731, when she danced a Chacone and a Minuet in the entr’actes at Drury Lane, but the dance must surely have been part of her repertoire long before then. There is no way of telling whether she continued to perform L’Abbé’s solo, or had new minuet choreographies created for her (or crafted her own dances) over the years.

Another solo minuet which has escaped record in The London Stage is Kellom Tomlinson’s ‘Minevit’ created for Mrs Schoolding to dance in The Island Princess at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1716. In comparison to Mrs Santlow’s ‘Menuet’, this is a miniature (32 bars of music and 16 minuet steps to 120 bars and 60 minuet steps), but Tomlinson adds complexity with successive half-turns in several steps (which are all variants on the contretemps du menuet).

MInevit Tomlinson 1

Later solo minuets in the period I am looking at apparently include a ‘Minuet in Boy’s Cloaths’, danced by Mlle Grognet at Lincolns Inn Felds on 18 April 1734. I am uncertain about this one, as Mlle Grognet was billed as dancing a minuet in ‘Men’s Clothes’ with other female dancers several times that season. I suggest that they were dancing a version of the ballroom minuet.

Solo minuets were rarely advertised and the last examples before 1760 were performances by young actresses. At Drury Lane Miss Pritchard ‘Danc’d a Minuit for the King’ in a Masquerade Dance inserted into Mrs Centlivre’s The Wonder on 8 November 1756. The performance had been commanded by George II. Was this choreography closer to Thomas Caverley’s Slow Minuet … for a Girl than to Mrs Santlow’s sophisticated ‘Menuet’? If it was, in fact, a solo minuet.

The minuet was usually performed as a duet in London’s theatres, although the earliest advertisement dates only to 14 April 1726 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, when Glover and Mrs Laguerre did the honours. As with the majority of bills on which the Minuet appears, the performance was a benefit (in this case for the actor-singer John Laguerre and his wife Mrs Laguerre). The next advertisement for a Minuet was not until 3 May 1731, when Glover danced at his own benefit with Mlle Sallé. Thereafter, the minuet became a fixture in the bills for benefit performances. It was given by a galaxy of star dancers (as well as those of lesser rank) – Desnoyer and Mrs Booth (Hester Santlow before her marriage in 1719), Desnoyer and Mlle Sallé in 1735 (performed at each other’s benefits), Desnoyer and Signorina Barberini in 1741 and 1742. If Glover began the idea, Desnoyer seems to have established the minuet as an entr’acte dance of choice for benefits. Anne Auretti would do the same from 1748 into the early 1750s.

What were these minuets like? Were they essentially the ballroom minuet, designed as demonstrations of perfect – and perfectly restrained – style and technique, albeit scaled-up for the stage? Or were they heightened forms of the dance, with virtuoso steps and figures and perhaps few, or no, minuet steps? I will return to this question in a later post.

One issue I will explore here is the question of costume. When George Desnoyer and Marie Sallé danced a Minuet together at Drury Lane on 17 March 1735 (for his benefit) and he then performed a Minuet with Mrs Walter for another benefit on 22 March, they were described as dancing ‘in modern Habits’. They were not so described when Desnoyer danced a Minuet with Marie Sallé at Covent Garden on 24 April 1735 (for her benefit). The phrase ‘in modern Habits’ had not been used in advertisements before then and was only occasionally used later – most often, but not always, when Desnoyer was dancing – and only for minuets. The last such usage seems to have been for his benefit on 13 March 1738, when he again danced a Minuet with Mrs Walter.

What did ‘in modern Habits’ mean? When I first encountered it, I assumed that it meant that the dancers were wearing fashionable dress, rather than more archaic court costume (the ‘grand Habit’ of formal court wear). Returning to it now and looking more closely at its use in advertisements, I wonder if I had that the wrong way round. What illustrations there are of couples dancing the minuet in a ballroom setting (I know of none in a theatre) all show them in what looks like fashionable dress. The range of dancers who performed minuets in London’s theatres suggest that this was the case on stage too. So, did ‘in modern Habits’ suggest that Desnoyer and his partners wore the latest form of court dress, with him in an elaborate but fashionable suit and her in a court mantua with a hooped skirt rather than the stiff-bodied gown that was already beginning to disappear in England? I really need a costume expert to answer this!

Here is Augusta, Princess of Wales, in a stiff-bodied gown. The portrait, by Charles Philips, was painted at the time of her marriage in 1736.

Augusta Princess of Wales 1736

I have been unable to find a depiction of a court mantua of that period, but here is a portrait of Lady Betty Germain (also by Charles Philips) in a very elaborate mantua painted in 1731.

(c) National Trust, Knole; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In both cases the skirt is far smaller than the dimensions it would attain in the 1740s. Desnoyer was, of course, part of court circles as dancing master to Frederick, Prince of Wales and some of his siblings, as well as (from 1736) Princess Augusta.

A minuet was quite often added to another ball dance at benefit performances. I have written in other posts about Aimable Vainqueur (the ‘Louvre’) and La Mariée on the London stage. Both were quite often performed with a Minuet, as were L’Abbé’s Prince of Wales’s Saraband, The Britain or Britannia (most likely Pecour’s La Bretagne) and even Isaac’s The Union, as well as a variety of named and unnamed ball dances that have not survived in notation. There were also minuets for three and for four, a Grotesque Minuet and a Mock Minuet. I hope to return to some, if not all, of these in later posts.

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