Dancing in London’s Theatres, the 1725-1726 season

Since October 2020, I have written more than 15,600 words in a total of twelve posts devoted to dancing in London’s theatres during the season of 1725-1726. This survey covered the capital’s four theatres, who gave nearly 460 performances between them. No dancing was advertised at the King’s Theatre, while both Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields billed entr’acte dancing at about half of their performances. Drury Lane offered afterpieces with dancing about 25% of the time and Lincoln’s Inn Fields did the same at nearly 45% of its performances. There was little overlap between entr’acte dancing and afterpieces – bills at Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields generally included either one or the other, but rarely both – so at least 70% of that season’s bills (other than at the King’s Theatre) must have had some sort of dancing. That amounts to more than 330 performances.

So much dancing called for a group of specialist dancers at London’s two theatres royal. Drury Lane had thirteen dancers (seven men and six women), while Lincoln’s Inn Fields had sixteen (nine men and seven women). Among the women, several were also actresses (Drury Lane’s leading dancer, Hester Booth, was also one of the company’s leading actresses). At both playhouses, these dancers formed a company within the theatre company which brought together performers with different backgrounds as well as of various ages and experience. Several seem to have had quite extensive training in the French serious style (several more did not) and some had skills in speciality dance techniques. All the dancers, in both companies, seem to have been expected to dance in a range of styles and genres. Far more research is needed into the careers and repertoires of both leading and supporting dancers at this period to help us to understand how dancers were recruited and deployed. Such knowledge is closely linked to any attempt to analyse the repertory of dances at the two theatres.

This season, as in many others during the late 17th and 18th centuries, there were a number of French dancers on the London stage. Some, like Marie Sallé at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, were ‘guest artists’ while others, like her brother Francis and Monsieur Roger at Drury Lane, became members of the theatre’s dance company. Attention has been focussed on visitors from the Paris Opéra, but dancers from the Opéra Comique and the Paris fairs (the forains) were equally if not more influential. ‘French’ dance on the London stage is another topic that awaits detailed research and analysis.

As explained in my earlier pieces, 28 entr’acte dances were given at Drury Lane and 43 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The majority of these were duets. There seem to have been around eight choreographies which (on the evidence of their titles) were performed at both playhouses. The lack of music as well as other sources makes it difficult to distinguish between dances with the same, similar or otherwise related titles. A study over a longer period than a single season might help us to resolve some of these queries, as well as providing insights into the entr’acte dance repertoire at each of the two patent theatres.

Even this one season of 1725-1726 gives us some clues about the popularity of individual dances. For example, many of the duets given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were, or would become, staples of the repertoire with stage lives extending over many seasons. The same was true at Drury Lane, although to a lesser extent. It is difficult to assign many of these dances to a single, specific genre, although the editors of The London Stage made an attempt at a list of categories (Introduction to Part Two, pp. cxxxiii – cxxxv) and so did I in chapter three of my PhD thesis ‘Art and Nature Join’d: Hester Santlow and the Development of Dancing on the London Stage, 1700-1737’ (2000). I won’t set out details of these categorisations here, although I make some use of them in what follows.

At Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1725-1726, the most popular dances fall into the ‘National’ genre – French, Dutch, Irish and Spanish foremost among them. Many of these dances overlap with the ‘Character’ genre, dances performed by particular character types of which the most popular were Peasants. The ‘National’ dances were followed quite closely by choregraphies titled according to their dance type – Passacaille, Chacone, Saraband, Minuet, and so on. There were, relatively speaking, few dances linked to commedia dell’arte characters, who were being steadily absorbed into the pantomime afterpieces, and not as many ‘Pastoral’ dances as might be expected although the longevity of group dances like Myrtillo and Le Badinage Champetre (which was new in 1725-1726) suggest that over time the hierarchy of popular dances might look different. There is also the question of the number of performances enjoyed by each entr’acte dance, which might change the pecking order. One factor, which needs detailed research, is the influence of the dancers themselves (more specifically the dancer-choreographers) over their own and their theatre’s repertoire. And, there were the theatre managers who had the final say on each evening’s bill. John Rich at Lincoln’s Inn Fields is known to have favoured dance, while at Drury Lane Colley Cibber, Robert Wilks and Barton Booth thought it detracted from the serious drama.

All but one of the afterpieces with dancing given at the two theatres royal this season were pantomimes, still a new and emerging genre. These brought together comic and serious dancing, by commedia dell’arte characters and figures from classical mythology, in productions that made full use of scenes, machines, tricks and transformations to entertain and amaze audiences. In 1725-1726, Drury Lane revived three pantomimes that had been successful in earlier seasons, notably Harlequin Doctor Faustus, while Lincoln’s Inn Fields revived five (including The Necromancer) and put on one new production. Drury Lane used dancers for the serious plots in its pantomimes, while Lincoln’s Inn Fields preferred singers. The Lincoln’s Inn Fields Apollo and Daphne was an exception to this rule, since it responded to the Drury Lane pantomime of the same name by casting Francis and Marie Sallé in the title roles. Both versions of Apollo and Daphne seem to have had affinities with John Weaver’s earlier dramatic entertainments of dancing – a link that remains largely unexplored, although the lack of detailed evidence about these pantomimes makes this difficult.

How much time was devoted to dancing each evening? Entr’acte dances must have varied in length, but one or two minutes is a reasonable average for solos and duets while group dances might take five or six minutes (or longer in those cases where there was a narrative thread to the choreography). So, the entr’acte dances might take up ten to fifteen minutes in an evening, more or less. Pantomimes are thought to have lasted around 40 minutes altogether, with varying amounts of comic and serious dancing depending on the production. Around fifteen to twenty minutes of actual dancing might be a reasonable guess. This is another area that needs research and analysis.

The 1725-1726 season fell within a pivotal period for dancing on the London stage. Pantomimes had just begun their long reign, dancers from France were bringing new choreographies that would be influential as the dancing in London’s theatres changed. Throughout the 18th century dancing was an integral and far from negligible part of most performances in London’s principal theatres, yet, in the absence of surviving choreographies and even their music, it remains intangible and unintelligible to all but those dance historians specialising in the period. I hope that this will change as more research is done.

I have still to look at the dancing at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, which I will do in a separate piece by way of an epilogue to this lengthy investigation.

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