Money for Entrechats: Valuing the Virtuosic Male Dancer – L’Abbé and Ballon

Anthony L’Abbé’s A New Collection of Dances Containing a Great Number of the Best Ball and Stage Dances, published around 1725, was dedicated to George I. It brought together in Beauchamp-Feuillet notation thirteen choreographies, almost all of which were described as having been performed by London’s leading professional dancers. At the time of publication, L’Abbé was dancing master to the King’s granddaughters. He had been a dancer as well as a choreographer, working both at the Paris Opéra (where he began his career) and in London’s theatres. The first dance in the New Collection was a ‘Loure or Faune performd’ before his Majesty King William ye 3d bÿ Monsr Balon and Mr L’abbé’. The details in the head-title suggest that the dance had been performed in 1699, the year that Claude Ballon (a leading male dancer at the Paris Opéra) had come to London for the first and last time. Ballon had apparently been able to command a fabulously high fee for his London appearances. The writer and collector Narcissus Luttrell recorded that ‘Monsieur Ballon, the famous French dancing master, … having leave to come hither for 5 weeks, is allowed by the playhouse 400 guineas for that time, besides which the Lord Cholmley has sent him a present of 100 more’. Ballon was obviously exceptionally highly valued as a performer (500 guineas is the equivalent of around £60,000 now), but what was the playhouse management and the audience paying to see? The all-male duets and male solos in L’Abbé’s New Collection of Dances (six choreographies in all) provide evidence of the spectacular virtuosity of leading male dancers in the early eighteenth century, which was obviously part of their appeal. Here I will look at the skills and rewards of Ballon and L’Abbé. In a second post, I will look at Delagarde and Dupré who were dancing in London’s theatres a few years later and fared somewhat differently.

The ‘Loure or Faune’ was performed against a complex background of international and cultural politics, extending from Anglo-French diplomacy surrounding the succession to the Spanish crown to rivalries between London’s theatre companies. Anthony L’Abbé first came to dance in London in May 1698 at the invitation of Thomas Betterton, the leading actor of the recently formed company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre which was in fierce competition with the rival company at Drury Lane. Only one of L’Abbé’s London performances was recorded, in the Post Boy for 14-17 May 1698:

‘On Friday night last [13 May] there was fine Dancing at Kensington, where his Majesty was present,  as also his Excellency the French Ambassador: The Frenchman, who is lately come over and Dances now at the Play-house, was sent for to dance there, and performed his part very dexterously.’

‘Kensington’ was, of course, Kensington Palace, where the performance took place before King William III and the Comte de Tallard, who had been sent to London by Louis XIV for negotiations to agree a successor to the Spanish King Carlos II whose death without issue was expected imminently. Both England and France were war-weary following the conclusion of the Nine Years War with the Treaty of Ryswick in September 1697. The visits of both L’Abbé and Ballon occurred during the few years of peace when French cultural leadership in Europe could be readily acknowledged and enjoyed, before hostilities between the two countries resumed in May 1702 with the War of the Spanish Succession.

Anthony L’Abbé was born in 1666 or 1667 and made his debut at the Paris Opéra in 1688. It is difficult to trace his repertoire there over the next ten years, in the absence of complete cast lists for many productions, but he is recorded as dancing in Lully’s Cadmus et Hérmione in 1690 and in Lully and Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in 1691. He undoubtedly danced in several other productions as well during that period, and his appearance at Kensington Palace was in a divertissement entitled Le Palais des Plaisirs which was essentially a pastiche of scenes from Lully’s operas. According to an analysis of a rare surviving copy of the livret, the entertainment included scenes from Lully’s Le Carnaval Mascarade (1675), Armide (1686) and Roland (1685) with a cast of both English and French singers and dancers. L’Abbé pleased spectators in two dances from Le Carnaval Mascarade, first as a Spaniard in an Italian Night Scene alongside characters from the commedia dell’arte and then (in the final scene of the entertainment) as the leader of six Matassins. These roles suggest that L’Abbé’s technical virtuosity was to the fore. The dancing master John Essex (who may well have seen L’Abbé on the London stage at this time) later wrote that ‘His Talent chiefly lay in the grave Movement, and he excelled all that ever appeared on the English Stage in that Character’, again alluding to L’Abbé’s virtuosity. There is no way of knowing what L’Abbé danced at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1698, but according to the theatre’s prompter John Downes his first London engagement placed him among the ‘exorbitantly expensive’ foreign performers engaged by Betterton. L’Abbé continued to work in London as a dancer and a choreographer, and then a dancing master, for another forty years.

Claude Ballon arrived in London in April 1699. His date of birth has been variously given as 1671 and 1676 and he made his debut at the Paris Opéra in 1690 in Cadmus et Hérmione. Like L’Abbé, his early repertoire is difficult to trace. He also danced in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in 1691, and in 1697 he appeared in Destouches’s opera Issé as a Faune and Campra’s extremely successful opéra-ballet L’Europe galante as a Spaniard and as a Moor. Ballon seems to have arrived around Easter and was advertised in the Post-Man of 4-6 April 1699 for a performance on 10 April:

‘On Easter Monday, at the New Theatre in Little Lincoln’s Inn Fields, will be an entertainment of Dancing, performed by Monsieur Balon newly arrived from Paris.’

Ballon’s monetary rewards come into sharper focus in relation to an advertisement in the Post Boy of 13-15 April 1699, which announced the forthcoming appearance at Drury Lane of ‘Signior Clementine’ a castrato of such ‘extraordinary Desert in Singing’ that he was to be given a yearly salary of £500.

Ballon’s success is attested by a later source, the anonymous A Comparison Between the Two Stages published in 1702:

‘… with Balon; the Town ran mad to see him, and the prizes were rais’d to an extravagant degree to bear the extravagant rate they allow’d him.’

Unfortunately, apart from the ‘Loure or Faune’ we have no idea what he danced. Nor have the date and occasion of his appearance with L’Abbé before William III been identified. The performance was presumably also at Kensington Palace and must have taken place either before or after the King’s visit to Newmarket for the racing from 11 to 19 April. Ballon was later described by the dancing master John Weaver, who may have seen him in London, as the best of the ‘French Dancers, who have been seen with so much Applause, and follow’d with so great an Infatuation’ although he offered ‘nothing more than a graceful Motion, with strong and nimble Risings, and the casting of his Body into several (perhaps) agreeable Postures’. Weaver found Ballon’s dancing technically impressive but lacking in expression and meaning. Ballon never returned to London after his 1699 visit. He pursued his career at the Paris Opéra and later became dancing master to the young Louis XV and, in turn, that monarch’s family.

The ‘Loure or Faune’ danced by Ballon and L’Abbé is a loure or gigue lente in 6/4 time. Its music is the ‘Entrée des cyclopes’ from act two scene six of Lully’s 1686 pastorale héroïque Acis et Galatée. Here is the first plate of the notation.

The dance has only 36 bars of music, lasting for little more than a minute, but there are two complex and demanding steps to each bar which make it a showpiece despite its brevity. The loure, taken at a slow tempo, was a favoured dance type for male duets and was often used for male solos. Music treatises of the period characterise the loure as slow or grave, and also as strong and noble, making it particularly suitable for choreographies danced by men.

Ballon and L’Abbé begin conventionally, side by side upstage facing the King (I will use the stage terms, although the two men probably danced in a space similar to a ballroom, with the King as the ‘presence’). Each dancer stands on his inside foot, with the outside foot free to begin the first step. This mirror symmetry is maintained throughout the dance. In the first bar they perform two balonnés, springing steps which bring them downstage towards William III. The choreography is highly ornamented throughout: around 75% of the bars have steps which incorporate turns; more than 50% of bars have steps with beats (which vary in nature and complexity); more than 33% have another form of decoration, for example an added slide or a rond de jambe. There are only six bars with steps which have no beats, turns or other embellishments to enrich the vocabulary.

There are several technically very difficult and spectacular steps in this duet. In bar 7, when the two dancers have completed their opening passage downstage (another convention in choreographies of the period) and are side by side in front of the King, they perform an entrechat-six with a simultaneous full turn in the air. In Bar 22, when the men are centre stage, they perform a contretemps followed by an assemblé battu en tournant. The latter begins with a powerful swing of the working leg which provides the impetus for a full turn in the air and initiates the beaten element of the step, another entrechat-six. The final section of the dance begins (in bar 32) with a triple pirouette over 2 bars of music, with the two men (who turn in mirror image directions away from one another) again downstage in front of the King. This adagio turn, which requires powerful control, would have been taken with the working leg open in a second position and is more demanding in performance than the modern pirouette (which has the working leg bent at the knee and the foot in front of the upper calf or knee of the supporting leg). The triple pirouette in the ‘Loure or Faune’ is extended by another quarter-turn and completed with a sliding and beaten jetté which adds yet another quarter turn. The duet ends with the conventional retreat upstage, but unconventionally the men end facing one another, each standing on his upstage leg with the other leg in front of him, perhaps in a low attitude. Equally unconventionally, they have changed sides.

Acis et Galatée had been revived at the Paris Opéra as recently as 1695 and it is possible that both Ballon and L’Abbé had danced in the production, although not necessarily together. It is unlikely that L’Abbé’s choreography was performed then, for the dances would have been created by the maître de ballet at the Opéra Guillaume-Louis Pecour. There are few depictions of dancers at this period, although Ballon is represented in a number of engravings – one of which is below – there seems to be no image of L’Abbé dancing.

If the surviving portraits of Ballon represent the style of costumes worn by him and L’Abbé for their ‘Loure or Faune’ the effect must have been stunning in performance, heightening the power and refinement of their steps, displaying the grandeur as well as the sophistication of the French ballet and evoking the glamour of the court of Louis XIV as well as the Paris Opéra.

This post was originally part of a conference paper, given several years ago but never published, which I have revised.

Reading List

Julie Andrijeski, ‘A Survey of the Loure through Definitions, Music, and Choreographies’ (Unpublished doctoral thesis, Case Western Reserve University, 2006).

A Comparison Between the Two Stages (London, 1702).

John Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, ed. Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume (London, 1987).

Kenneth H. D. Haley, ‘International Affairs’ in Robert P. Maccubbin and Martha Hamilton-Phillips (eds), The Age of William III and Mary II: Power, Politics, and Patronage  1688-1702 (Williamsburg, 1989).

Anthony L’Abbé, A New Collection of Dances. Originally published by F. Le Roussau London c.1725 (London, 1991).

Narcissus Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs from September, 1678 to April 1714. 6 vols. (Oxford, 1857), Vol. 4.

Claude and François Parfaict, Dictionnaire des théâtres de Paris. 7 vols. (Paris, 1767), Vols. 1, 2.

Pierre Rameau, trans. John Essex, The Dancing-Master (London, 1728).

Jennifer Thorp, ‘Monsieur L’Abbé and Le Palais des Plaisirs: a New Source for a London Spectacle’ in Society of Dance History Scholars [Conference July 9-11, 2010 held at the University of Surrey, Guildford] (SDHS, 2010).

John Weaver, An Essay Towards an History of Dancing (London, 1712).

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