Category Archives: Ballroom Dancing

A FAVOURITE BALLET

I have been doing some research for an article, for which I have been looking through 18th-century newspapers. Although it has nothing to do with my topic, a piece in the Courier and Evening Gazette for 11 January 1799 caught my attention with a detailed account of an evening of private theatricals. The entertainment was given at Lord Shaftesbury’s house in Portland Place on 7 January 1799 by his ten-year-old daughter Lady Barbara Ashley-Cooper and some of her friends.

‘Lady Barbara’s entertainments consisted of two pretty little Dramatic Pieces; and for the purpose of performing them a Theatre was fitted up in one of the largest apartments, by the Painters and Machinists from Drury-lane House. ̶ Scenery all new, and Orchestra for the Band, seats for the audience rising behind each other, and every thing was constructed to make it a perfect Theatre.

The first performance was a little French piece in dialogue, by the three eldest Miss Bouveries. … The audience bestowed great applause on the performance.

The second piece was the favourite Ballet of Little Peggy’s Love, as represented at the Opera House. This was got up under the care of Madame Hilligsberg, who for two or three weeks had been instructing all the performers, and superintending the rehearsals, and who on Monday night still acted as directress.

The Dramatis Personae were as follows:

Jamie …………………  Lady Barbara Ashley Cooper

Old Man …………….  Miss Bellasyse

Old Woman ……….  Miss J. Parkyns

Lady …………………..  Miss C. Bouverie

Peggy ………………..   Miss Parkyns

Dancers, the three Miss Parkyns, and the two youngest Miss Bouveries.

This little fairy groupe rivalled the Opera House and Drury-lane in the correctness and spirit, the characteristic gestures and deportment of their performances. Lady Barbara was wonderfully happy in Jamie, and the Lord Chancellor [Alexander Wedderburn, Lord Loughborough, one of the guests that evening] seemed to be quite delighted with his little countryman. Hilligsberg had instructed her to turn in her toes, and adopt aukward gestures and attitudes, in which she was so successful, that a stranger could scarcely have believed her to be so graceful and accomplished as she really is in her own character.’

All of the performers must have been children. The newspaper account includes details of the dancers’ costumes and volunteers the information that the performance began at six and concluded around eight, after which the company went to play cards before going into dinner. The evening was a celebration of twelfth night.

Little Peggy’s Love (sometimes billed simply as Peggy’s Love) had first been performed at London’s King’s Theatre on 21 April 1796, advertised as ‘a new Dance in the Scotch style’ and with ‘the Pantomime and Principal Steps composed by Didelot’. The music was by Bossi. Mme Hillisgberg had, presumably, originally taken the title role, since the performance was for her benefit. Peggy’s Love had most recently been revived at the King’s Theatre and would be given further performances the same season. Although described as a ‘Dance’ it was evidently a small-scale ballet.

Charles-Louis Didelot was one of the most important choreographers of the late 18th century. He had first worked in London 1788 to 1789 and had returned in 1796 for a stay that would last until 1801. Madame Hilligsberg, who had been a pupil of Gaëtan Vestris in Paris, had first appeared in London late in 1787. She danced at the King’s Theatre throughout the 1790s and until 1803. One of her specialities was to dance in male attire.

Madame Hiligsberg Jaloux Puni

H. de Javry, engraved by J. Conde. Mademoiselle Hilligsberg in the Ballet of Le Jaloux Puni (London, 1794)

The report of this private theatrical performance suggests that children were learning steps and choreographies that related to the stage in their dancing lessons. Other sources of the time indicate the same, among them the early 19th-century social dance manuals that include steps and sequences that would now be identified with classical ballet. Some of the dancing at late 18th and early 19th century balls must have been truly accomplished.

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A Year of Dance: 1717

1717 was a busy year on the London stage, at least so far as dancing was concerned. With hindsight, the most significant event was the performance at the Drury Lane Theatre on 2 March 1717 of John Weaver’s ‘New Dramatick Entertainment of Dancing after the Manner of the Antient Pantomimes’ The Loves of Mars and Venus – now widely recognised as the first modern ballet. Weaver followed it up on 2 April with a ‘New Dramatick Entertainment of Dancing in Grotesque Characters’, The Shipwreck; or, Perseus and Andromeda. Together, the two afterpieces were surely intended to show the full range of the expressive dancing that Weaver was eager to promote. On 5 December 1717, Weaver’s Harlequin Turn’d Judge was given at Drury Lane. It was later advertised as an ‘Entertainment of Dancing in Grotesque Characters’ but was, to all intents and purposes, a pantomime (a genre new to London’s theatres). Both The Loves of Mars and Venus and Harlequin Turn’d Judge were successful enough to survive into the 1720s.

The popularity of Weaver’s danced afterpieces attracted several responses from John Rich at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Rich began with The Cheats; or, The Tavern Bilkers on 22 April 1717. The alternative title apparently refers to a much earlier piece by Weaver, which the dancing master claimed was performed at Drury Lane in 1702. Although, as Weaver’s The Tavern Bilkers was never revived, how did Rich know about it? A few months later, Rich turned his attention to Weaver’s new ballet with Mars and Venus; or, The Mouse Trap, given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 22 November 1717. He then produced Colombine; or, Harlequin Turn’d Judge on 11 December. Neither of Rich’s ripostes were anything like as successful as the originals. However, The Jealous Doctor; or, The Intriguing Dame, a pantomime given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 29 April 1717 continued to be popular until the mid-1720s.

All these afterpieces had casts of dancers, and Rich did not neglect entr’acte dancing. His star dancers in 1717 were the ‘two Children, Scholars of M Ballon, lately arriv’d from the Opera at Paris’. Francis and Marie Sallé had made their London debut at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 18 October 1716. Rich billed them frequently, in a varied repertoire of serious and comic dances, between then and their last performance on 20 June 1717. Was their ‘New Comic Scene’ entitled The Loves of Harlequin and Colombine, given on 23 April 1717, intended as another hit at The Loves of Mars and Venus? They also performed ‘The Submission, a new Dance, compos’d by Kellom’ on 21 February 1717 demonstrating their versatility.

Kellom Tomlinson’s The Submission was one of the only two notated dances to be published in London this year. The other was L’Abbé’s The Royal George, according to newspaper advertisements published ‘for the Princess’s Birth Day’ in March 1717 although the title page says only a ‘A New Dance … for the Year 1717’. The title must thus honour the Prince of Wales her husband. Fortunately, the dance appeared several months before the serious quarrel between the King and his son the following November, which would divide the royal family for the next few years. The other noteworthy cultural event of 1717 was the first performance on 17 July of Handel’s Water Music for George I as he travelled by barge along the River Thames.

In Paris, the annual dance publication was the XV Recüeil de danses pour l’année 1717 published by Dezais. It contained three short ballroom duets, La Clermont and La de Bergue by Claude Ballon and La Ribeyra by Dezais himself. The last of them was dedicated ‘A Madame l’Ambassatrice de Portugal’, providing an insight into the naming of such choreographies. At the Paris Opéra, besides the usual revivals of works by Lully, André Campra was represented not only by revivals of his Fragments de M. Lully and Tancrède but also by a new opera Camille, Reine des Volsques given on 9 November 1717 (N.S.).

The most important dance publication of the year, at least for many 21st-century dance historians, was Gottfried Taubert’s monumental treatise Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister which appeared in Leipzig and provided a German view of French dancing. It shows not only how influential la belle danse was around Europe but also how this French style and technique could be moulded to suit other national tastes and ideas.

 

Prince Frederick

Prince Frederick, ‘A New Dance’ by Anthony L’Abbé, was notated and published in 1725 by Edmund Pemberton.

Prince Frederick Title Page

L’Abbé, Prince Frederick (1725), Title Page

The title indicates that the dance was dedicated to the eldest son of the Prince and Princess of Wales (who would soon become King George II and Queen Caroline). The publication of the dance was advertised in the Evening Post for 9-11 March 1725. The date links it to Caroline’s birthday on 1 March, although the bare description of it as ‘A New Dance’ suggests that it was not performed at court. I have not been able to find any record of a court ball in honour of the Princess’s birthday that year.

Prince Frederick was still in Hanover, where he had remained as the representative of the electoral family when his parents travelled to England in 1714 following the accession of his grandfather (Elector of Hanover) to the British throne as George I. In 1725, Frederick turned 18 and thus officially came of age. This event was celebrated in Hanover, where the festivities included a ball at which Frederick opened the dancing with the Countess Amalie von Platen (who may have been the daughter of George I). Perhaps L’Abbé intended his ballroom dance to honour Frederick’s majority and be a compliment to the prince’s mother. If so, it was unlikely to have found favour in London – both of the prince’s parents disliked him.

L’Abbé’s Prince Frederick is described on the notation as a ‘Slow Minuet’. The music has been identified as a song The Beauteous Cloe. The single-sheet version is undated (although ascribed a date of 1715 or 1720 in some sources). It also appears in A Choice Collection of English Songs Set to Musick by Mr Handel, published by John Walsh around 1730. It has been further identified as a reworking of Teofane’s aria ‘S’io dir potessi’ in act 2 of Handel’s 1723 opera Ottone. If, as has been suggested, Handel himself transformed the aria into the song, he must have been happy to do so soon after the first performances of Ottone on the London stage. Did he perhaps revise the music for the ball dance first? Handel was employed by George I at the same period as L’Abbé was dancing master to the King’s grand-daughters. The two must have known one another, and Handel – like L’Abbé – may have wished to honour Prince Frederick, who would in due course become Prince of Wales and might one day be king.

The description ‘Slow Minuet’ on the notation cannot be taken too literally, but it accords more with the slow sad aria of Ottone than the lively light-hearted song The Beauteous Cloe. I am currently working on L’Abbé’s Prince Frederick so I will return to the choreography and its interpretation in a later post.

Reconstructing Isaac’s Rigadoon

After several sessions, I have finally learnt the whole of Isaac’s Rigadoon and I am beginning to feel comfortable enough with the choreography to work on shaping it as if for performance.

Isaac focusses on the changing rhythms and shifting dynamics of the Rigadoon’s steps. The footwork is not complicated, there are no quasi-theatrical steps but they are difficult to perform clearly and accurately, particularly at speed. The dance does need to be quite fast to make its proper effect. Isaac repeats steps and even short sequences, but he never exactly replicates sequences elsewhere in the choreography. I have found The Rigadoon quite hard to learn and I am still struggling to find the best way to perform the basic steps. How far should these travel? How much spring should there be in the jettés that come at the end of so many of them? I have performed many of the notated theatrical dances, which need amplitude and force even in basic steps. The Rigadoon requires neither, although it certainly demands swift and lively dancing.

The famous figure with glissades, that according to Kellom Tomlinson ‘forms a perfect Square’ (The Art of Dancing, p. 56), is very hard to get right.

Isaac Rigadoon 2

Isaac, The Rigadoon (1706), plate 2/15.

Each bar has two glissades and so has two mouvements and two steps with glissé. These need fast reactions in feet and ankles and downward pressure, without being heavy. The notation of the pas de bourées used to turn the corners is interesting. Each is different and three of them apparently require the first demi-coupé to move on an outward diagonal. I haven’t got this right yet, but it must surely serve to align the partners within the dancing space as well as with each other. The perfect square is formed by the paths of both dancers, who should end where they began but facing each other up and down the room instead of across it. I would love to work on this figure with a partner.

It is hard to get a proper sense of the figures in a duet when working on it alone. This is particularly true of the asymmetric figure in The Rigadoon, in which the man performs three quarter-turn sprung pirouettes as the woman dances around him with pas de bourées and he then moves around her with a coupé, a contretems with a bound and a pas de bourée as she does a coupé to first position, a half-turn pirouette and a coupé.

Isaac Rigadoon 4

Isaac, The Rigadoon (1706), plate 4/17

It is such a shame that I am unlikely to get to work on this dance with a partner. I would love to sort out exactly what happens in this section and how it should be performed.

I can’t really analyse the whole dance within a single blog post, so I will just look at those of Isaac’s choreographic effects that I really enjoy (from the point of view of the lady, as this is the side I have been working on). One is his use of the coupé to first position, in the second B section and the third A section. It brings the dancer to a dynamic stop after a lively sequence of pas de bourées. In both cases it is followed by a pirouette. The two B sections in the third AABB repeat reveal Isaac’s love of rhythm as well as his wit. The first B sequence comes at the top of the page, just below the music, in the plate illustrated above. There is a little game with the mouvement in demi-coupés, coupé and pas de bourée. Then in the second B (on the next plate of the dance, not shown here) there is a contrast between sliding steps and springs in two consecutive pas de bourée. I love the way Isaac has the couple bound towards one another before turning to face the back in order to travel away from the presence. Even though I can’t try this out with a partner, it always makes me smile.

The point is, of course, that Isaac’s Rigadoon isn’t simply a difficult dance exercise. It is a challenging choreography that is rewarding to learn and wonderful fun to perform. The same is true of the other dances by him that I have performed, including The Richmond, The Saltarella, The Pastorall and even The Union.

 

The Waltz, 1802

A little while ago, I encountered an early illustration of the waltz that was new to me. It may be well known to experts in the dancing of the 1800s, but I hadn’t seen it before. Nor could I find it in any of the general accounts of this dance I was able to access. It is an acquatint from Journal of a Party of Pleasure to Paris in the Month of August 1802, published in London the same year.

Waltz 1802

‘La Valse’ from Journal of a Party of Pleasure to Paris (1802).

It accompanies what is said to be the first known description of the waltz.

‘At night we went to Tivoli, … Every kind of diversion was going forward; … in the midst of the whole, dancing, on a very large floored space. But the dance was of so curious a nature that I must describe it. It is called a Valse; and it was there danced by about two hundred couple, to a tune extremely slow, each couple turning each other round and round, till they have completed the circle of the whole platform, in the manner of the sketch here presented. But this can only give a faint idea of it; the attitudes of the women are tasteful and sportive, to say no more of them; but of the men I can say nothing, they were so dirty and vulgar they only excited disgust. This dance, though very amusing to the lookers on, and doubtless to the performers, will, I think, never become the fashion in England.’

The Journal is anonymous, but the author has been identified as Sir John Dean Paul (1775-1852) an English neo-classical artist. The Tivoli gardens in Paris were named after those of the Villa d’Este near Rome and were fashionable as an amusement park from the 1790s to the 1840s. 1802 was the year of the Treaty of Amiens, which briefly halted the wars between France and Great Britain and allowed the English to visit Paris.

Waltz music dates back to the 1750s, but the dance seems to have emerged into polite society around 1800. I have elsewhere mentioned the similarity of the basic waltz step to the pas de menuet. Another possible influence on the waltz was the couple allemande, fashionable in the 1770s and 1780s. The hold of the fourth couple in the illustration resembles one of the figures depicted in Dubois’s Principes d’Allemande (undated, but perhaps published in the 1770s). The hold of the third couple appears in a later source, 16 Divisions of Waltzing by the English dancing master G.M.S. Chivers, published around 1822. The first of the four couples use a hold that might also relate to the couple allemande, although it does not exactly correspond to any of those depicted in the handful of treatises that explain this dance. The second couple look more like they are swinging one another around in a modern country dance manner. I haven’t come across anything that resembles it.

None of the couples look like they are dancing slowly. Was the music ‘extremely slow’ so that they could dance in double time? In this early version, the waltz looks as if it might indeed have been as shocking as onlookers claimed.

Isaac’s Rigadoon: the choreography

Isaac’s Rigadoon is one of 31 notated dances which either are or include a rigaudon (three more dances are labelled as rigaudons but are in fact gavottes). Among these 14 were published in London, of which 8 (Including Isaac’s Rigadoon) are rigaudons throughout. As I said in my previous post on this dance, it was first published in 1706 but may have been created some years earlier. Isaac choreographed a second rigaudon, The Rigadoon Royal, in 1711.

What made Isaac’s Rigadoon so admired and, apparently, so popular? Music theorists of the time characterised the rigaudon as ‘rustic’ and suggested that it was a fast dance. I have a delightful recording (made for rehearsal purposes some years ago) which is both and really brings the duet to life. The dance, in duple time, is quite long. The musical structure is the conventional AABB (A has 4 bars and B has 6) played through four times, so there are 80 bars of dancing. The choreography is lively. More than half of the steps incorporate small jumps, which are notated as such. There are no demi-jettés and only a few steps with a terminating demi-coupé to give a sense of suspension rather than a lilt. The step vocabulary is relatively limited, but Isaac’s use of variants on basic steps and his combinations of these demand swift reactions and rhythmic clarity. This can only be achieved through good underlying technique, particularly placement (or aplomb) and control over the mouvements that provide vertical articulation between and within the steps. The music needs some rustic heaviness (though not too much) but the steps need a feeling of upward spring. If the Rigadoon is as fast as I think it should be, it is not an easy dance and needs much practice to get it right. It must have been an agreeable challenge to able amateur dancers.

John Weaver identified four steps in Isaac’s Rigadoon that were rarely, if ever, found in other dances. All occur on the first plate of the notation, the first AABB section of the dance. Was Weaver (if not Mr Isaac himself) deliberately appealing not only to the contemporary love of novelty but also to a desire for ‘English Dancing’?

Weaver Step Suplement detail

Feuillet transl. Weaver. Orchesography (1706), ‘A Suplement of Steps’, detail.

Isaac Rigadoon 1 detail

Mr Isaac. The Rigadoon (1706), first plate, detail.

Weaver’s reference to ‘the so frequent use of them’ in the Rigadoon is a little puzzling. The ‘boree wth. a bound’ does appear throughout the dance. Feuillet gives notations for a large number of variants on the pas de bourée but none has either a final demi-jetté or jetté, even though Rameau refers to the former in Le Maître a danser. Weaver makes no reference to Isaac’s variant pas de bourée which has a pas glissé as the final step. The ‘contretem wth. a bound’ is used only four times by the man in the Rigadoon (the lady has three). There is nothing similar in Feuillet’s ‘Table des Contre-temps’. Although Rameau refers to a ‘contre-tems à deux mouvemens’ he actually means a contretemps balonné. My impression, from working through quite a number of notated choreographies over the years, is that the ‘contretem wth. a bound’ is quite widely used elsewhere, but I need to check this out. The ‘sissonne wth. a Contre temps’ occurs only at the very beginning of the Rigadoon. All the other sissonnes in the dance are the conventional version, as notated by Feuillet at the beginning of his ‘Table des Pas de Sissonne’ and described by Rameau. Isaac’s ‘contretems wth. a slide’ occurs only once, in the first B section near the beginning of the dance’. It is not recorded by either Feuillet or Rameau.

The contradiction between Weaver’s statement about ‘the so frequent use’ of these steps and the actual inclusion of them in his notation of Isaac’s Rigadoon raises questions. Could Weaver’s notation be inaccurate in some places? Did he perhaps use Feuillet’s standard notation instead of recording Isaac’s variant steps? Or was the dance as notated made more conventional to accommodate a greater range of amateur dance skills?

I meant this post to be a discussion of the difficulties, and the pleasures, to be encountered while learning Isaac’s Rigadoon, but I am still only about half-way through the choreography. A proper appraisal will have to wait for a little while longer.

 

The minuet versus the waltz

An early dance friend recently suggested to me that the 19th-century waltz is more difficult than the 18th-century minuet and invited me to discuss the idea. So, here goes.

I have danced many minuets over the years and I am well acquainted with the challenges of the ballroom minuet, as described by Pierre Rameau in Le Maître a danser (1725) and Kellom Tomlinson in The Art of Dancing (1735). I am nowhere near as practised in the early waltz. My friend did not specify any particular version, so I will look at Thomas Wilson’s A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816).

The minuet was the duet that opened 18th-century formal balls. It was danced one couple at a time before the scrutiny of all the other guests. It was, in effect, an exhibition ballroom dance. This did not mean that it was slow and stately, 18th-century minuets were lively and quite fast dances. It had specific steps and figures (floor patterns) that had to be performed in a set order. It also allowed for some improvisation, mainly through the use of ‘grace steps’ in place of the conventional vocabulary. Controlled and elegant deportment was essential, not least to enable the partners to manage and display their elaborate attire, including the gentleman’s hat.

What was difficult about the minuet? Apart from the pressure of performance, both the steps and the figures were exacting. Minuet music is in  3 / 4 but the basic pas de menuet takes two bars of music, so four steps have to be fitted into six musical beats. There are two main timings, and both could be used within a ballroom minuet. The contretemps du menuet, the other basic step, had another different timing over six beats. All the steps of the minuet require a great deal of practice if they are to be performed with ease and elegance. There are five figures: the opening figure; the Z-figure; taking right hands; taking left hands; taking both hands, which is the closing figure of the dance. The Z-figure is the principal figure of the minuet. It can repeated at will and is often, but not always, reprised just before the final figure. Some idea of the steps and figures of the minuet is given by Kellom Tomlinson’s notation of the dance.

Kellom Tomlinson. The Art of Dancing (1735), Plate U

Kellom Tomlinson. The Art of Dancing (1735), Plate U

At balls, the minuet was addressed to the two highest ranking members of the audience, referred to as ‘the presence’. The dancers had to begin and end facing them and the figures had to be oriented in relation to them. The accurate performance of the figures, as well as their placing and orientation within the dancing space, needs a great deal of practice.

Musically the minuet was challenging. The couple could begin their dance at any point in the music (taking care to start on an odd-numbered bar), so their dance figures would inevitably cross the musical structure and phrasing at several points. Tomlinson tries to suggest such musical challenges in his notation of the minuet. This, too, needs much practice to master.

What about the waltz? How difficult was it? The waltz was always danced with a number of couples on the floor at any one time. It was a social dance and not meant as a display piece. Wilson distinguished between the French waltz and the German waltz. The French waltz began with the ‘Slow Waltz’, changed to the ‘Sauteuse Waltz’ and ended with the ‘Jetté, or Quick Sauteuse Waltz’. As the titles suggest, the dance got progressively faster. Each of these little waltzes had its own steps. In the slow waltz, these were a half-turn pirouette and a pas de bourée, over two bars of 3 / 4 music. The rhythmic pattern is reminiscent of the simplest timing of the basic pas de menuet. I can’t help feeling there was a link between them. The sauteuse waltz replaces the pirouette with a jetté-step combination and makes the first step of the pas de bourée a jetté. The jetté or quick sauteuse waltz had just one step,  a jetté-hop combination, performed first on one foot and then on the other. Wilson’s explanations are not entirely clear and I am radically condensing them. It is obvious, though, that these steps need practice if they are to be well performed.

The German waltz was Wilson’s undoubted favourite.

‘The Construction of the Movements is truly elegant; and, when they are well performed, afford subject of much pleasing Amusement and Delight.’

This version of the waltz had two quite different, and slightly more complicated, steps than those in the French waltz. In all Wilson’s versions of the waltz, the dancers needed good deportment but – just as their dress was freer than in the 18th century – a degree of informality was acceptable.

There are no figures in the waltz, which simply follows a circular track around the dancing space with the partners turning as they go. The dance is not directed at those who may be watching. It simply tries to make best use of the available dancing space.

Thomas Wilson. A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816), plate

Thomas Wilson. A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816), plate

One of the most complicated aspects of the early 19th-century waltz is the varieties of what would today be called ‘hold’. Wilson’s pretty frontispiece shows several of these.

Thomas Wilson. A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816), frontispiece

Thomas Wilson. A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816), frontispiece

The partners had to change hold as they dance. I suggest that this would have taken quite a bit of practice, certainly rather more than the basic steps. This is one area where the waltz is definitely more difficult than the minuet, in which the partners merely take hands from time to time.

Musically the waltz does not pose challenges. The dancers could start anywhere (although, like the minuet, on an odd bar) and they didn’t need to worry about musical structure or phrasing since the waltz is repetitious. However, they did need to worry about being in time with each other and fitting their steps and turns around each other. Again, this would have taken practice, just as it does with the modern waltz. There was also the speed of the dance, at least with the sauteuse and jetté or quick sauteuse waltzes, which made neat footwork a challenge. Giddiness with all the turning was perhaps seen as a pleasure rather than a difficulty.

So, which dance do I think was the most difficult? It has to be the minuet, for its status as an exhibition dance, the complexity of its steps and figures and the challenges of its musicality. The waltz has its fair share of challenges, but a simple early 19th-century waltz can be learned and enjoyed quite quickly. There is no such thing as a simple ballroom minuet.