Category Archives: Dancers & Dancing Masters

Dances on the London Stage: Castiglione’s A Cortegiano

In the course of my research into dancing on the London stage, I recently came across ‘A new Comic Dance called A Cortegiano by Castiglione’ performed at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket on 29 December 1735, at the end of act 5 of Dryden’s The Spanish Fryar. The dance’s title is a very obvious reference to Il Cortegiano by the dancer’s namesake Baldassare Castiglione, originally published in Venice in 1528.

Who was the dancer Castiglione and why would he create a dance whose title refers to an early 16th century courtesy book?

Castiglione (we have no record of his first name) danced in London between 1734 and 1736. I have not been able to discover anything about his earlier or later career. According to The London Stage, his first appearance in London was on 28 October 1734 at Drury Lane. His last performance was very likely on 29 May 1736 at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, when he appeared as Pierrot in Henry Fielding’s Tumble Down Dick; or, Phaeton in the Suds. The afterpiece was described in advertisements as ‘The Practice of a Dramatick Entertainment of Walking, in Serious and Absurd Characters’, which sounds like a satirical reference to John Weaver and his ‘Dramatick Entertainments of Dancing’ of the 1710s to 1730s.

The dancer Castiglione may have been Italian in origin, but he probably came to London from France. At his benefit performance on 28 March 1735, the mainpiece was Arlequin Balouard given by a company of French comedians including ‘Francisque’ (Francisque Moylin) as Arlequin, while the entr’acte dances were Les Warriors, Les Transfigurations, The Prisoner, a Comical Pantomime Dance, Pierot and Pieraite, a Wooden Shoe Dance and a Pantomime after the Venetian Manner ‘All by Castiglione’. The first three seem to have been performed only this once on the London stage. The titles of the last four of his dances call to mind the French forain repertoire that had been popular in London’s theatres for more than twenty years.

With A Cortegiano, Castiglione was not only showing off his knowledge of his heritage but also capitalising on the English passion for Italian culture.  Il Cortegiano had been published in an English translation as recently as 1724 and a parallel English – Italian edition had appeared in 1727. The latter was accorded a second edition in 1737.

Cortegiano 1737 title page

For a dancer, Castiglione must have been unusually well read!

Pas de Sissonne Battu in Stage Dances for Men

The pas de sissonne battu occurs in many, but certainly not all, of the male solos and duets in the 1704, c1713 and c1725 collections of stage dances I am investigating.

The collection of ‘Entrées de Ballet’ by Pecour published in 1704 has 8 male solos and 5 male duets. Of these, two solos and two duets do not include the pas de sissonne battu. In the other dances, some conventions surrounding the step begin to emerge.  The assemblé battu is often followed by a changement rather than the sissonne (a vertical spring from two feet to one, from which the pas de sissonne presumably derives its name). The assemblé battu occasionally incorporates a turn in the air. In the two examples in this collection, it is a half-turn. Although the step is preceded by a variety of pas composés, it is most often followed by a coupé simple and a coupé (sometimes a coupé battu) avec ouverture de jambe. Does this reveal one of Pecour’s favoured choreographic motifs?

Here is an example from a solo, the ‘Sarabande pour un homme non dancée a l’Opera’, bar 46 (plate 215).

Sarabande Pecour 1704 215 (2)

And another from a duet, ‘Entrée pour deux hommes’ a loure danced by ‘Mr. Piffetau et Mr. Cherrier’, bar 11 (plate 165).

Entree Pecour 1704 165 (2)

Another example in this collection may not really be a pas de sissonne battu at all, for the plié is shown on the first beat and there is no following changement or sissonne – ‘Loure pour deux hommes’ danced by Blondy and Philbois, bar 18 (plate 173).

Loure Pecour 1704 173 (2)

In this collection, the pas de bourée en presence also appears a number of times after the pas de sissonne battu.

There are quite a lot of mistakes in the notations within this collection. Is the following, from the ‘Sarabande pour un homme’ bar 35 (Plate 227), an assemblé with an additional beat or simply a pas élevé battu?

Sarabande Pecour 1704 227 (2)

Pecour’s second collection of theatrical choreographies, published around 1713, has three male solos and four male duets. Only one solo and one duet include the pas de sissonne battu. There is no way of telling whether this might point to changing choreographic choices by Pecour or is purely by chance. What is interesting is that the immediate choreographic context for the step is the same in both dances. Here is the step in Pecour’s ‘Entrée seul pour un homme’, bar 32 (plate 106).

Entree Pecour 1713 106 (2)

And here it is in Pecour’s ‘Entrée de cithe dancée par Mrs. Blondy et Marcel’, bar 12 (plate 100).

Entree de Cithe Pecour 1713 100 (2)

In both, the pas de sissonne concludes with a changement. It is immediately preceded by a chassé battu and immediately followed by a pas de bourée en presence.

Could a study of the use of such phrases help us to understand more about the choreographic style of individual dancing masters?

There are hints of individual choreographic style in L’Abbé’s use of the pas de sissonne battu and his contexts for the step. There are four male solos and two male duets in his New Collection of Dances published in the mid-1720s. One of the solos and one of the duets do not contain the step. Among the others, when the assemblé battu is followed by a changement, Le Roussau often uses a variant notation method, for example in L’Abbé’s ‘Spanish Entry Performed by Mr Desnoyer’, bar 20 (plate 74).

Spanish Entry L'Abbe 1725 74 (2)

L’Abbé seems to enjoy placing this step within a phrase of more demanding pas battus, for example entrechats. Although he may simply be exploiting the virtuosity of his male dancers. As in the ‘Chacone of Amadis Perform’d by Mr Dupré’, bar 43 (plate 60).

Chacone of Amadis L'Abbe 1725 60 (2)

Or in the ‘Spanish Entry Performed by Mr Desnoyer’, bar 29 (plate 75).

However, L’Abbé also uses Pecour’s device of a coupé followed by a coupé avec ouverture de jambe from time to time, always after the pas de sissonne battu and sometimes with an extra embellishment such as a rond de jambe (see the ‘Entrée performd’ by Mr Desnoyer’, bars 30-31, plate 81). Apart from the addition of a turn to the assemblé battu and the regular substitution of a changement for the sissonne, L’Abbé does not embellish the pas de sissonne battu itself.

In all these collections the assemblé battu is notated just as it appears in the women’s dances. Of course, the men may have added their own ornamentations in performance, just as the women may have done.

Stage Dances and Their Performers

I have started to look at the vocabulary of pas battus in solos and duets created for female professional dancers, concentrating on the choreographies in Pecour’s Recüeil of 1704 and his Nouveau recüeil of around 1713 as well as the L’Abbé New Collection of about 1725. I began my investigation with some statistics on the dances in these. I’m now about to turn to pas battus in the solos and duets for male dancers in these same sources. There are more dances for men than for women, although the difference between the two is not enormous: there are 11 male duets to 7 female duets; and 15 male solos to 14 female solos. However, there are some differences in the head titles (the details on the first page of each notated dance) which give me pause for thought as I try to make comparisons between the step vocabulary in the female and male repertoires.

In Pecour’s 1704 Recüeil, four of the six female solos name the dancers and are linked to stage performance either in the operas from which their music is taken or elsewhere (for example Mlle Subligny’s gigue danced ‘en Angleterre’, i.e. in one of London’s theatres). The single female duet in this collection names the dancers and is linked to performance at the Paris Opéra. With the male solos, the picture is rather different. None of the eight choreographies has a named dancer and six of them declare that they were ‘non dancée a l’Opera’. What does this phrase mean? Were the dances created for productions at the Paris Opéra and then not used? Were they intended for either public or private performance at another venue? Can one make a fair comparison between solos attributed to leading female professional dancers performed on stage at the Paris Opéra and those by unnamed male dancers not given there? Interestingly, all five of the male duets name the leading professionals who performed them and are linked to specific operas.

Pecour’s Nouveau recüeil of around 1713 has three male solos, but only one has a named performer. The other two are titled ‘Entrée seul pour un homme’ with no reference to the operas from which their music comes. As in the earlier collection, the four duets all name dancers at the Paris Opéra and refer to performances in operas given there. One of the six female solos does not name the dancer and is also ‘non dancée a L’opéra’. One of Mlle Guyot’s solos has no reference to the opera from which it takes its music.  As with the men, all five of the female duets name their dancers and the opera in which they were performed.

I don’t know why there should be this difference in the head titles for male and female dances in these two collections. Did the leading men routinely choreograph or even improvise their own solos (so these couldn’t readily be notated) but need Pecour to create their duets? Or were Pecour’s male solo choreographies intended for Paris Opéra students or amateur dancers rather than these professionals?

In London, the situation (so far as stage dancing was concerned) was very different. The title page of L’Abbé’s New Collection claims that all the choreographies ‘have been performed both in Druy-Lane [sic] and Lincoln’s Inn-Fields, by the best Dancers’ – all these dancers are then named. All but one of the four male solos are attributed to leading male dancers in London and it is possible to link the ‘Gentleman’ who danced the fourth to a specific performance. The two duets similarly have named performers. The two female solos and the duet also have named dancers. None of the dances in this collection can be securely linked to individual performances on the London stage, but there is no reason to doubt the assertion on the title page.

There is one other issue, when it comes to comparing like for like with stage dances intended for men or women, and that is the dance types performed by them. Quite some time ago, I did an analysis of these as they occur across all the sources for male and female solos as well as male-only and female-only duets. I have never published it, so it could be a topic for another post. The vocabulary which is currently the focus of my interest may also be affected by the dance types as well as the performers, but the corpus of material I am investigating is so small that I will leave this issue to one side as I pursue my investigation of pas battus.

 

When is a Changement not a Changement?

Among the many steps notated by Feuillet in Choregraphie one looks in vain for one named ‘changement’ or indeed for notation of a step that is recognisable as one. This basic step is described thus in a modern dictionary of classical ballet:

‘Changements are springing steps in the fifth position, the dancer changing feet in the air and alighting in the fifth position with the opposite foot in front.’

When I wrote my PhD thesis back in the 1990s, I compiled a ‘Glossary of Terms for Early Eighteenth-Century Dance’ which, in shortened form, became Appendix II. I combed through all of the principal sources for the dance vocabulary and technique of the period, but I did not find any sign of the changement.

I obviously did not do my research thoroughly enough, for in his The Art of Dancing of 1735 Kellom Tomlinson wrote of the changement in the context of two different pas composés, although he did not use that term. In chapter XXIX, he calls it a ‘Spring with both feet at the same Time’ and describes a pas tombé ending with:

‘half the Weight [on the left foot] in the fourth Position behind the right Foot, with the Knees bent … from whence the Spring is immediately made with both Feet, … changing the right Foot backwards and the left forwards’ (p. 87)

I have omitted the references to the timing of the step. Tomlinson provides notation of the pas composé ‘Fall, Spring with both Feet at the same Time, and Coupee to a Measure’ which actually shows the ‘Spring with both Feet’ starting and finishing in the 3rd position.

Tomlinson Plate I (2)

Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735), plate I (detail)

In chapter XXX, Tomlinson calls it an ‘upright Spring’, referring to it as part of ‘the Close beating before and falling behind in the third Position, upright Spring changing to the same before, and Coupee to a Measure’. He again provides notation of the pas composé.

Tomlinson Plate I (3)

Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735), plate I (detail)

A fresh look at Feuillet’s step tables reveals another piece of information I overlooked. In his ‘Table des Cabrioles’, Feuillet notates a ‘cabriole droitte le pied devant retombe derriere’.

Cabrioles Feuillet 2 (2)

Feuillet, Choregraphie (Paris, 1701), pl. 85

This is, of course, a changement with the addition of a beat of the legs in the air.

My interest is not so much in the changement as in its use in notated dances in relation to jumps incorporating pas battus – in particular entrechats. Did female professional dancers of the early 1700s really only ever do changements while their male counterparts did entrechats-quatre and entrechats-six? Do the notated dances perhaps suggest otherwise?

The Pas de Menuet and Its Timing

Between 1688 and 1787 more than twenty different sources provide information about how to dance the minuet. They give a variety of details and I am not going to work through all of them. My interest here is the pas de menuet, the step that defines the dance, and its musical timing. The pas de menuet has four steps to be performed over six musical beats, two bars of music in triple time. As the dance manuals make clear there were a number of different versions of the step and various solutions to the issue of timing.

For some reason, Feuillet did not include minuet steps in his first edition of Choregraphie in 1700. He added them to the second edition of 1701 in a ‘Supplément des Pas’, notating four different versions of the pas de menuet.

Pas de Menuet Feuillet (2)

Feuillet, Choregraphie, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1701), Supplément de Pas (detail)

Feuillet provides no information about the timing of the step. He did address musical timing in his ‘Traité de la Cadance’ at the beginning of his 1704 collection of ‘Entrées de Ballet’ by Guillaume-Louis Pecour. He didn’t include the pas de menuet among his examples.

In his Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister (1717), Gottfried Taubert describes the same four versions of the pas de menuet as Feuillet – the pas de menuet en un seul mouvement, the pas de menuet à la boëmienne, the pas de menuet en fleuret and the pas de menuet à trois mouvements. He discusses timing in some detail, preferring the pas de menuet à la boëmienne because it accords best with his notions of the relationship between the steps and the musical bars.

‘It begins with the bend on the upbeat or last quarter-note of the previous measure; the rise comes on the downbeat of the new measure, and, while the legs remain extended, the right foot steps forward; on the second beat the body holds steady in the raised position; on the third beat the first stiff step is taken with the left foot. On the first beat of the next measure, another stiff step is taken with the right foot, adding a very quick bend of the knees at the end; rise again on the second beat, and in doing so step forward with the left leg. On the upbeat there is another bend right away, with the right so placed as to connect this compound step with the next.’ [Translated by Tilden Russell, The Compleat Dancing Master. 2 vols. (New York, 2012), vol. 2, p. 526]

Taubert does not like the popular pas de menuet en fleuret, because it does not accord with his aesthetic-musical preferences. He grudgingly accepts a timing which gives the first demi-coupé to the first bar and the fleuret to the second.

In Le Maître a danser (1725), Pierre Rameau describes the pas de menuet à trois mouvements and the pas de menuet en fleuret (which he calls the pas de menuet à deux mouvements). He gives the timing for the latter.

‘… which is performed within the Compass of two Barrs of triple Time, one called the Cadence, and the other the Contre-Cadence. But for the better Apprehension, it may be divided into three equal Parts; the First for the first half Coupee, the Second for the Second, and the Third for the two Walks, which ought to take up no longer Time than a half Coupee: But in the last Walk it is to be observed, that the Heel be set down to be able to make a Sink to begin another Step. [Translated by John Essex, The Dancing-Master (London, 1728), p. 44]

Kellom Tomlinson wrote his treatise The Art of Dancing in the mid-1720s, although it was not published until 1735. He describes three pas de menuet: Feuillet’s pas de menuet à la boëmienne, with its demi-coupés at the beginning and the end, which he calls the ‘English Minuet Step’; the pas de menuet en fleuret, which he calls both the ‘French Minuet Step’ and the ‘New Minuet Step’; and the pas de menuet en trois mouvements. His timing for the pas de menuet en fleuret gives the first bar to the opening demi-coupé, with the rise on the first beat, lowering the heel but keeping the knees straight on the second beat and sinking on the third beat. The second bar is given to the fleuret, with the rise of the demi-coupé on the first beat, the second step on the second beat and the third step on the third beat. Tomlinson does not specify the timing of the sink preparatory to the first demi-coupé.

When he writes of the pas de menuet sideways to the right, Tomlinson prescribes the pas de menuet en fleuret, using the same timing as that travelling forwards. When he comes to the ‘Minuet Step of three Movements’ (which, confusingly, he also calls the ‘New Step’), Tomlinson sets out a different timing.

‘The Rising or Receiving the Weight upon the Toe or Instep marks the Time to the first Note of the three belonging to the first Measure; the second is in the Fall of the Heel and Sink which prepares for the second Step of the four belonging to the Minuet Step, which is made by stepping of the left Foot forwards, in the same Manner as the first; and the Rising or Receiving of the Body upon the Instep is to the third and last note of the first Measure. The third Step of the said four is made with the right Foot stepping a plain straight Step forwards upon the Toe to the first Note of the three in the second Measure; the second is in the coming down of the Heel of the said right Foot and Sink that prepares for the fourth and last Step which is with the left Foot, in stepping forwards from the Sink aforesaid; and the Rising or Receiving of the Weight upon the Toe is to the third Note of the second Measure of the Tune, concluding in the same Position from whence it begun …’ [Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735), p. 110]

In his own notated version of the ballroom minuet (plate U in the treatise), Tomlinson uses the pas de menuet à trois mouvements whenever the dancers are travelling to the left.

I promised not to look at every treatise on the minuet, but I will include just one more, Malpied’s Traité sur l’art de la danse, which gives a late 18th-century version of this long-lived duet. Towards the end of his text he turns to the minuet and provides not only his own notation of the ballroom minuet but also examples of the timing of the pas de menuet en fleuret (the only step he uses).

Pas de Menuet Malpied (2)

Malpied, Traité sur l’art de la danse (Paris, 1770?), p. 100

His timings for the pas de menuet are closely related to those of Rameau, although Malpied was writing some fifty years later.

I ought to mention that modern practitioners of the art of baroque dance interpret these various instructions in different ways. One area of divergence is the timing of the plié at the beginning of the first demi-coupé – is it on beat 6 of the preceding bar, or on the ‘and’ which precedes the first beat of the bar in which the pas de menuet begins?

 

The Origins of the Pas de Zephyr: Dancers

In my search for the source of the social dance step the pas de Zephyr, I looked briefly at the ballets featuring the character Zephyr from the 1640s to the 1810s. As the step apparently first appears in early 19th-century dance manuals, it makes most sense to focus on ballets from the 1790s to the early 1800s. Who among the leading male dancers of that time might have performed the step or enchainement that inspired the pas de Zephyr?

There are just a handful of candidates. In Gardel’s Psyché (Paris, 1790), Zephyr was created by Louis Laborie but danced in later revivals by André Deshayes, Louis-Antoine Duport and Monsieur Albert. Deshayes may have danced as Zephyr in Gardel’s Le Jugement de Paris (Paris, 1793). He certainly took the title role in Gardel’s Le Retour de Zéphire (Paris, 1802). In 1806, Duport created his own divertissement L’Hymen de Zéphire, ou Le Volage fixé giving himself the title role. Didelot danced Zephyr in his own Zéphire et Flore (London, 1796). When the ballet was finally given in Paris in 1815, Albert appeared as Zephyr. So, there are four main contenders – André Deshayes, Louis-Antoine Duport, Charles-Louis Didelot and Monsieur Albert, for all of whom Zephyr was a significant role.

A watercolour of the early 1800s is widely agreed to depict a male dancer as Zephyr, although he has been variously identified as Deshayes and Duport.

Zephyr Deshayes or Duport

Scene from Gardel’s Le Retour de Zéphire? Undated watercolour by an anonymous artist.

André Deshayes (1777-1846) trained as a dancer at the Paris Opéra school, joining the company in 1794 and becoming a principal dancer in 1795. Deshayes danced in London in 1800 and again from 1804 to 1811. His success in Gardel’s Psyché was such that the choreographer created the one-act divertissement Le Retour de Zéphire specially for him. The piece was intended to celebrate the return of Deshayes to the stage following a long absence due to injury. His dancing was described in the review accorded Gardel’s ballet in the Mercure de France for 3 March 1802:

‘And let us not forget Zephyr himself, the god of the festivity, whose slender figure, interesting features and graceful movements delight the audience, and who, through the elegance of his attitudes and smoothness of his dancing, seems to make up for what he lacks perhaps in strength.’ (Translation by Ivor Guest in his Ballet under Napoleon).

Deshayes returned to London again in 1821, as a choreographer as well as a dancer, staying there until his retirement in 1842.

Louis Duport (1781 or 1783-1853) made his debut at the Paris Opéra in 1797, quickly becoming one of the company’s leading dancers. He did not come to London until 1819, making just the one visit before he retired from the stage in 1820. Duport seems to have made a speciality of the role of Zephyr. Apart from his appearances in Gardel’s Psyché and his own L’Hymen de Zéphire, he also danced the role in Gardel’s Le Retour de Zéphire in Paris in 1803 as well as in Didelot’s Zéphire et Flore when that ballet was given in St. Petersburg in 1808. In the context of this post, ‘Le Pas de Zéphir, de M. Duport’ advertised, apparently as a solo, as part of a performance given in 1816 by the Casorti family, is of particular interest.

Pas de Zephyr Poster

The poster is reproduced in Marian Hannah Winter, The Pre-Romantic Ballet

Duport’s dancing as Zephyr was hailed by one critic as ‘the Zephyr depicted by the poets, barely touching the ground in his rapid flight’. The writer went on to praise:

‘The suppleness of his movements, his precision in the most difficult steps, the unbelievable boldness of his pirouettes, in which Duport has perhaps no equal for the perfection and finish of their execution …’ (Translation by Ivor Guest in his Ballet under Napoleon)

Duport was famed for taking virtuosity to new extremes.

Charles-Louis Didelot (1767-1837) belonged to an earlier generation. Born in Stockholm, where he received his earliest training, by 1776 he was studying in Paris with leading teachers. Although he began dancing at the Paris Opéra as early as 1783, Didelot did not make his official debut there until 1791. Before then, he had danced in Stockholm, London and Bordeaux. He returned to London, as both choreographer and dancer, from 1796 to 1801 and again from 1811 to 1816. He had spent the intervening years in St Petersburg, returning there in 1816 and remaining for the rest of his career. Didelot was a demi-caractère rather than a serious dancer, lacking the elegant physique required of the latter, although the role he created in his own Zéphire et Flore would become a vehicle for leading danseurs nobles.

Monsieur Albert (François Decombe, 1787-1865) was engaged to dance at the Paris Opéra from 1808, dancing Zephyr in Didelot’s Flore et Zéphire when the ballet was first given in Paris in 1815. During the 1820s he danced at London’s King’s Theatre, where his first major work Cendrillon was given in 1822. Albert danced as the prince, a role he repeated when the ballet was given at the Paris Opéra the following year. He was also a teacher, with a reputation for improving the training of those destined to be professional dancers as technical demands changed. Albert taught amateurs as well as professionals – his L’art de la danse à la ville et à la cour was published in Paris in 1834. He included the pas de Zephyr among the steps he suggested for the quadrille, in a version very different from all the others. Albert’s pas de Zephyr is an enchainement not a single step and he does not include the beat around the ankle which is a feature of some other versions. Albert’s dancing was described by his much younger contemporary Auguste Bournonville:

‘The word “gentlemanlike” fully decribes Albert’s demeanour as a dancer: noble, vigorous, gallant, modest, ardent, friendly, gay, but seldom inspired. He won the applause of the connoisseurs but failed to move the masses …’ (Translation by Patricia MacAndrew in her edition of Bournonville’s My Theatre Life)

Monsieur Albert Alcides

Print after F. Waldek. Monsieur Albert in the role of Alcide (London, 1821)

So, which of these male stars of the dance created the pas de Zephyr – if indeed any of them did? The answer to this question raises a few more issues, which I will explore in my next post as I weigh up the evidence.

Who was the first female professional dancer on the London stage?

There has been much debate, over many years, as to the identity of the first actress to appear on the London stage following the Restoration. Nobody seems to have bothered to ask who the first female professional dancer might have been. It is fair to point out that this is, probably, an even more impossible question to answer. There simply isn’t enough evidence to work with. There was stage dancing in London from at least as early as 1660, even before the arrival of Charles II to reclaim his throne. Who were the dancers? Were any of them professional dancers, as we understand the term? Were any of them female professional dancers? Mostly we don’t know.

Using The London Stage as the principal source of information, the first dancing to be reported for the period is Le Ballet de la Paix recorded in a printed scenario dated 1660. There are many questions surrounding this piece which, if it ever was performed, may have been given in London during spring 1660 just before the King’s restoration. However, there are no hints as to who may have danced in it. During the years immediately following the Restoration, all the reports on dancing in London’s theatres come from the diary of Samuel Pepys. They are quoted in The London Stage. His earliest mention dates to 5 February 1661, when he saw Glapthorne’s Argalus and Parthenia (a pre-Restoration drama) which was ‘pleasant for the dancing and singing’. Presumably the cast danced and sang, but we don’t know who they were.

Pepys’s first reference to a particular dancer came when he saw Davenant’s The Law against Lovers (an adaptation from Shakespeare) at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 18 February 1662 and commended ‘the little girl’s (whom I never saw act before) dancing and singing’. She was probably Mary or ‘Moll’ Davis, whom Pepys would subsequently mention quite often. Around 18 months later, he took note of Winifred Gosnell in Davenant’s The Rivals at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 10 September 1664, remarking ‘Gosnell comes and sings and dances finely’. Of course, both were first and foremost actresses and cannot be described as professional dancers, at least not according to 21st -century ideas.

Moll Davis apparently began her stage career in 1660. John Downes, prompter at Lincoln’s Inn Fields from the 1660s and author of Roscius Anglicanus, or an Historical Review of the Stage published in 1708, named her as one of Sir William Davenant’s four ‘Principal Actresses’ whom ‘he boarded at his own House’ when he formed his company. Some years later, in a diary entry for 11 January 1668, Pepys reports the opinion of ‘Pierce’ who said of Moll ‘she is a most homely jade as ever she saw, though she dances beyond anything in the world’. As I mentioned in another post, Pepys thought ‘little Mis Davis’ a far better dancer than Nell Gwyn. Like her more famous counterpart, Moll Davis left the stage in 1668 after becoming yet another of Charles II’s mistresses. The poet Richard Flecknoe wrote ‘To Mis: Davies, on her excellent dancing’, publishing his verses in Epigrams of all Sorts in 1669.

Dear Mis: delight of all the nobler sort,

Pride of the Stage and darling of the Court,

Who wou’d not think to see thee dance so light,

Thou wer’t all air? Or else all soul and spirit?

Or who’d not say to see thee only tread,

Thy feet were feathers! others feet but lead?

Atlanta well cou’d run, and Hermes flee,

But none e’er moved more gracefully than thee;

And Circe charm’d with wand and magick lore,

But none, like thee, e’er charm’d with Feet before.

Thou Miracle! Whom all men must admire

To see thee move like air, and mount like fire.

Whoe’er would follow thee or come but nigh

To thy perfection, must not dance but fly.

Who trained Moll Davis to achieve a style and technique that was so much admired?

Pepys first met Winifred Gosnell in 1662. His diary entry for 12 November that year describes her as ‘pretty handsome’ and ‘with a good voice and sings very well’. Some days later, he commented that she ‘dances finely’. Miss Gosnell became, very briefly, companion to Mrs Pepys and only later joined the Duke’s Company as an actress. I have mentioned elsewhere Pepys’s reaction to her singing and dancing in Davenant’s The Rivals in 1663. Her stage career seems to have lasted until at least the 1680s, but when she petitioned the Lord Chamberlain about her discharge from the company she described herself as a singer rather than a dancer or even an actress.

So, the player with the best claim to be the first female professional dancer on the Restoration stage is Moll Davis. If she does not quite fit our definition of a ‘professional dancer’ she seems to have had the skills to be accepted as one.

Moll Davis

Moll Davis. Engraving by Richard Tompson after a painting by Sir Peter Lely, 1675-1690.