LONG SKIRTS OR SHORT – WHAT DID FEMALE PROFESSIONAL DANCERS ACTUALLY WEAR?

I recently posted a short piece on The Weaver Dance Company website about the skirt lengths of female professional dancers. Here, I would like to look more closely at this topic which has concerned me for as many years as I have practised baroque dance.

The story still told regularly in popular histories of dancing is that Marie-Anne de Camargo, the great French ballerina of the mid-18th century, was the first to shorten her skirts in order to show off her brilliant footwork. The famous portrait of her by Nicolas Lancret, painted in 1730, supports this idea by showing her with a mid-calf length skirt.

Lancret Camargo Wallace

Yet, in her entry for Mlle Camargo within the International Encyclopedia of Dance, Régine Astier (a specialist in the period) says bluntly that ‘there is no evidence to support the legend’.

What do we know about skirt lengths among ballerinas in ballet’s early years?

If we look back to the late 17th century, we find that female characters danced by male courtiers did wear shorter skirts than their female counterparts. These two designs come from the 1654 French court ballet Les Noces de Pélée et de Thétis. On the left is a Dame de la cour de Pélée performed by a male dancer and on the right the muse Erato performed by a female dancer.

 

We also find indications that female professional dancers showed more of their legs than was possible in an elaborate floor-length gown. Marquise-Thérèse de Gorla, known as Mlle Du Parc, was a member of Molière’s troupe and a dancer as well as an actress. She attracted attention when she performed ‘certain remarkable cabrioles – for one could see her legs and part of her thighs through the slit in her skirt’. There are several references to female professional dancers of this period performing jumps and cabrioles. Was Mlle Du Parc’s costume something like this design for a Divinité marine from the 1665 Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus?

Marine Deity (female dancer)

The long underskirt seems to be a lightweight material, which would be less inhibiting than the heavily decorated skirts so often seen in late 17th-century designs.

Towards the end of the 17th century, there are depictions of women holding up their skirts to dance. While this would seem to confirm the floor-length skirt it also suggests that women commanded a dance technique for which the feet needed to be unimpeded and visible. This costume for a Nayade comes from the ballet Le Triomphe de l’Amour of 1681 – according to Jérôme de la Gorce in Berain, Dessinateur du Roi Soleil it may well be for the professional production staged a few months after the ballet was given at court.

Nayade (female dancer)

The following illustration, linked to Campra’s 1699 opéra-ballet Le Carnaval de Venise, also shows a female professional dancer in a lightweight skirt.

Fille de Barquerolle

 

This late 17th-century engraved portrait of Mlle Desmatins ‘dansant à l’opéra’ is notable for its knee-length skirt – In The Pre-Romantic Ballet, Marian Hannah Winter suggests that she may have been dancing en travesti.

Desmatins Mlle

Her costume seems to belong to same period as the familiar depiction of Marie-Thérèse de Subligny in an elaborate, and seemingly unyielding, gown.

Subligny

Mlle Subligny is one of the earliest ballerinas for whom we have surviving dances. The solo Passacaille d’Armide, created for her by Guillaume-Louis Pecour and danced when she visited London in the winter of 1701-02, has an elaborately ornamented vocabulary with many small jumps, beats and turns. As I have said elsewhere, why create such virtuosic choreography if none of the steps can be seen (assuming that the ballerina could indeed perform them in such a dress)?

I believe that this image of Terpsichore from the end of the 17th century gives us a much better idea of the costumes that Mlle Subligny and other ballerinas would actually have worn.

Terpsichore

 

Once we reach the 18th century and the London stage there is further evidence for shorter skirts, although this comes from much the same period as Lancret’s portrait of La Camargo. The portrait of Hester Santlow as Harlequine, in a floor-length costume, is well known. However, in a little-known (and not very good) copy she is known to have owned herself, she has a skirt which is noticeably shorter.

Ellys, John, c.1701-1757; Mrs Hester Booth (1681-1773)

The dates of these Harlequine portraits are not entirely certain, but both are likely to have been painted by the early 1720s.

One of Mrs Santlow’s dancing roles was Diana in ‘The Masque of the Deities’ which concluded the smash-hit pantomime Harlequin Doctor Faustus, given at Drury Lane in 1723. There is no image of her as Diana, but the description of the character in a scenario of the pantomime published at the time may well reflect what she wore.

‘She is pictur’d of a middle Stature, her Hair loose, a Bow in her Hand, and a Quiver of Arrows hanging at her Shoulders; a Deer-Skin fasten’d to her Breast, a Gown of Purple, tuck’d up to her Knees with Jewels; her Legs adorn’d with Buskins up to the Calf, her Dress, tho’ careless, handsome; her Behaviour free and easy, tho’ modest and decent.’

Like Mlle Subligny, Mrs Santlow’s surviving dances reveal a virtuoso technique with a vocabulary that is full of small jumps, beats and turns – impossible to see, or execute, in a heavy floor-length dress.

Marcellus Laroon’s charming depiction of a couple dancing, apparently on a stage, shows the girl in a soft mid-calf length skirt.

Laroon Couple Dancing

It may date to the 1720s.

Better known is the 1731 satirical print showing Mrs Laguerre and Francis Nivelon dancing in the Lincoln’s Inn Fields pantomime Perseus and Andromeda. It was given an equally satirical review in the Grub-Street Journal for 25 February 1731. The writer pays some attention to Mrs Laguerre’s skirts, complaining that ‘the woman’s petticoats, in that ever memorable dance, which should have been at least some inches above the knee, are here no higher than the calf of the leg’.

Perseus and Andromeda Satire

What should we make of the way in which Mrs Laguerre’s skirts are tucked up at the front? Further research and analysis are needed but, taken together with Mrs Santlow’s depiction as Harlequine and description as Diana, it further suggests that female professional dancers in London were routinely wearing skirts as short as or even shorter than Mlle Camargo’s by at least the 1720s.

I haven’t ventured into the topic of female fashions in the years around 1700, which would also shed light on costume for stage dancing, but it begins to seem that Lancret’s painting of La Camargo records a well-established convention for the length of a ballerina’s skirt rather than a revolution in costuming.

CONSTANT ATTENDANTS ON VENUS

Weaver’s scenario for The Loves of Mars and Venus lists the 3 Graces as ‘Constant Attendants on Venus’. Aglaia was danced by Mrs Bicknell, Thalia by Mrs Younger and Euphrosyne by Mrs Willis. The ‘Hour’, whom I have elsewhere identified as one of the Horae or Seasons and probably Flora, has no performer named, but it may be possible to discover who among the women in the Drury Lane company for the 1716-1717 season might have danced the role.

The three Graces were, collectively, goddesses of beauty, but each also had an individual personality. Aglaia was associated with splendour and glory, Thalia with prosperity and festivity and Euphrosyne with joy and mirth. Weaver must have been well aware of these characteristics since he gave them their own names in his cast list. Did this affect his casting of these roles, or was that based purely on practical considerations?

Aglaia (splendour, glory) was performed by the actress-dancer Margaret Bicknell. Born Margaret Younger in Edinburgh in 1681, she was first recorded at Drury Lane as a dancer in 1702 with her first known billing as an actress in 1703. By 1709, she had evidently become a favourite of Sir Richard Steele. Following her first appearance in the title-role of Wycherley’s The Country Wife on 14 April 1709, he wrote in the Tatler that she made ‘a very pretty Figure’ and had ‘a certain Grace in her rusticity’. In the Spectator, a while later, he wrote of her performances:

‘One who has the Advantage of such an agreeable Girlish Person as Mrs. Bicknell, joined with her Capacity of Imitation, could in proper Gesture and Motion represent all the decent Characters of female Life’.

He was obviously captivated by her powers of mimicry, a useful skill in the context of John Weaver’s ambitions for the art of dancing. As an actress, Mrs Bicknell appeared almost exclusively in comedy, taking supporting as well as leading roles. As a dancer, she had a relatively narrow repertoire which centred on comic duets and did not (so far as we can tell) include any of the important serious dance types like the passacaille or the saraband.

Thalia (prosperity, festivity) was danced by Mrs Bicknell’s sister Elizabeth Younger, born in 1699. She had made her first stage appearances as a child actress, joining the adult company at Drury Lane for the 1712-1713 season. Miss Younger made her first solo appearance as a dancer at that theatre on 3 May 1714, dancing a saraband and a jig. As both an actress and a dancer, she had a wider repertoire than Mrs Bicknell and must have been trained in ‘French Dancing’ (which her sister possibly was not). A few years later, Anthony L’Abbé created a Turkish Dance duet for her and the young virtuoso George Desnoyer which was published in notation in the mid-1720s. It shows that she had a good belle danse technique.

According to Weaver’s scenario, Euphrosyne (joy, mirth) was danced by ‘Mrs. Willis’ but the performer was surely her daughter Miss Willis (as stated in the advertisements for The Loves of Mars and Venus). Mary Willis, probably born in the 1690s, was an actress who occasionally danced. She was a supporting player, too far down the company’s ranks to get individual billing in advertisements regularly, so we have almost no evidence about her dance repertoire. However, it seems unlikely that she had much grounding in ‘French Dancing’.

The most plausible if not the only candidate for the role of the ‘Hour’ (probably Flora) is the singer-dancer-actress Miss Lindar. So far, I haven’t been able to discover exactly who she was and where she was from. She may have begun her career at Drury Lane around 1715, although she was not mentioned in the bills until 14 May 1717 when she gave a new prologue to John Fletcher’s comedy Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. The following season, on 30 October 1717, the advertisements declared that the dancing would include ‘A Chacone, a Minuet and a Jigg by Miss Lindar, being the first time of her Dancing on any Stage’.  As with many other performers of the time, this was simply an advertising ploy and need not be taken as the literal truth. The listing indicates that she had been trained in ‘French Dancing’ and she was later billed as the scholar of Mr Shirley, a London dancing master who may well have known John Weaver. It seems likely that in 1717 Miss Lindar (like Elizabeth Younger a few years earlier) was making the transition from a child to an adult performer. She was possibly in her mid-teens.

Sadly, we have no known portraits of Margaret Bicknell, Elizabeth Younger, Mary Willis or Miss Lindar. Here is an image of three female dancers in a pas de trois from a few years later, suggesting how the three Graces may have appeared in Weaver’s ballet.

Lancret Salle Detail 1

Nicolas Lancret, Portrait of Marie Sallé (1732), detail

Weaver’s three Graces were competent and experienced stage dancers whose skills did not reach anywhere near the heights of Hester Santlow as Venus. As actresses, however, they must surely all have been able to portray characters even without words (as Steele’s description of Margaret Bicknell shows). Miss Lindar, as the Hour, had less experience but the advantage of training in ‘French Dancing’. Perhaps she was less in evidence as a character in the ballet (as Weaver’s scenario hints), but she must have been able to participate fully in the dances by these ‘Attendants on Venus’ in scenes 2 and 4.

I will look at what the dances by the three Graces and the Hour might have been like in a later post.

 

THE SUPPORTING CAST

John Weaver’s ‘Dramatick Entertainment of Dancing’ The Loves of Mars and Venus had a cast of 26 characters, according to the published scenario. In addition to Mars, Venus and Vulcan there was a supporting cast.

‘the 3 Graces, constant Attendants on Venus

‘four Followers of Mars

‘Four Cyclops. … Workmen to Vulcan

‘Three more Cyclops

Gallus, Attendant on Mars

‘One of the Hours attending on Venus

Cupid

Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, Diana, Neptune, Thetis, Gods and Godesses’

Although Gallus accompanies Mars in scenes 1 and 6 and Cupid appears with Venus in scenes 2, 4 and 6, neither seem to have been dancing roles. Gallus is simply a walk-on part, while Cupid is a mime role and must have been played by a child actor. It is likely that there is some doubling of roles, with 3 of the Followers of Mars and (probably) the 3 Graces also dancing the 3 gods and 3 goddesses who descend towards the end of scene 6. The ballet would thus have had 17 supporting dancers and actors in addition to the three principals – it was not a large-scale work but neither was it a negligible one.

I thought I would take a closer look at the supporting roles in The Loves of Mars and Venus, not only the characters but also the dancers who portrayed them. I intended to cover them all in a single blog post, but once I started my research I discovered rather more than I had anticipated. So, I will devote one post each to the ‘Attendants on Venus’, the ‘Followers of Mars’ and the ‘Cyclops’.

 

 

A DRAMATIC ENTERTAINMENT OF DANCING

It has been a little while since my last blog posts. I’ve been busy with a project to celebrate the 300th anniversary of John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, the first modern ballet, originally performed at London’s Drury Lane Theatre on 2 March 1717. The Weaver Dance Company was formed to create an entertainment that would tell the story of Weaver and his ballet, interwoven with excerpts recreated using his scenario published in 1717 – the only evidence to survive. So far, there have been three highly successful performances of The Loves of Mars and Venus; or, Mr. Weaver’s Dramatick Entertainment and there are more to come.

For more information about this project go to The Weaver Dance Company website:

Home

I will be writing more about John Weaver’s ‘Dramatic Entertainment of Dancing’ as well as other facets of dancing from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries in the weeks and months to come.

LOUIS DUPRÉ – MARS

What of Louis Dupré, who was a newcomer to the London stage? How did he portray Mars?

Dupré is still too often identified with ‘le grand’ Dupré of the Paris Opéra. Some years ago, I published an article that disproved this idea on the simple grounds that the two men were performing on opposite side of the English Channel simultaneously.

A dancer named Dupré is first advertised on 22 December 1714 at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and appeared there regularly during the 1714-1715 season. He then moved to Drury Lane, where he danced for the next two seasons, appearing in The Loves of Mars and Venus during that period. Dupré’s skills are often solely identified with the serious style, but from soon after his arrival in London he regularly performed a Harlequin dance. There is even a notated Harlequin choreography dedicated to him, which claims to include some of his characteristic steps and moves. The dancing skills that Dupré was able to bring to the character of Mars are amply demonstrated by the ‘Chacone of Amadis’ created for him by Anthony L’Abbé, probably around the time of The Loves of Mars and Venus. This solo contains a panoply of early 18th-century male virtuosity, from entrechats-six to multiple pirouettes and tours en l’air.

chacone-of-amadis-1

L’Abbé, ‘Chacone of Amadis’, A New Collection of Dances, [c1725], first plate

Dupré returned to Lincoln’s Inn Fields for the 1717-1718 season and continued to dance with John Rich’s company until he died in 1734 or 1735.

There is no known portrait of London’s Louis Dupré. This design reflects contemporary ideas about the appearance of a classical warrior.

mars

A late 17th-century costume design for a ‘Combattant’. 

Although the London Dupré was obviously more than just a serious dancer of the type that Weaver criticised for lack of expression in his Essay towards an History of Dancing, Mars is given fewer explicitly formal gestures than either Vulcan or Venus. Weaver describes the character thus in his scenario for the ballet:

mars-in-words

Weaver, The Loves of Mars and Venus (1717), p. xv

In scene 1, Mars dances an ‘Entry’, probably intended to show his power through a display of virtuosity, and a ‘Pyrrhic’ mimicking hand-to-hand combat with his Followers. In scene 4, he woos Venus in mime but his gestures (as well as those of the other dancers who take part in this scene) ‘are so obvious, relating only to Gallantry, and Love; that they need no Explanation’. Mars is asked to show ‘Gallantry, Respect; Ardent Love; and Adoration’ before Venus, a sequence that creates a crescendo of feeling. In scene 6, after being caught in the net with the goddess, Mars shows ‘Audacity; Vexation; Restlessness; and a kind of unwilling Resignation’. Weaver describes ‘Resignation’ as ‘To hold out both the Hands joyn’d together’ adding that it is ‘a natural Expression of Submission and Resignation’. Were ‘Audacity’ and ‘Vexation’ perhaps modified versions of ‘Threats’ and ‘Impatience’?

The way in which Weaver depicts Mars is reflective of the God of War as a man of action rather than one of thought or feeling. This may have had more to do with Weaver’s concept of his ballet and its characters than with Dupré’s supposed limitations when it came to gesture.

HESTER SANTLOW – VENUS

In the 1716-1717 season, Hester Santlow was Drury Lane’s leading dancer and one of the company’s leading actresses. Who was she and how might she have danced Venus?

Hester Santlow’s date and place of birth and, indeed, her origins remain unknown. Her name seems to be French in derivation (St Loe) and her family were, apparently, not connected with the theatre. What evidence there is suggests that she was born in 1693 or 1694 (see my 2007 book The Incomparable Hester Santlow). She made her stage debut as a dancer in 1706, adding acting to her professional skills in 1709 when she appeared as Miss Prue in Congreve’s comedy Love for Love. Thereafter, she pursued a double career as both a dancer and an actress. Her acting roles show her as a light comedienne – her most popular roles included Harriet in Etherege’s The Man of Mode and Miranda in Mrs Centlivre’s The Busy Body. She was much admired in breeches roles such as Hellena in Aphra Behn’s The Rover. In tragedy, she was best suited to such roles as Ophelia in Hamlet and Cordelia in Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear, both of which she played for many years.

As a dancer, Hester Santlow had no peer on the London stage. She was trained by the Frenchman René Cherrier and had dances created for her Anthony L’Abbé, royal dancing master and a leading choreographer. L’Abbé’s solo ‘Passagalia of Venüs & Adonis’ (to music from the opera by Desmarets), published in notation in the mid-1720s, remains a testimony to her virtuoso technique and her expressive powers.

passagalia-1

L’Abbé, ‘Passagalia of Venüs & Adonis’, A New Collection of Dances, [c1725], first plate

Her impact is well described by the dancing master John Essex in his Preface to The Dancing Master (his translation of Rameau’s Le Maître a danser).

essex-santlow-1

essex-santlow-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hester Santlow married her fellow actor and Drury Lane manager Barton Booth in 1719. Her career ended in 1733, following the death of her husband. During her final season on the London stage, she created the role of Helen of Troy in Weaver’s last ballet The Judgment of Paris.

In Hester Santlow, Weaver had a Venus ‘Goddess of Love and Beauty’ who could both dance and act. Unsurprisingly, she has the greatest range of gestures in the ballet after Weaver himself as Vulcan. He used her dancing skills and her expressive abilities to the full. He also took every chance to show off her beauty. Another contemporary described Mrs Santlow as ‘a beautiful Woman, lovely in her Countenance, delicate in her form’. She is one of the very few dancers of the 18th century for whom we have several portraits.

vanderbank-santlow

John Vanderbank, Hester Santlow, c1720

Venus is first shown ‘in her Dressing-Room at her Toilet’ surrounded by the Graces with Cupid and the Hour (probably Flora). She ‘rises and dances a Passacaile’ first solo and then with the other women. The choreography could have shared features with L’Abbé’s ‘Passagalia’. The ‘Dance … of the Pantomimic kind’ with Vulcan which follows is worth its own post. Weaver entrusted a significant number of gestures to Venus, although she has a far narrower range of ‘Passions’ which have less powerful physical expressions. She is, however, allowed to improvise ‘Coquetry. … seen in affected Airs, given herself throughout the whole Dance’. In scene 4, with Mars, Mrs Santlow’s gestures are again improvisatory – ‘reciprocal Love’ and ‘wishing Looks’. Were these expressions stock-in-trade for Mrs Santlow the actress, or were they new to her?

In the final scene, Venus has to express ‘Shame’, ‘Confusion’ and ‘Grief’. Weaver provides gestures for the first and last of these, leaving her to find her own way of showing ‘Confusion’. How and with whom did Venus dance in the closing ‘Grand Dance’? Were there echoes of her ‘Pantomimic’ dance with Vulcan in scene 2 and of her gestures and dancing with Mars in scene 4? If there were, with her breadth of dance repertoire and her acting skills, Hester Santlow could surely have encompassed them all.

JOHN WEAVER – VULCAN

Who was John Weaver? How did he create the role of Vulcan in his ballet The Loves of Mars and Venus?

John Weaver was born in 1673 in Shrewsbury, the son of a dancing master. By the mid-1690s, he was himself a dancing master in the same town, but by the end of that decade he was probably in London working in the theatre as a professional dancer. His earliest known billing is at the Drury Lane Theatre on 6 July 1700, when he appeared in ‘a new Entry’ with two other dancers. Few advertisements for theatrical performances survive from this period, so it is very difficult to chart individual performers’ careers, but the bill suggests that Weaver was an established member of the Drury Lane company. The handful of advertisements that mention Weaver in the first years of the 18th century indicate that his forte was comic dancing, although as a dancing master he would surely have had a thorough knowledge of the serious or ‘French’ style and technique of dancing for both the ballroom and the stage. He returned to Shrewsbury to teach dancing in late 1707 or early 1708.

Weaver returned to Drury Lane for the 1716-1717 season to create and dance in The Loves of Mars and Venus. We do not know whether he danced in his own early pantomimes, The Shipwreck and Harlequin Turn’d Judge, but his later repertoire of entr’acte dances included English Clown, Lads and Lasses, Irish Trot and Sailor and His Lass. None suggest the sophisticated refinements of the serious style of dancing. Weaver went on dancing at Drury Lane until the end of the 1728-1729 season, when he was 55 years old. His last visit to London came in 1733, when he created his final work for the stage The Judgment of Paris, after which he returned to Shrewsbury and his dancing school for good.

There is no known portrait of John Weaver.

In the scenario for The Loves of Mars and Venus, Weaver provides a pen-portrait of Vulcan drawn from classical authors.

vulcan-in-words

John Weaver, The Loves of Mars and Venus (1717), p. xv

The description suggests that he portrayed Vulcan as lame in his ballet, following contemporary depictions of the god.

vulcan

A late 17th-century depiction of a stage Vulcan.

Weaver continues to draw Vulcan’s character throughout The Loves of Mars and Venus. The god first enters part way through scene 2 to a ‘wild rough air’. When he joins with Venus in the ‘Dance being altogether of the Pantomimic kind’, Vulcan’s passions are powerful – jealousy, anger, anguish are among them – and strongly expressed. Anger has ‘The left Hand struck suddenly with the right; and sometimes against the Breast’. His accustomed habitat is ‘Vulcan’s Shop, to which scene 3 opens showing the Cyclops as they work to ‘a rough Consort of Musick … adapted to the particular Sounds’ hammering and filing arms and armour for the gods. This provides the soundscape for the Entry danced by Vulcan and his workmen.

A different side of Vulcan appears when the shop is shown again, with the god ‘leaning in a thoughtful Posture on his Anvil’. Weaver is not explicit about his mood when he dances alone as the Cyclops complete the net that will enable his revenge on his wife and her lover. Did he maintain Vulcan’s lameness as he danced? Did he express pleasure, as Weaver’s gesture ‘Pleas’d at some Contrivance’ indicates, or something darker?

Vulcan must have dominated the final scene of The Loves of Mars and Venus. His control of the action reaches its highest point in the ‘insulting Performance’ he and the Cyclops give before the imprisoned Mars and Venus. Even after the arrival of the other gods, Vulcan remains the most active figure on stage as Weaver performs ‘Triumphing’, described as ‘To shake the Hand open, rais’d above our Head, is an exulting expression of Triumph’. How did Weaver show Vulcan’s responses as Neptune tries to persuade Vulcan ‘at length’ to forgive Mars and Venus? Vulcan must have taken part in the ‘grand Dance’ which concludes the ballet. Was this dance in the serious style or was it closer to a country dance in its steps and figures?

Vulcan’s dances post questions of genre, style and technique which are not easy to answer. All of them must have been ‘comic’ but what did this mean in practice? I will try to return to the subject of comic dancing in a later post.