Tag Archives: Baroque Dance

A Year of Dance: 1698

On 4 January 1698, Whitehall Palace was destroyed by fire. Few of the buildings were left standing, apart from Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House (the only part of the palace to survive today). The disaster was less of a blow than it might have been, for most of the furnishings and movable objects were saved. The sprawling palace was not much loved by King William III, who preferred the more salubrious surroundings of Kensington Palace or Hampton Court. Plans to rebuild Whitehall Palace over the next few years came to nothing.

The visit of the Russian Czar, Peter the Great, between 11 January and 21 April, brought a different sort of chaos as the monarch was oblivious to the niceties of English court life. Abroad, Georg Ludwig succeeded his father as Elector of Hanover on 23 January 1698. His right of succession to the British throne was yet to be enshrined in law.

London’s theatres came under attack with the publication, in March 1698, of Jeremy Collier’s A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. The effects of his diatribe were insidious and long-lasting. However, dance was (it seems) beyond Collier’s reach. The newspapers announced the arrival of Anthony L’Abbé who was ‘lately come over and Dances at the Play-house’. L’Abbé had swapped the Paris Opéra for London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre. He also danced before William III at Kensington Palace on 13 May 1698. His appearances marked the beginning of a long association with both the court and the theatre in England. November 1698 saw the first performance of John Dennis’s Rinaldo and Armida with music by John Eccles. Given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the piece was not a success although Eccles’s music was appreciated.

In 1698, Louis XIV turned sixty. He had been King of France for more than fifty-five years. This was the year that he signed the Treaty of the Hague (also called the First Partition Treaty) with William III in a vain attempt to settle the succession to the Spanish throne following the long-expected death of King Carlos II. Louis’s own son, the Grand Dauphin, had a claim through his mother who had been a Spanish Infanta. Louis set this aside, for the moment.

There was little of note at the Paris Opéra in 1698. Desmarets’s ballet Les Fêtes galantes, despite its title, bore no relation to Campra’s L’Europe galante, the great success of the previous year. Its complicated plot about the Queen of Naples and three princes all in love with her probably contributed to its failure.


The Menuet à Quatre: Figures

In my last post about the four French notated menuets à quatre, I promised to look at the figures. How do these differ between the choreographies? Where are they the same? How do they relate to the ballroom menuet à deux? These are just some of the questions to be asked.

An obvious first question is – how do each of these minuets for four begin? Presumably they all open with a révérence, although none of the notations show this. Perhaps the révérence took the same form as in the minuet for a couple, who honour the presence and then each other. In the case of the menuet à quatre, the first honour would therefore be to the facing couple. Or were the honours reversed, as they are in the later quadrille, so the first révérence is to your own partner and the second to your opposite? In any case, all four dances begin with the two couples facing each other.

Only two of the dances begin in the same way. The very first plates of the 1706 Menuet à Quatre and the 1751 Menuet aquatre figuret show the dancers performing two pas de menuet forwards and two backwards. In his Menuet à Quatre of c1713, Pecour has his couples moving sideways to the left, moving forwards to cross (right shoulders) on a diagonal and curling round to face one another again. His figure is an obvious allusion to the ‘Z’ figure of the ballroom minuet. Although the ‘Z’ figure is also referenced in the other choreographies, Pecour’s version in this dance is the most straightforward. Dezais begins La Carignan with a contredanse figure, in which each dancer casts out and then changes places with their partner.

How do these dances end? In both his Menuet à Quatre of c1713 and his Menuet aquatre figuret, Pecour has his dancers moving forwards and then backwards to end in a final révérence. In the earlier dance, they balancé forwards and back, do two pas de menuet backwards and their final coupé soutenue (which is on opposite feet) brings them together. His later choreography is simpler. The dancers do two pas de menuet forwards, one backwards and also move towards one another on the final coupé soutenue. The 1706 Menuet à Quatre has the dancers, in couples, taking inside hands and crossing (left shoulders) on a diagonal before sweeping around to return to place for the final révérence. The figure alludes to the minuet’s ‘Z’ figure but seems closer to a contredanse figure. Dezais draws on the final figure of the ballroom minuet, with his couples each taking both hands to end La Carignan, although they do so for only one pas de menuet before letting go with their outside hands for one pas de menuet forwards and one backwards before the final step into the révérence.

Taking right hands, taking left hands and taking both hands all feature in these dances for four, but transmuted into their contredanse counterparts. The 1706 Menuet à Quatre has a right hand and a left hand moulinet as well as a rond with all the dancers holding hands. Pecour’s c1713 Menuet à Quatre adds variations when taking right and left hands, for the ladies have to wait for the opposite man to cross the set to take right hands  and the men then have to wait for their partners to do the same before taking left hands. The plate for the rond shows the dancers only taking inside hands with their opposite, although each couple ends in their original place. Apart from briefly taking both hands in the final figure, Dezais’s dancers do only a right hand moulinet. He dispenses entirely with any equivalent of taking left hands.

In his Menuet aquatre figuret, Pecour runs through all the various permutations on taking hands, but this dance is a cotillon so perhaps they should be seen as changes and not as minuet figures at all. Working in couples, his dancers take right hands then left hands. After a repeat of the figure, they take both hands to move first clockwise and then anti-clockwise. The notation then has another circling figure, with a notation for taking hands that I have not seen before and cannot readily interpret.

Pecour Minuet aquatre figuret 34 detail

Pecour, Menuet aquatre figuret (notated 1751), plate 34 (detail).

Are the couples holding hands behind their backs or could this be an allemande hold? The notation for the latter is quite different in Pecour’s L’Allemande of 1702, the dance in which the hold was first recorded.

Pecour Allemande 2

Pecour, L’Allemande (1702), plate 2

Pecour then brings the four dancers together for a right hand and left hand moulinet. They all hold hands in a circle to dance clockwise and then anti-clockwise. As a final flourish, he makes them all face outwards for a rond clockwise and then anti-clockwise. This last change must have needed a bit of practice.

None of the choreographers of these minuets for four entirely loses sight of the ballroom minuet for a couple, but all have more than half an eye on contredanse figures. On the evidence of these notations, the menuet à quatre retained the challenge of the pas de menuet, but put it in a context that relinquished the ordeal of scrutiny by the assembled company in favour of the relaxed pleasure of dancing with them.

The Rise and Fall of the Grand Dance on the London Stage

A couple of months ago, I took a first look at the Grand Ballet, Grand Dance and Serious Dance, wondering what these generic titles might mean when came to the actual dancing. Before I try to investigate them in more detail, I thought it would be interesting to see if there was a changing pattern to their appearance in entr’acte entertainments in London’s theatres during the first few decades of the 18th century.

Over the first 20 years, the Grand Dance and the Serious Dance were billed infrequently. The Serious Dance was usually a duet and so not a ‘Grand’ dance at all. The same is true for the 1720s, although from the 1726-1727 season the Grand Ballet was also billed very occasionally. During the early 1730s, the Grand Dance and Grand Ballet rarely appeared in advertisements, but from 1734-1735 this changed. There was a steady increase in billings, culminating in 1739-1740 with over 70 mentions of a Grand Ballet, Grand Dance or group Serious Dance among the entr’acte dances given at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Thereafter there was a steady decline, although some seasons (1742-1743 and 1744-1745) went against the trend. From the late 1740s until the 1759-1760 season very few ‘Grand’ or ‘Serious’ dances were mentioned in the bills.

I have been focussing my research on the period up to 1760, so I have not really explored the last few decades of the 18th century. However, it is worth noting that according to the Index to the London Stage the Grand Ballet more or less disappears during the 1760s but returns in the 1770s and 1780s before disappearing again. The Grand Dance is advertised from time to time during the 1760s, is billed more often in the 1770s and becomes a feature in the 1780s and 1790s. The Serious Dance (in what forms I don’t know) continues into the early 1770s before disappearing altogether. I am tempted to suggest that these changes were driven by developments in stage dancing elsewhere, particularly in Paris, where ballets were being given independently of opera and drama. Such dance works were brought to London by the many continental dancers and choreographers hired, not least by the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket (London’s opera house). Further research is certainly needed before we can be sure what was happening.

For the earlier period, the drivers of the increase in ‘Grand’ dances seem to have been in part the visiting foreign dancers, many of whom were extremely popular with audiences. The commercial rivalry between the two principal theatres, which waxed and waned, also affected their dance repertoire. In a later post, I will take a look at the seasons around 1740 to see if these shed any light on the phenomenon of the Grand Dance.


A Year of Dance: 1667

In England, the Anglo-Dutch War ended with the Treaty of Breda on 21 July 1667, but not before the Dutch had sailed up the Medway and raided Chatham Dockyard. Lady Castlemaine gave birth to a daughter, named Barbara Fitzroy but not acknowledged by the King. She was probably the child of John Churchill, later to become Duke of Marlborough. Barbara Villiers’s reign as Charles II’ s principal mistress was drawing to a close.

In France, Louise de la Vallière had the last of her children by Louis XIV. Their son Louis de Bourbon was born on 2 October 1667 (N.S.). The daughter she had borne the King in 1666, Marie Anne de Bourbon, had been legitimised in May. The King’s new love, Françoise-Athénaïs de Montespan, became his principal mistress during the year. The Queen also gave birth, on 2 January 1667 (N.S.), to a daughter named Marie-Thérèse after her mother and known as Madame Royale. She would live only until 1672.

In London, theatrical life picked up quickly once the theatres had reopened. The pattern remained the same, with the King’s Company under Killigrew in Bridges Street, off Drury Lane, and the Duke’s Company led by Sir William Davenant in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Samuel Pepys attended plays on several occasions and recorded quite a bit of dancing during the truncated 1666-1667 season and the early months of 1667-1668. He was again much taken with ‘Little Mis Davis’ who danced a jig in boy’s clothes at the end of John Caryll’s The English Princess, given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 7 March 1667. He confided to his diary ‘the truth is, there is no comparison between Nell’s dancing the other day at the King’s house in boy’s clothes and this, this being infinitely beyond the other’. Pepys had seen Moll Davis and remarked on her dancing back in 1662 and 1663. The performance by Nell Gwyn, in which he disparaged her dancing, was presumably as Florimell in Dryden’s Secret Love; or, The Maiden Queen which he saw at Bridges Street on 2 March. Pepys was overwhelmed by her acting ‘so great a performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girle, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the motions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her’. Pepys probably rather more than ‘admired’ both Nell Gwyn and Moll Davis.

Accompanied by his wife, Pepys saw Moll Davis again ‘dancing in shepherd’s clothes’ in James Shirley’s Love Tricks; or, The School of Compliments at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 25 August 1667, which ‘did please us mightily’. Was Moll playing the leading role of Selina, who disguises herself as a shepherd? Pepys also saw Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in the version by Sir William Davenant, at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 19 April 1667, ‘which, though I have seen it often, yet is it one of the best plays for a stage, and variety of dancing and musique, that ever I saw’. Macbeth, with its singing and dancing witches, would have a long stage life. Pepys also noted the ‘very fine dance for variety of figures, but a little too long’ in Boyle’s The Black Prince, which he saw at Bridges Street on 19 October 1667. Towards the end of September, he had seen Fletcher and Massinger’s The Sea Voyage, also at Bridges Street, finding it memorable only for ‘a most admirable dance at the end, of the ladies, in a military manner’. Dancing had become a fixture of performances on the London stage.

Paradoxically, there was very little in the way of dance performances at the French court this year. The only ballet de cour was the Ballet des Muses, which had begun its run of performances in December 1666 and was last given on 19 February 1667 (N.S.).


The Grand Ballet, Grand Dance and Serious Dance on the London Stage

During many, if not most, seasons between the mid-1710s and late 1750s the bills for performances at Drury Lane and Covent Garden included an entr’acte Grand Ballet, Grand Dance or Serious Dance. Usually no details of these dances were volunteered, other than the names of the principal performer (or performers) with the enigmatic addition ‘& others’. Why were these dances so named? What did their differing titles mean? How many dancers were involved in these choreographies? Like so much about dancing on the London stage in the 18th century these are difficult questions to answer satisfactorily.

The term Grand Dance already had a long history in London’s theatres by the time it appeared in the bill for a concert held at Drury Lane on 4 January 1704. James Shirley’s Cupid and Death of 1653 includes a Grand Dance, as do Purcell’s semi-operas King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692). Both of Purcell’s grand dances are chaconnes. The libretto for The Fairy Queen specifies a ‘Grand Dance … of Twenty four Persons’. The suggestion is that a Grand Dance has both an extended musical form and a large number of performers. The Drury Lane concert seems to have been a selection of music, mainly by Henry Purcell, culminating in ‘The Sacrifice’ from King Arthur and the Grand Dance. It seems likely, therefore, that the latter was one of Purcell’s chaconnes, although only six dancers were named in the advertisement. Was it the music, rather than the number of dancers, that made a dance a Grand Dance?

Serious dancing was first advertised as such early in the 18th century. It was sometimes billed together with, and in contrast to, comic dancing. More often than not, serious dances seem to have been duets. Only during the 1716-1717 season was there a billing for a ‘new serious dance, compos’d by Moreau’ for as many as eight dancers – four men and four women (in fact, three men and three women together with the two ‘French children’ Francis and Marie Sallé). Thereafter serious dances with a group of dancers became more common in advertisements.

The title Grand Ballet does not appear in advertisements before the mid-1720s, with the ‘Grand Ballet by ten Persons of different Characters’ performed at Michael Poitier’s benefit at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21 April 1727. If he did not introduce the term ‘Ballet’ to the entr’acte dance repertoire, Poitier seems to have a hand in popularising it. The 1727 Grand Ballet may well have been his choreography and the ‘Characters’ were perhaps drawn from the commedia dell’arte.

During the 1730s, the terms Grand Ballet, Grand Dance and Serious Dance began to be used together, and seemingly sometimes interchangeably, in advertisements. These almost never provide clues as to the music for the dances and rarely give more than the names of one or two of the principal dancers (often the company’s leading dancers). With the near ubiquitous use of ‘&c.’ or ‘& others’ for the remaining performers, we have few clues as to the usual number of dancers required for a Grand Dance or a Grand Ballet. In later posts, I am going to look more closely at the various billings for these three types of entr’acte dance to see if it is possible to glean further information about them.

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.


A Year of Dance: 1665

In 1665 the most significant event by far for England was the great plague of London, which took hold during the summer months and lasted until early 1666. The court moved to Salisbury in July 1665 and only returned to London the following February. The country was in the midst of the second Anglo-Dutch War, which began in March. (The first Anglo-Dutch War had been as long ago as 1652-1654, under the Commonwealth). An equally important event was the birth of a second daughter to the Duke and Duchess of York – Princess Anne would become Queen in 1702. Charles II’s third illegitimate son George Fitzroy, by Barbara Villiers Countess of Castlemaine, was born on 25 December 1665. He would later become Duke of Northumberland.

The diarist John Evelyn recorded a masque at court on 2 February. Samuel Pepys provided some additional details in his diary entry for the following day:

‘Then Mrs Pickering … did, at my Lady’s command, tell me the manner of the masquerade before the King and court the other day. Where six women (my Lady Castelmayne and Duchess of Monmouth being two of them) and six men (the Duke of Monmouth and Lord Arran and Monsieur Blancfort being three of them) in vizards, but most rich and antique dresses, did dance admirably, and most gloriously.’

There are no mentions of dancing in the theatres up to their closure, because of the plague, on 5 June 1665. They did not reopen until the autumn of 1666.

In France, Louis XIV’s mistress gave birth to two sons during 1665, one on 7 January (N.S.) and the other on 27 December (N.S.). Both babies died during 1666. The ballet de cour for 1665 was the Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus, in which the King’s sister-in-law Madame appeared as the goddess in the first Entrée with her husband as the Morning Star. She made her second appearance in the final Entrée as Roxane, with Louis XIV as Alexander the Great. The professional ballerina Mlle de Verpré appeared in the second Entrée of Part 2 as Daphne with a noble dancer, the Marquis de Beringuen, as Apollo. Another comédie-ballet by Molière and Lully, L’Amour Medecin, was given at Versailles on 15 September (N.S.) as an entertainment for a hunting party. It was later performed before the public at the Palais Royal in Paris.