Tag Archives: Baroque Dance

THE MILLER’S DANCE

In my post exploring who may have performed the Cyclops in John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, I promised to take a closer look at the Miller’s Dance occasionally given among the entr’acte entertainments in London’s theatres. Apart from trying to shed more light on the performances within Weaver’s dance drama, I’ll investigate whether it is possible to get some idea of the dancing within those pieces for which we know little other than the title and names of the performers.

Dances with the word ‘Miller’ in the title were given on the London stage from at least the first decade of the 18th century into the 1760s. For reasons as yet unclear (but probably to do with individual performers), they seem to have disappeared from the repertoire between the mid-1710s and early 1720s and for most of the 1730s. In this post, I will concentrate on the earliest period – from around 1703-1704 to 1715-1716. These are the dances in which some of the ‘Comedians’ who may have danced the Cyclops appeared.

The earliest Miller’s Dance recorded in advertisements is a solo given by William Pinkethman at Drury Lane on 5 June 1704, which he repeated on 10 August. There is nothing to indicate the music or the nature of the dance. A few seasons later, on 26 December 1707 also at Drury Lane, the advertisement specified that the dancing would include ‘an old English Dance call’d, Miller’s Dance’. This might suggest the use of a familiar tune and could, perhaps, link the dance to Miller’s Jig first published in the 7th edition of John Playford’s The Dancing Master in 1686. This tune appeared in every subsequent edition up to the 18th around 1728, so it must have been well known. Only three dancers were billed in the entr’actes that evening, so it seems the Miller’s Dance couldn’t have been a country dance. It is possible that Pinkethman reprised his solo, since he gave an ‘Equi-vocal Epilogue after the old English manner’ for the main play that same evening.

During the 1709-1710 season there were, ostensibly, three different versions of the Miller’s Dance at Drury Lane. On 25 March 1710, Leigh and Prince performed a Miller’s Dance which they repeated at least once, on 23 May. On 12 April, Leigh and Birkhead danced Miller and his Wife. Was the Miller’s Dance given on 25 April by unnamed performers performed by Leigh and Prince or Leigh and Birkhead? The Miller and his Wife was given at the Greenwich theatre in 1710-1711 and 1711-1712, when the company included Leigh. This dance may well have been the same as the one he performed with Birkhead.

The third dance was the Whimsical Dance between a Miller, his Wife, and a Town Miss, first given at Pinkethman’s Greenwich theatre on 5 August 1710 and repeated at five more performances before the end of the summer season there. The only performer billed for this trio was Leigh as the Miller’s Wife. In 1714-1715 and again in 1715-1716 a Miller’s Dance was given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields by James Spiller, his wife Elizabeth and Leigh. Could this have been the Whimsical Dance of a few years earlier? Elizabeth Spiller performed with the Greenwich company in 1709-1710 and her husband may well have done so too. The title Whimsical Dance between a Miller, his Wife, and a Town Miss suggests some characterisation and comic action, including the low comedy associated with a cross-dressed Miller’s Wife. Spiller was adept at playing old men (in 1710 he was, apparently, only 18) and he presumably danced the Miller. Hogarth’s benefit ticket shows him some 10 years later.

Spiller Benefit Hogarth

William Hogarth. Benefit ticket for James Spiller [London, 1720] © British Museum

Despite these clues, there is no way of knowing what any of these Miller’s Dances were like. No music survives for any of them. The dancing would surely have been the antithesis of la belle danse, although it is unlikely to have had its own vocabulary of steps.

How did audiences recognise that it was a ‘Miller’s Dance’? Was the advertisement of the title in the evening’s bill enough? Was the dance familiar from earlier (but unrecorded) performances? Were there very obvious mimed actions? Did the music provide a strong clue? The dance is likely to have been performed against whatever scenery was in place for that evening’s play, which might even have conflicted with the piece on offer. There are many things we simply don’t know about entr’acte dancing on the London stage in the 18th century.

A Year of Dance: 1661

I have been writing a great deal around the 300th anniversary of John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus – the first modern ballet. Weaver was, of course, indebted to the dancing of earlier periods and I would like to return to one of my other strands within Dance in History. Here is a new ‘Year of Dance’ and there will be more to follow soon – I hope!

After the temporary arrangements following the Restoration of Charles II, theatrical life in London began to settle into a pattern. At the beginning of the year, Thomas Killigrew and the King’s Company were already playing in a converted tennis court in Vere Street. By June 1661, William Davenant and the Duke’s Company had opened their theatre in a converted tennis court in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The two companies established a monopoly which would endure over very many years and through many changes of companies and theatres.

The repertoire for the 1661-1662 season (theatrical seasons ran from September to the following June or July, although this post is concerned only with the calendar year) included a play entitled The Dancing Master, possibly played in December by the King’s Company. There is otherwise no reference to dancing in the scant evidence that survives for the year’s stage offerings. In the autumn, a visiting troupe of players from France performed some of the ‘machine plays’ popular in Paris. They were apparently able to reproduce many of the scenic marvels associated with the genre at the Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane. They also played at court.

In England, the year had begun with an act of political revenge, when Oliver Cromwell’s body was exhumed and posthumously executed on 30 January, the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I. A happier event was the coronation of Charles II at Westminster Abbey on 23 April. The available sources are silent as to any dancing that might have formed part of the celebrations.

In France, Cardinal Mazarin died in March and Louis XIV (at the age of twenty-two) decided to rule in person without a chief minister. That same month, Charles II’s sister Henriette married Louis XIV’s brother Philippe. She became duchesse d’Orléans and was henceforth known by the courtesy title of Madame. The first child of Louis and his Queen Marie-Thérèse, a dauphin named Louis for his father, was born in November.

There was a great deal of dancing at the French court. In February, the Ballet Royal de l’Impatience was given at the Louvre. In July, the Ballet des Saisons was performed at Fontainebleau. The French king danced in both. The first of Molière’s comédie-ballets, Les Fâcheux, was performed in August – first at Vaux-le-Vicomte (the château of Louis’s superintendent of finances Fouquet) and then at Fontainebleau. Fouquet’s entertainments outshone those of the King. He was quickly arrested and imprisoned. So far as dance history is concerned, the most important event of 1661 was the creation of the Académie Royale de Danse in March, which began the never-ending process of codifying and setting standards for the art.

 

Serious Dancing

In his An Essay towards an History of Dancing (1712), John Weaver described three distinct genres of stage dancing ‒ serious, grotesque and scenical. He drew on all three in The Loves of Mars and Venus, beginning with serious dancing in the first two scenes of the ballet, which introduce in turn Mars and Venus. I have quoted this passage from Weaver’s Essay before, in a piece about stage dancing posted more than two years ago, but it is worth repeating:

Serious Dancing, differs from the Common-Dancing usually taught in Schools, as History Painting differs from Limning. For as the Common-Dancing has a peculiar Softness, which would hardly be perceiveable on the Stage; so Stage-Dancing would have a rough and ridiculous Air in a Room, when on the Stage it would appear soft, tender and delightful.’

Weaver was drawing attention to the greater power and amplitude in the performance of dancing on stage. His list of ‘some Steps peculiarly adapted to this sort of Dancing’ reveals its innate tendency to virtuosity, for he mentions ‘Capers, and Cross-Capers of all kinds; Pirouttes [i.e. pirouettes], Batteries, and indeed almost all Steps from the Ground’. These are among the more difficult steps recorded in Feuillet’s Choregraphie and Weaver had himself recorded them in notation for his translation of that work.

Is he contradicting himself when, in his next paragraph, he declares that serious dancing is ‘the easiest attain’d’ of the genres, even if he adds that ‘a Man must excel in it to be able to please’?

Despite his dismissal of serious dancing, at least so far as his ambitions for dance drama are concerned, Weaver provides further insights into its demands.

‘There are two Movements in this Kind of Dancing; the Brisk, and the Grave; the Brisk requires Vigour, Lightness, Agility, Quicksprings, with a Steadiness, and Command of the Body; the Grave (which is the most difficult) Softness, easie Bendings and Risings, and Address; and both must have Air and Firmness, with a graceful and regulated Motion of all Parts; but the most Artful Qualification is a nice Address in the Management of those Motions, that none of the Gestures and Dispositions of the Body may be disagreeable to the Spectators.’

He is, of course, talking about the rigours of classical dancing, the genre that strives for formal technical perfection.

Weaver is forced to admit that ‘the French excel in this kind of Dancing’ and he singles out Guillaume-Louis Pecour, ballet master at the Paris Opéra, as an exemplar in the genre. It is interesting that Weaver lauds Pecour for his mastery of ‘the Chacoone, or Passacaille, which is of the grave Movement’. In London, Anthony L’Abbé created two highly virtuosic solos: the ‘Chacone of Amadis’, to music from Lully’s 1684 opera Amadis, for Louis Dupré – Weaver’s Mars; and the ‘Passagalia of Venüs & Adonis’, to music from Desmarets 1697 opera Venüs & Adonis, for Hester Santlow – Weaver’s Venus. Both choreographies post-date Weaver’s Essay and perhaps date to shortly before The Loves of Mars and Venus. They reflect the tradition of French serious dancing to which Weaver’s two principal dancers, and indeed Weaver himself (as a teacher at least), belonged.

CYCLOPS ‘BY THE COMEDIANS’

Neither Weaver’s scenario nor the advertisements for the first performances of The Loves of Mars and Venus tell us who played the Cyclops, Vulcan’s Workmen. It was only on 12 March and the fourth performance of the ballet that the bills announced ‘4 Cyclops by the Comedians’ (Weaver’s scenario calls for seven Cyclops in all). Weaver does not give the Cyclops individual names, although these were used elsewhere including the masque by Motteux that was his main source.

The billing ‘the Comedians’ suggests that audiences would have known which players would take the roles. The Drury Lane company had 25 actors for the 1716-1717 season, including a number who specialised in comedy – several of whom occasionally danced. The cast for Weaver’s ‘Entertainment of Dancing in Grotesque Characters’ The Shipwreck; or, Perseus and Andromeda included ‘Four Sailors and Wives by the Comedians’. This tells us that there were four (and perhaps, if the ‘Wives’ were played by men, eight) players who might have appeared as Cyclops in Weaver’s ballet. The billing also suggests that the Comedians had been popular enough in The Loves of Mars and Venus for Weaver to be happy to use the idea in a fresh context. Who could these ‘Comedians’ have been?

Most obvious among them is William Pinkethman, who was probably the leading low comedian at Drury Lane during this period. Primarily an actor, Pinkethman sometimes sang and danced. He regularly ran a booth at London’s summer fairs and also managed a theatre during the summer months, first at Greenwich and then at Richmond. His repertoire included Harlequin in Aphra Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon, a role he took early in the 18th century. This indicates that he had physical skills that were akin to dancing. He often appeared with the comic actor William Bullock (who was a member of John Rich’s troupe at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1716-1717). Their respective talents were described in 1709 in an issue of the Tatler.

‘Mr. William Bullock and Mr. William Penkethman are of the same age, profession, and sex. They both distinguish themselves in a very particular manner … Mr. Bullock has the more agreeable sqwal, and Mr. Penkethman the more graceful shrug. Penkethman devours a cold chicken with great applause. Bullock’s talent lies chiefly in asparagus. Penkethman is very dexterous at conveying himself under a table. Bullock is no less active at jumping over a stick.’

The description gives us an idea of the stock in trade of the London stage’s low comedians and suggests something of the physical comedy Pinkethman might have brought to the role of a Cyclops. He is one of the few actors of the period for whom we have a portrait.

Pinkethman 1709

William Pinkethman, mezzotint by John Smith after a portrait by Johann Rudolf Schmutz, 1709. © British Museum

Another comedian at Drury Lane in 1716-1717 was Henry Norris, who often worked with Pinkethman at the fairs and in the latter’s summer theatres. Norris had begun his career by the mid-1690s, perhaps in Dublin. He had arrived in London for the 1699-1700 season, when he played at Drury Lane. Like Pinkethman, he was a comic actor who occasionally sang and danced and quite often managed a booth at the fairs. He, too, was noted for his expressive skills, as a discussion of his appearance in the afterpiece The Country Wake in the Tatler in 1712 reveals:

‘I am confident, were there a scene written wherein Penkethman should break his leg by wrestling with Bullock, and Dicky [i.e. Henry Norris] come in to set it, without one word said but what should be according to the exact rules of surgery in making this extension, and binding up the leg, the whole house should be in a roar of applause at the dissembled anguish of the patient, the help given by him who threw him down, and the handy address and arch looks of the surgeon.’

Such skills and such interplay must surely have been put to good use in the scenes involving the Cyclops.

Also at Drury Lane at this period was the comedian Francis Leigh, who had begun his career in the early 1700s. He later worked with Pinkethman at Greenwich as well as running a fair booth with Norris during the summer. Leigh occasionally danced, although the only piece in which he was explicitly billed was a Miller’s Dance (in which he apparently sometimes appeared as the Miller’s Wife – I will take a closer look at the various versions of this entr’acte dance in due course). Sadly, there is no known portrait of Leigh and no description of him in performance. However, his close association with both Pinkethman and Norris suggests compatible skills.

The fourth comedian at Drury Lane who may have played one of the Cyclops was Josias Miller, who had begun his career around 1704. Like the others I have mentioned, he was a comic actor who occasionally sang and danced (he later took non-speaking roles in some of Drury Lane’s most successful pantomimes). There are a couple of depictions of Miller as different characters, but no description of him in performance.

Miller Josias

Josias Miller, as Teague in Sir Robert Howard’s The Committee. Mezzotint by Andrew Miller after a painting by Charles Stoppelaer, 1739. © British Museum

More research may uncover further information about the performance styles of these four comedians, perhaps shedding light on how they may have played the Cyclops in The Loves of Mars and Venus. Dancing skills were obviously not the point of their appearances in the ballet. They were surely there to make the audience laugh at their antics as they mimed their way through their actions as blacksmiths and responded to the orders of their master, Vulcan.

Cyclops Psyche 1671

Henry Gissey, Design for a Cyclops in the tragédie-ballet Psyché , 1671

WERE THERE LIFTS IN EARLY 18TH-CENTURY BALLET?

Is there any evidence that male dancers lifted their partners in stage duets in the early 18th century? The short answer is very little. I know of only one report that says, incontrovertibly, that it happened. The Grub Street Journal for 8 January 1736 included a letter in which the writer complained about a duet by Michael Poitier and Catherine Roland.

‘Every one who has seen her dance knows, that at the end of the dance she is lifted by Poitier, that she may cut the higher, and represent to the whole house as immodest a sight as the most abandoned women in Drury-lane can shew. Her whole behaviour is of a stamp with this; for during the whole dance, her only endeavour is to shew above her knees as often as she can.’

The dance may well have been within the ‘Grand New Ballet Le Badinage de Provence’ first given at Drury Lane on 22 October 1735 and repeated numerous times that season. This letter, by ‘Cato’, needs careful analysis to disentangle the various issues the writer is addressing. However, there is no doubt that Poitier lifted Mlle Roland.

The surviving theatre dance duets, many for a man and a woman (although there are quite a few for two men as well as two women), definitely do not include any lifts. The two dancers perform alongside one another and rarely even touch hands. The lack of any references to, or notation for, lifts (assuming that Beauchamp-Feuillet notation could indeed record such moves) suggests that they did not form part of the vocabulary of serious dance.

I did wonder whether the nature of the costumes worn at the time might clinch any argument against the use of lifts, but I am not sure. I believe that women’s bodices were less rigidly boned and their skirts shorter than those acceptable in polite society long before La Camargo is said to have shortened her skirts (for skirt lengths, see my post ‘Long Skirts or Short?’ The various versions of Lancret’s portrait of Mlle Camargo also suggest light boning in her bodice). So far as the feasibility of lifts in such attire is concerned, I am inclined to draw a parallel between dancers’ stage costumes in the early 1700s and those in modern ballroom dancing. For the latter, men wear formal suits with jackets that fit tightly and have tails, while the women have long full skirts to their dresses (as well as heeled shoes). As everyone who watches Strictly Come Dancing knows, there are lifts aplenty in ballroom dancing!

Returning to the 18th century, the problem is that we have a very tiny snapshot of what was actually danced on stage. There is no information from the professionals themselves (beyond the relatively few theatrical choreographies created by a handful of leading ballet masters). Pierre Rameau’s promised treatise on theatrical dancing does not survive, if it was ever written and published – although I doubt that it would have mentioned lifts, whether or not they existed, as he probably would have meant it for members of the audience rather than professional dancers.

The passage quoted above seems to indicate that lifts were not a normal part of the serious style. It is unlikely that modern ballet’s supported adagio existed, if only because the technique of early 18th-century ballet has only the beginnings of the movements that would develop into the developés and grands ronds de jambe that are integral to ballet’s adage. So, there is little likelihood that stage duets included lifts associated with these slower movements. The report of Poitier and Mlle Roland apparently describes a lift to allow her to perform more brilliant batterie, so were lifts used elsewhere for this purpose? They certainly exist in modern ballet, although (so far as I know) their history for this purpose is yet to be traced. Back in the 18th century did such lifts belong to the comic genre, about which we know much less? The one pictorial source we have from this period, Lambranzi’s Neue und curieuse theatrialische Tantz-Schul of 1716, provides no evidence.

So, in answer to the question in my title, I think that there were lifts in early 18th-century ballet but only in certain genres and in particular contexts. If Poitier and Mlle Roland were the first to introduce them to the London stage, they were unlikely to have been the last – whatever the strictures of ‘Cato’.

FOLLOWERS OF MARS

According to the cast list in Weaver’s scenario for The Loves of Mars and Venus, Mars had four ‘Followers’ danced by Mr Prince, Mr Boval, Mr Wade and Mr Birkhead. They were the first characters to appear in the afterpiece, coming onstage at the end of the overture to perform a Pyrrhic Dance before the arrival of Mars himself. If Weaver’s description of the action in scene four is to be taken literally, they represented the strength and vigour of warriors. The four dancers who took the roles of the Followers are not listed alphabetically, so perhaps the order of their names reflects their status within the company (if it is not simply random). Weaver does not distinguish between them, as he does with the Attendants on Venus.

The first name is that of Mr Prince. It is difficult to disentangle the various dancers named Prince who worked in London’s theatres in the years before and after 1700. The dancer in The Loves of Mars and Venus has been identified as the Joseph Prince who in 1678 married Judith Channell (daughter of Luke Channell, a leading dancing master of the late 17th century). This seems unlikely, as Joseph Prince would have been around 60 years old in 1717, rather older than the other dancers in the ballet. Was he the ‘famous Dancing-Master’ named Prince who died in 1718? This man may have been the Mr Prince who is recorded as dancing in London’s theatres from the mid-1690s and who danced alongside John Weaver in the 1701-1702 season. Was he the Prince commended by the Spectator for his choreography in 1712?

‘In all the dances he invents, you see he keeps close to the characters he represents. He does not hope to please by making his performers move in a manner in which no one else ever did, but by motions proper to the characters he represents.’

Mr Prince’s repertoire seems to have been mainly comic, but there are so few records of him dancing that it is impossible to be sure.

Second on the list of Followers is Mr Boval. He was a relative newcomer to the London stage, for he is first recorded as dancing at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1714-1715. Like several of the other dancers engaged by John Rich following the reopening of that theatre, Boval may have been French. His repertoire in his first season included Harlequin and Two Punches (probably as a Punch) and a Grand Spanish Entry. After he moved to Drury Lane, for the 1715-1716 season, Boval appeared in the pastoral divertissement from the masque Myrtillo as well as performing an unspecified ‘New Dance’ with Prince and Birkhead. The records for Boval’s repertoire are scant but they suggest that he was a versatile dancer in both the serious and the comic styles.

Mr Wade’s first known billing was at Drury Lane during the 1711-1712 season (other records name him as John Wade). His early repertoire included the Dutch Skipper and the French Peasant, suggesting that he was mainly a comic dancer. In Weaver’s ‘Dramatick Entertainment of Dancing in Grotesque Characters’ The Shipwreck; or, Perseus and Andromeda, given at Drury Lane on 2 April 1717, Wade was billed as the Monster Crocodile (which presumably tried to devour Andromeda/Colombine, played by Mrs Bicknell, until Perseus / Harlequin, played by Weaver, intervened). Does the casting indicate that his skills extended to broad comedy?

The last of the four Followers of Mars is Matthew Birkhead. He was first recorded at Drury Lane during the 1707-1708 season, although his career may well have begun earlier. Birkhead was both an actor and a dancer. As a supporting, rather than a leading, player he was not always mentioned in the bills, so it is difficult to get a full picture of his repertoire. Among the dances he is known to have performed are the Miller and His Wife, Four Scaramouches, a Country Man and Woman, the Boor Left in the Lurch and a Wedding Dance (with Prince among others). Birkhead’s skills evidently ran in the direction of broad comedy.

Prince, Boval and Birkhead danced together several times, if not regularly, during the 1715-1716 season, so perhaps there were similarities in their dancing styles and techniques. All four of the Followers of Mars seem to have been versatile performers, with Mr Prince the most senior among them. Boval, Wade and Birkhead were all definitely supporting dancers. Such evidence as there is suggests that, although they probably could portray the strength and vigour wanted by Weaver, their dancing could not (and was not intended to) challenge the sophisticated virtuosity of Louis Dupré as Mars.

There are no known portraits of any of these men. For The Loves of Mars and Venus were they costumed in a style reminiscent of the conventions of the French ballet de cour and opera?

mars

A late 17th-century costume design for a ‘Combattant’. Did the Followers of Mars wear something like this?

Or did they merely add a breastplate, shield and sword to less military attire. A plate in Lambranzi’s Neue und Curieuse Theatralische Tantz-Schul provides an idea (if you ignore the hats).

 

Lambranzi 1-50 detail

Gregorio Lambranzi, Neue und Curieuse Theatralische Tantz-Schul, Part 1, Plate 50 (detail)

I will consider the dances of the Followers of Mars in a later post.

 

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.