Tag Archives: Baroque Gesture

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.

THE DRAMATICK ENTERTAINMENT OF DANCING IN ACTION

The only surviving evidence for The Loves of Mars and Venus is the scenario written by John Weaver to accompany the first performances of the ballet. There were probably several reasons for its publication. Weaver writes in his Preface ‘I know it will be expected that I should give the Reader some Account of the Nature of this kind of Entertainment in Dancing, which I have here attempted to revive from the Ancients in Imitation of their Pantomimes’, thereby presenting himself as a scholar as well as a dancing master. The detail within the scenario suggests that he was rather more concerned that the audience might not understand the story, and the gestures used by the dancers, without some help. He acknowledges that ‘I have not been able to get all my Dancers equal to the Design’, admitting that ‘I have in this Entertainment too much inclin’d to the Modern Dancing’. So, what does the scenario tell us about Weaver’s dance drama?

The ballet unfolds in six scenes, for each of which Weaver describes the action – dance, gesture and even music – quite closely. The first scene is devoted to Mars and is preceded by a ‘Martial Overture’.

mars

A late 17th-century costume design for a ‘Combattant’. Did Weaver’s Mars look something like this?

The four ‘Followers of Mars’ enter to perform a ‘Pyrrhic Dance’ which Weaver explains as an exercise in training for combat. After a ‘Warlike Prelude’, Mars joins them. He dances a solo ‘Entry’ and then performs the Pyrrhic Dance with them.

The second scene provides a complete contrast, as Venus is discovered ‘at her Toilet’ surrounded by Cupid, the Graces and ‘one of the Hours’ (this character is probably one of the ‘Horae’ or Seasons, most likely Flora).

venus

A mid-17th century costume design for Venus (danced by a man). Nothing in her dress declares that she is a goddess.

She is introduced by a ‘Simphony of Flutes’ and rises to dance a passacaille, in which she is joined by the Graces and the Hour. They have just finished their dance when a ‘Wild Rough Air’ heralds the arrival of Vulcan. Everyone except Venus hastily departs. There follows what Weaver describes as a ‘Dance being altogether of the Pantomimic kind’ – a mute quarrel between Venus and Vulcan, for which Weaver specifies in great detail their gestures. This duet surely reaches to the heart of Weaver’s ambition to recreate the ‘surprizing’ performances of the mimes and pantomimes of classical antiquity.

The third scene belongs to Vulcan and his workmen the Cyclops.

vulcan

A late 17th-century depiction of a stage Vulcan. Did Weaver make his god lame?

It begins with a set piece probably familiar from other works on the London stage. Vulcan ‘strikes at the Scene’ and it opens to show the Cyclops, blacksmiths like Vulcan himself, at work to a ‘Rough Consort of Musick’. Four Cyclops dance an ‘Entry’, joined by Vulcan. The ‘Entry’ is, of course, very different from the one performed by Mars in the first scene. The pantomime, as Vulcan plans his revenge on his wife and her lover, differs from that between Venus and Vulcan in scene two.

As well as setting the plot in motion, these three scenes introduce, successively, the principal characters in the drama, through contrasting music, dance and gestures.

Scene four brings Mars and Venus together for the first time. Weaver explains that ‘This Performance is alternate, as representing Love and War’, adding ‘As to the Gestures made use of in this Scene; they are so obvious, relating only to Gallantry, and Love, that they need no Explanation’. Mars and Venus meet and embrace, and Mars woos the goddess in mime. The two deities and their respective Followers then dance another ‘Entry’ which, Weaver says, portrays ‘Strength and Softness, reciprocally, and alternately’. The dance, and the scene, end ‘with every Man carrying off his Woman’.

In scene five, the Cyclops are again shown at work and Vulcan dances a solo showing his pleasure as his plan moves to fruition. The final scene of the ballet begins with a ‘soft Symphony of Flutes’, to which the scene opens showing Mars and Venus sitting together. Their ‘pleas’d Tenderness which supposes past Embraces’ is rudely interrupted as Vulcan and the Cyclops enter and catch the two in a net and then give an ‘insulting Performance’. After that, ‘Jupiter, Apollo, Neptune, Juno, Diana, and Thetis’ arrive to witness the humiliation of Mars and Venus. Finally, Neptune persuades Vulcan to forgive the lovers and release them. Much of this scene was played in gestures, again described by Weaver. The ballet concludes as ‘Mars, with the rest of the Gods, and Goddesses, dance a Grand Dance’. This choreography was, presumably, for nine. Weaver’s wording suggests that Mars danced alone, with the other gods and goddesses in couples. Although it is surely likely that Mars, Venus and Vulcan came together for a trio at some point.

The action of The Loves of Mars and Venus was a mixture of old and new. The dancing of Mars and Venus seems to have used the current French stage style and technique and the final ‘Grand Dance’ followed a well-established convention. Vulcan and the Cyclops probably danced in a comic style commonly seen in the entr’actes in London’s theatres. However, Weaver went well beyond accepted ideas in his use of dance to establish the individuality of his characters. His use of gesture and, apparently, its combination with conventional dance steps was completely new and was, for the first time, the means through which a story was told. Weaver was boldly experimental and innovative, despite his use of a great deal of ‘Modern Dancing’ and the justification of his work through an appeal to classical antiquity.

I will say more about the dances and Weaver’s gestures in future posts on The Loves of Mars and Venus.