Tag Archives: Charles II

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.

 

 

A Year of Dance: 1663

The most significant event of 1663, so far as the London stage was concerned, was the opening of the new Theatre Royal in Bridges Street (just off Drury Lane) on 7 May. The playhouse, built for Thomas Killigrew and his King’s Company, occupied the site which is still home to today’s Drury Lane Theatre.

So far as dancing in London’s theatres is concerned, we still know very little, although Pepys did record seeing ‘the little girl’ (Moll Davis) dance in ‘boy’s apparel’ at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 23 July 1663. There was also a ‘greate Masque’ at court on 2 July, mentioned by John Evelyn in his diary, but nothing is known about it.

In France, the Ballet des Arts was given at the Palais Royal in Paris on 8 January 1663 (N.S.). The King danced with his sister-in-law Madame, in the first Entrée, as a Berger to her Bergère. That was his only appearance in the ballet. Madame returned to dance Pallas Athene, surrounded by court ladies as Amazones, in the final Entrée. Later in the year, on 3 October 1663 (N.S.), Louis XIV appeared as a Fille du Village and a Bohemien (Gypsy) in the mascarade Les Noces de Village performed at the château de Vincennes. The cast of this comic piece (which cannot be classed as a ballet de cour, despite its text by Benserade and performances by the king, his courtiers and professional dancers) was entirely male.

Louis XIV had begun a liaison with Louise de la Vallière in 1661. Their first child together, named Charles de la Baume le Blanc, was born on 19 December 1663 (N.S.). He lived for only 18 months. In England, Charles II’s mistress Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, gave birth to his son on 28 September 1663. The boy was named Henry FitzRoy and would later become Duke of Grafton.