Tag Archives: Francis Nivelon

The Humours of Bedlam

Another play that I thought had dancing in it was The Pilgrim. This was originally a Jacobean verse drama by John Fletcher, which may have been revived in the 1660s and 1670s. It was adapted by John Vanbrugh and first performed in its new guise in the spring of 1700. The new version also had a ‘Secular Masque’ by John Dryden. The advertisement for 6 July 1700 announced The Pilgrim ‘Revis’d with Large Alterations, and a Secular Masque’. There were entr’acte dances at that performance, but there was no indication of dancing in the play. The Pilgrim was performed every season until the early 1730s and then regularly revived until the early 1750s. There were further revivals in 1761-1762 and 1762-1763 and then the play disappeared from the repertoire – except for a few performances in the 1780s.

Vanbrugh’s version of The Pilgrim was published in 1700, with Dryden’s ‘Secular Masque’, and there were further editions in 1724, 1742, 1745 and 1753. I have been able to check the editions of 1700 and 1724 and no dancing is mentioned. The ‘Secular Masque’ is preceded by Dryden’s ‘Song of a Scholar and his Mistress, who being Cross’d by their Friends, fall Mad for one another; and now first meet in Bedlam’. (Several scenes in The Pilgrim are set in a madhouse.) No dancing is mentioned in either the ‘Song’, which is actually a short scene, or the ‘Secular Masque’. When I worked my way through all the performances of The Pilgrim in The London Stage, I discovered that it didn’t include dancing, except for two brief periods during its long stage life.

The revised version of The Pilgrim was first performed at the Drury Lane Theatre, but from 1715-1716 it was also given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. From 1720-1721, it was only given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (and then Covent Garden) until 1737-1738 – with the exception of a run of performances at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in 1730-1731 and a single performance there in 1731-1732. The Pilgrim returned to the Drury Lane repertoire in 1738-1739, but it was only given there until 1740-1741. It then returned to Covent Garden, where it was performed occasionally until 1762-1763. There was a small flurry of performances at Drury Lane in 1750-1751, when The Pilgrim was given with ‘Proper Dances’ (dances within the play) although the advertisements do not say what these were.

The first time The Pilgrim was billed with dancing which related to the play was on 16 November 1723 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, when the entr’acte dances included The Humours of Bedlam. When both were repeated on 27 November, the bills provided a cast list for the dance. Here is an extract from the Daily Courant for 27 November 1723.

LIF 27 Nov 1723 Daily Courant (2)

The mad dancing characters were not the same as those in the cast list of the play, although there was an overlap in the Mad Taylor (taken by an actor in the play and a dancer in the The Humours of Bedlam). At later performances the bills indicate that The Humours of Bedlam was actually given in the play and the two were regularly given together until the 1728-1729 season, after which the dance disappeared from the advertisements. At Goodman’s Fields The Humours of Bedlam was also given with The Pilgrim, although four dancers instead of six were advertised.

I suggest that The Humours of Bedlam was performed as part of the ‘Song of a Scholar and his Mistress’ and that the choreographer was Francis Nivelon, who was initially billed as the Mad Taylor and seems to have been the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre’s dancing master. The following season Nivelon danced the Mad Soldier (originally performed by his brother, who had left the company), the role he kept until 1726-1727. He was always named first in the dance’s cast list. Nivelon’s frequent dancing partner was Mrs Rogier (after her remarriage Mrs Laguerre), who appeared as the Mad Lady. She and several other dancers appeared every time The Humours of Bedlam was given. Nivelon was succeeded by Poitier in 1727-1728 and Francis Sallé in 1728-1729.

The cast list for this choreography suggests a series of solos in character, some of which may have had more pantomime than dancing, and a duet by Nivelon and Mrs Rogier – unless she danced with each of the men in turn. John Barrett’s surviving music for The Pilgrim all dates to the early 1700s, long before The Humours of Bedlam. Could some of it have been used for the dance?

There were occasional Mad Dances in the entr’actes at London’s theatres, some of which were given by French performers, but none of which can be linked either to The Pilgrim or The Humours of Bedlam. Nivelon, if he was indeed the choreographer, may have been drawing on a dance topic from the Paris fairs.

The only other dance to be associated with The Pilgrim was The Lunaticks, first performed at Drury Lane on 13 December 1740 in the entr’actes to Comus. It was given with The Pilgrim on 18 December 1740 and 6 January 1741. At the latter performance it was advertised within act 4 of the play. This group dance had four principal dancers – Fausan, Signora Fausan, Muilment and Mlle Chateauneuf, with supporting dancers (billed only as ‘&c.’). It was, presumably, by Fausan and lasted only this one season.

With both The Humours of Bedlam and The Lunaticks, the idea was most likely to entice fresh audiences to a familiar play. The importance of dancing on the London stage should never be overlooked.

 

The First Ballet at Covent Garden

In a recent TV dance programme, the presenter told us that the first ballet was given at Covent Garden in 1734. I assume that she meant the first ballet to be given at that theatre and not the first ballet to be given in London, which had been John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus performed at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1717. She did not name the work, but the date indicates that she was referring to Pygmalion, first given at Covent Garden on 14 January 1734. Was this really the first ballet to be performed at John Rich’s new playhouse, the first such building on the site of what we now know as the Royal Opera House?

What was a ballet in early 18th-century London? The definition I work with is a stage work in which the narrative is told through dance, mime and music only, with no words. This describes John Weaver’s intention, although he called his stage works dramatic entertainments of dancing not ballets. For the purposes of this post, I will draw on that definition while concentrating on dancing at the Covent Garden Theatre from its opening on 7 December 1732 to the first performance of Pygmalion on 14 January 1734.

I’ll begin by looking more closely at Pygmalion. It is now attributed to the ballerina Marie Sallé, who took the role of the Statue Galatea. Her creations for the London stage were much applauded in Paris, where she was known as a dancer at the Académie Royale de Musique (the Paris Opéra). A description of Pygmalion was published in the Mercure de France for April 1734, in the form of a letter from London dated 15 March – by which date the ballet had been performed at least fourteen times, demonstrating its success with London audiences. The dance historian Cyril Beaumont published a translation of the letter in his Three French Dancers of the 18th Century in 1934. The ballet itself is described thus:

‘Pygmalion enters his studio accompanied by his sculptors, who execute a characteristic dance, mallet and chisel in hand. Pygmalion bids them throw open the back of the studio which, like the forepart, is adorned with statues. One in the middle stands out above all the others and attracts the admiration of everyone. Pygmalion examines it, considers it, and sighs. He puts his hands on the feet, then on the body; he examines all the contours, likewise the arms, which he adorns with precious bracelets. He places a rich necklace around the neck and kisses the hands of his beloved statue. At last he becomes enraptured with it; he displays signs of unrest and falls into a reverie, then prays to Venus and beseeches her to endow the marble with life.

Venus heeds his prayer; three rays of light appear, and, to the surprise of Pygmalion and his followers, the statue, to suitable music, gradually emerges from its insensibility; she expresses astonishment at her new existence and at all the objects which surround her.

Pygmalion, amazed and transported, holds out his hand for her to step from her position; she tests the ground, as it were, and gradually steps into the most elegant poses that a sculptor could desire. Pygmalion dances in front of her as if to teach her to dance. She repeats after him the simplest as well as the most difficult and complicated steps; he endeavours to inspire her with the love which he feels, and succeeds.’

Pygmalion was always given as an entr’acte entertainment, never as an afterpiece, and (apart from calling it ‘new’ at its first performances) the advertisements drew no particular attention to it. It is never called a ‘ballet’.

The account of the action suggests that it began with a group dance by the Sculptors, followed by an extended mime sequence for Pygmalion. There was a little bit of scenic business (as Venus ‘heeds his prayer’) and then a mime sequence by the Statue, Galatea, followed by solos and a duet for her and her creator. The whole piece is essentially a single scene. It draws on a number of antecedents, one of which is indicated by Gregorio Lambranzi in his Neue unde Curieuse Theatrialische Tantz-Schul of 1716 in a plate showing sculptors at work (part 2, plate 24).

Lambranzi Part 2 Plate 24

The dancers at Covent Garden were Malter and Mlle Sallé, who performed as Pygmalion and Galatea, together with Dupré, Pelling, Duke, Le Sac, Newhouse and Delagarde, all regular members of Rich’s company.

What earlier entertainments at the new theatre might be classed as ballets? There are three contenders: The Sleeping Dutchman and his Frow given 27 March 1733; The Amorous Clown; or, The Courtizan given 3 May 1733; The Cobler; or, The Merry Wife Constant given 4 May 1733. All were performed by a principal couple with a group of supporting dancers and their titles suggest a narrative with action conveyed through dance and mime. All three pieces were created for benefit performances and only The Sleeping Dutchman and his Frow was given more than once.

The Cobler; or, The Merry Wife Constant can also be associated with a dance recorded by Lambranzi, who shows a Cobbler ‘with the tools of his trade, the use of which he expresses in mime’ before he is joined by his wife and the two dance together (part 2, plates 29, 30).

This entr’acte dance has a cast list which pairs the characters with commedia dell’arte characters (the Cobler is Punch, but the ‘Merry Wife’ has no counterpart), an idea used in some of Rich’s pantomime afterpieces. This suggests expressive action drawn from the commedia dell’arte, which by this period was common on the London stage. The Cobler; or, The Merry Wife Constant was probably created by Newhouse, who danced the Cobbler, for his own benefit.

The other two pieces involved Francis Nivelon, who was Rich’s leading dancer and probably the dancing master at Covent Garden. He shared a background in French fair theatre with Marie Sallé. The Sleeping Dutchman and his Frow was created for Nivelon’s own benefit and he and Mrs Laguerre took the title roles. She was Rich’s leading English female dancer, with skills that allowed her to take over some of Marie Sallé’s pantomime roles notably Daphne and Flora in Apollo and Daphne. Mrs Laguerre was also an actress, albeit a minor one. They were supported by Newhouse, Pelling, Le Sac, Delagarde, Miss La Tour, Mrs Pelling, Mrs Ogden and Miss Baston. The men would all appear in Pygmalion the following season.

The Amorous Clown; or, the Courtizan has the strongest claim to be considered a ballet. It was given right at the end of the performance, following the afterpiece, suggesting that it was a more substantial piece. It was created for the benefit of Dupré and Mrs Pelling, probably by Nivelon for the cast list had ‘Clowns by Nivelon and Pelling; Wives by Miss Latour and Mrs Ogden; Courtizan – Mrs Pelling’. In this context a ‘Clown’ was an unsophisticated Countryman or Rustic. The title suggests that the piece centred on Nivelon and Mrs Pelling and contained mime sequences as well as dances.  Mrs Pelling, like Mrs Laguerre, had skills that extended to serious dance and allowed her, too, to take over some of Marie Sallé’s pantomime roles.

These dance pieces have been overlooked by dance historians because they had very limited stage lives and were never noticed in the newspapers or elsewhere (it is worth recalling that Pygmalion received little attention in the British newspapers). Unlike Pygmalion, we have no accounts of their action. All three are comic rather than serious (although one or more of them may well have included some serious dancing). They make no use of the classical mythology used as a yardstick for the importance of dance works by so many 20th-century dance writers. Despite all that, I suggest that Pygmalion was not the first ballet given at the new Covent Garden playhouse – that honour should arguably go to The Amorous Clown; or, the Courtizan. Marie Sallé’s ballet was created within, and as a result of, the rich and varied repertoire of dancing (which included many such small ballets, serious as well as comic) in London’s theatres during the early 1700s.