Tag Archives: Marie-Thérèse de Subligny

Dancers on the London Stage

Back in 2015, I wrote a short piece about dancing on the London stage from 1660 to 1760, a topic that still receives scant attention from dance historians. In the course of writing a recent post about one particular set of dances performed in London’s theatres, it crossed my mind that I should also pursue the dancers who worked there. Many of them have never featured in dance histories, which generally confine themselves to the same few famous names.

London’s best-known dancers, in their own time as well as ours, were quite often from Europe. They came from France in particular, but also from Italy as well as what is now Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. There were also many native-born dancers in London’s theatres, although they seem (more often than not) to have taken supporting roles to the visiting European stars. Claude Ballon and Marie-Thérèse de Subligny were acclaimed when they came to London in the years around 1700. Hester Santlow and John Shaw were two English dancers who always took leading roles – they were quite definitely not members of the corps de ballet.

We can only really trace the dancers in London’s theatre companies from the early 18th century, when newspaper advertising takes off. Even so, although this gives us records of their performances and, if we are lucky, the repertoire of individual dancers, there is still very little other evidence about their lives and careers. We know of very few portraits, even of the most famous dancers.

By the early 1700s, the playhouses and the opera house seem to have had small dance companies alongside the acting companies. There was also a dancing master, who may or may not be identifiable as such, who was a dancer, choreographer and (probably) the teacher of the actors and actresses of the main company. He would (probably) have been responsible for teaching new repertoire to the other dancers and even rehearsing them, in the group numbers at least. (The leading dancers would probably have taken care of their own solos and duets). I will take a look at some of these men in future posts. There is very little direct evidence of the dancing master’s status and duties – these have to be inferred from occasional references to him or his work. If there were any female dancers who fulfilled this role (and we know that some professional female dancers taught dancing), their status was never mentioned.

The dancers themselves had a range of skills and experience. In the early 18th century many of the female dancers were also actresses, even those who had a level of dance virtuosity equal to that of the visiting French ballerinas. At the same period, most of the leading male dancers (English as well as French) were solely dancers. Several English male dancers were, by repute, able to match the skills of their French counterparts. Lower down the rankings, male as well as female dancers had to deploy a range of performing skills. So far as we can tell, many of the native-born dancers on the London stage had some training in French belle danse, but probably as many did not.

The leading dancers in each company performed regularly in the entr’actes and, from the late 1710s, would take the principal dancing roles in pantomime afterpieces. Ballets, as we understand the term, only came into their own in the later 1700s (although the first example of the genre, John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, dates to 1717). Pantomimes also needed a number of players who included dancing among a range of other skills. These supporting performers rarely, if ever, gave dances in the entr’actes unless they had a popular dance speciality. Actors and actresses were called upon to take part in country dances within plays – they rarely danced otherwise.

So, there is quite a range of lives and careers among the dancers on the London stage from 1660 to 1760, and beyond, ripe for investigation. As and when I write about them, I will use their repertoire to try and appraise their dancing skills as well as their status within the dance companies.

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The Passacaille

As every musician knows (but not necessarily every dancer), the passacaille is a set of variations over a repeated 4-bar bass line. It shares this musical form with the chaconne, although the notated dances surviving from the 18th century reveal several differences between them. In her recent book Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera, Rebecca Harris-Warrick looks at passacailles and chaconnes from various perspectives. Her observations are of interest in relation to the appearance of these dances on the London stage. Harris-Warrick points out that passacailles have a slower tempo than chaconnes and that they are often found in association with women ‘not infrequently when seduction is involved’ (p. 60). She also explains that they are the longest of the dances performed on stage and usually feature soloists and groups of dancers in their choreography (although this is not the case with the notated dances).

Passacailles are indeed the longest of the surviving recorded choreographies, in particular two solos created for female professional dancers: Anthony L’Abbé’s ‘Passagalia of Venüs & Adonis’ for Hester Santlow to music from Desmaret’s 1697 opera Vénus et Adonis, 209 bars; Guillaume-Louis Pecour’s ‘Passacaille pour une femme’ for Marie-Thérèse Subligny to music from Gatti’s 1701 opera Scylla, 219 bars. In all six passacailles survive in notation, published between 1704 and the mid-1720s. All are to music from French operas, four are female solos, one is a female duet and one is a duet for a man and a woman.

Advertisements indicate that the passacaille was performed in the entr’actes at London’s theatres quite regularly between the 1705-1706 and 1735-1736 seasons. It was given either as a solo or a duet but not, apparently, as a group dance. The solos are exclusively performed by women, from Mrs Elford at the Queen’s Theatre on 13 June 1706 (when she danced a ‘Chacoon and Passacail’) to Mrs Bullock at Goodman’s Fields on 13 October 1735. Duets were quite rare, although four different couples were billed between 1715-1716 and 1725-1726. After 1735-1736, the dance type disappears from the bills, except for a single performance of ‘A New Dance call’d Le Passecalle de Zaid’ by Anne Auretti at Drury Lane on 26 March 1754 (the occasion was her benefit). The passacaille reappears in the early 1770s for occasional performances until the mid-1780s.

For most of the passacailles performed in London, it is all but impossible to know what was danced either in terms of the music or the choreography. There are exceptions. The earliest is Pecour’s version of the passacaille from Lully’s 1686 opera Armide, created as a solo for Mlle Subligny and performed by her ‘en Angleterre’ during the winter of 1701-1702 – the only time she visited London. This demanding solo (a mere 149 bars) was published in notation around 1713.

Pecour Passacaille Armide 1

Guillaume-Louis Pecour, ‘Passacaile’, Nouveau recueil de danse de bal et celle de ballet (Paris, [c1713]), pl. 79

Anthony L’Abbe’s version of the passacaille from Lully’s Armide was created as a female duet, and must have been danced late in the 1705-1706 season in the brief interval between Mrs Santlow’s debut and Mrs Elford’s retirement.

Labbe Passacaille Armide 1

Anthony L’Abbé, ‘Passacaille of Armide’, A New Collection of Dances (London, c1725]), pl. 7

In his Preface to The Art of Dancing, the manual of dancing he published in 1735, Kellom Tomlinson referred to ‘Miss Frances, who, on the Theatre Royal in Little Lincoln’s Inn Fields, performed the Passacaille de Scilla, consisting of above a thousand Measures or Steps, without making the least Mistake’. He seems to be referring to the music from Gatti’s Scylla, if not to the choreography created by Pecour for Mlle Subligny (although neither the music nor the notated dance extends to a thousand bars). A Miss Francis did in fact dance a ‘new Passacaille’ at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre on 19 March and again on 27 April 1719. The other exception is, of course, L’Abbé’s solo for Mrs Santlow referred to above. Although no date or place for a performance of this choreography is known, it is a stunning example of the challenges of such a dance.

Was the music for the other passacailles billed in the early 18th century invariably French? There are some beautiful examples of the dance type (usually titled chaconnes but with the features of passacailles) among late 17th-century music by English composers. Some of these were undoubtedly danced in the semi-operas of the period. Did any of the other performers billed in passacailles dance the choreographies that have survived? Mrs Bullock is known to have been a virtuoso dancer. She danced a passacaille with Charles Delagarde at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 7 May 1716 as well as her later solo, either of which could have drawn on notated dances. Since they were showpieces, it is not surprising that most passacailles were billed for benefit performances, although not always the dancer’s own. It is interesting that not one of the named performers, male or female, of passacailles given in London up to 1735-1736 is French. There are many puzzles about French dancing in London’s theatres in the early 18th century.

‘Jouissons les plaisirs’

My work in baroque dance has always had a strong practical element. I find it easier to understand and write about the dances I have reconstructed. Much of my earlier work was based around dances I actually performed. Performance opportunities are few and far between nowadays, for a variety of reasons, but I try to continue reconstructing notated choreographies as part of my research.

I’ve recently been working on a loure, a duet to the air ‘Jouissons les plaisirs’. The music is identified on the notated ‘Entrée pour un homme et une femme Dancée par Mr Balon et Mlle Subligny au Ballet des Fragments de Mr de Lully’ in the Recüeil de dances contenant un tres grand nombres, des meillieures Entrees de Ballet de Mr. Pecour published in Paris in 1704. The work of reconstruction has had its difficulties – I have a recording of the music which is beguiling but otherwise not great and I have nobody to partner me, which all too easily leads to misinterpretation of the notation. Yet, I have found this little dance to be utterly charming. It is so prettily evocative of the early 18th century that it has been a delight to learn. I would love to see it in a good performance.

I like to know about the original contexts for the notated dances I reconstruct. In this case the air seems to have been written for the 1670 comédie-ballet Les Amants Magnifiques – the ballet in which Louis XIV apparently did not after all make his final performances as a dancer. The notated choreography, and its music, are instead associated with the Ballet des Fragmens de M. Lully first given at the Paris Opéra in 1702. This ballet brought together pieces of Lully’s music from the ballets de cour and comédies-ballets of the late 17th century into several entrées arranged by Campra. Its popularity was such that it was revived in 1708, 1711, 1717 and 1722. In Les Amants Magnifiques ‘Jouissons les plaisirs’ was a vocal duet by shepherdesses, in the Ballet des Fragmens it was entitled ‘[Air] des Jeux Pithiens’ and formed part of the first entrée, a ‘Fête marine’, as a vocal duet by female sailors accompanied by the dance. I can’t quite relate either the song or the dance to the later context, but I’m probably missing something.

I have been looking at ‘Spanish’ loures, but this dance surely falls into the ‘pastoral’ category. It is short, with only 54 bars, and the music is a rondeau (ABACA, A has 9 bars, B has 12 and C has 16 bars). The music has the time signature 3, in common with the famous ballroom duet Aimable vainqueur. It is quite unlike the ‘Spanish’ loures in 6/4. Although it is a stage dance, there are no difficult steps in this little entrée. Many of the pas composées incorporate quarter, half or (occasionally) full turns and nearly half include small jumps, so the sequences are flowing and lively. There are coupés avec ouverture de jambe which provide a pleasing suspension of movement and several other steps with a similar feel of extension. I like to draw on ballet’s ronds de jambes, even demi grand ronds de jambe, to give a greater sense of amplitude. The little jumps woven throughout add energy and make the pas de bourée and other ‘walking’ steps feel light and playful rather than languid. I haven’t yet mastered the musicality of this choreography, but I’m sure that if and when I do it will add to the pleasure of dancing it.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the dance is its figures, not so much the movement of the dancers within their stage space as the continually changing spatial relationships between them. They turn towards and then away from each other, face or turn their backs on one another, approach and retreat as they dance. On the page, the floor patterns look completely conventional, even banal, but they are transformed by the way the dancers turn on their own axis and move around each other. Without a partner it is difficult to be sure, but my guess is that the figures are quite tight and the couple stay close to one another much of the time, particularly when they circle and cross. There are many opportunities for interaction, through glances, turns of the head and épaulement as they move through their shared space. Even without a partner, the choreography conjures up the graceful flirtation of a fête galante. It brings to mind the paintings of Watteau, Lancret and Pater. It would be so easy to perform as a tiny drama of pastoral love and pleasure.

Lancret’s painting of Mlle Camargo and her partner is some thirty years later than the dance to ‘Jouissons les plaisirs’, but it gives a good idea of the style and affect of such a duet.

Nicolas Lancret, La Camargo Dancing (c1730)

Nicolas Lancret, La Camargo Dancing (c1730)

Dancing on the London Stage

Dancing in London’s theatres during the 18th century is a topic that has not attracted dance historians. There are very few reliable accounts and no extended study has so far been published. My work in this area began when I did my PhD on the English dancer-actress Hester Santlow, whose dancing career began in 1706 and ended when she retired from the stage in 1733. I found myself trying to reconstruct the context within which she danced, as well as her dancing repertoire. My thesis was entitled ‘Art and Nature Join’d: Hester Santlow and the Development of Dancing on the London Stage, 1700-1737’. Since then, I have extended my interest to dancing on the London stage from 1660 to 1760. Central to this period are, of course, the notated theatrical dances published in the early 18th century to which I referred in my earlier post Stage Dancing.

The paradox of any research into dancing on the London stage is that the dances, with the exception of the handful of notated choreographies, have entirely disappeared. There are also very few portraits of dancers or depictions of dancing before the late 18th century. Any research is therefore very challenging. This is probably why the period has attracted little or no interest from dance researchers. There is also the bias towards dancing in Paris, which is widely seen as the sole centre of serious dancing at this time.

Yet, this was a particularly exciting period for London audiences, who were avid followers of dancers and their repertoire. ‘French Dancing’ reached London from Paris not long after the Restoration in 1660. French stars came to the English capital, where they could make good money in the commercial theatres. Claude Ballon made a brief visit in 1699 and his favourite dancing partner, the ballerina Marie-Thérèse de Subligny, came in 1702. There were also home-grown dance celebrities who could equal them in the style and technique of serious dancing, notably Hester Santlow. The British developed their own dances and genres of dancing. Among the former was the hornpipe, acknowledged as an ‘English’ dance. Among the latter was the first modern ballet, created by John Weaver, a theorist as well as a dancer and a dancing master. The Loves of Mars and Venus, performed at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1717, was the first dance work with recognisable characters and a story in which the entire narrative was conveyed through dance and gesture alone, with no sung or spoken words. This was a significant development in the art of dancing and must surely have influenced the French ballerina Marie Sallé, who also came to dance, and experiment with dancing, in London.

Dancing was popular in London’s theatres throughout the 18th century. Dances were regularly performed between the acts of plays (entr’acte dances). There was a great deal of dancing (serious as well as comic) in the pantomimes that became popular from the 1720s and there were dance divertissements in plays and musical works. The entr’acte dances were many and various, from speciality comic dances drawing on indigenous dance forms to complex and virtuosic serious dances deploying the style and technique of French professional dancing.

I will try to reveal some of this wealth of innovative dance entertainment in future posts.

John Ellys. Hester Santlow as Harlequine. c.1725

John Ellys. Hester Santlow as Harlequine. c.1725