Recreating a Lost Ballet
Title page of Weaver's scenario
John Weaver, English dancer, choreographer, teacher, and dance theorist, is regarded as the father of British pantomime and a pioneer of the ballet d'action. The son of a dancing master, he himself was apprenticed to a dancing master in Shrewsbury, probably Edward Dyer, and became a dancing master in Shrewsbury from 1695. From 1700 to 1736 he danced in the London theatres of Drury Lane, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and York Buildings, performing mostly comic and character roles, and he choreographed his first work The Tavern Bilkers (1702/3) at Drury Lane. His seminal work was The Loves of Mars and Venus, the first modern ballet; rather than presenting ballets as decorative divertissements, in this work the story is told by dance alone. He continued his narrative experiment with Orpheus and Eurydice (1718) and The Judgement of Paris (1733).
Our project is based on John Weaver’s description of his dance drama The Loves of Mars and Venus — the first of its kind. The key facts are that the first performance was given on March 2nd 1717 at the Drury Lane Theatre and that the music and the choreography are lost. However, we do know much about this work, not only from John Weaver’s own writing but from the work of Richard Ralph, author of The Life and Works of John Weaver , and Moira Goff’s research for her book The Incomparable Hester Santlow.
We know for example that Henry Symonds composed the simphonies (sic) which open Scenes 2 and 6 and Weaver had asked Charles Fairbanks to compose ‘some musical airs’ for some earlier enterprises and these Weaver ‘justly adapted to the Passions, and Affections of that Entertainment.’
So, although these works are also now lost, we can see that Weaver created a patchwork to make his musical score, a pasticcio. I began to piece together a pasticcio using music from the London stage of the day with works by Purcell, Croft, Eccles and others, with some additions from Lully operas for Mars’ dances, using Weaver’s text as my guide. For example, he says the Entertainment opens with a Martial Overture and Venus dances a Passacaille. There are 27 pieces that have to express different moods and carry the story according to Weaver’s instructions.
We first recorded our version of the score on 18th February 2012 at the Fitzwilliam College Auditorium in Cambridge with the recorder group Zero Gravity, plus David Gordon harpsichord, Frances Kelly baroque harp and Jez Wiles baroque percussion, with financial help from the Historical Dance Society. The recording made of this concert has been the foundation of our project.
Realising that a reconstruction of the full dance-drama with its cast of 26 characters was beyond our resources, I began to work with playwright Stephen Wyatt and director Jenny Miller to create a show that would introduce us to the world of the 18th-century London stage and John Weaver’s frustrations with the limitations of dancing there, following Weaver as he tries to create his first ‘Dramatick Entertainment of Dancing’ with dance taking an equal place as an art alongside music and drama.
First recording of the newly created score
Gilles Poirier, a notable exponent of baroque dance, with whom I had worked before, drew on theatrical dances recorded in Beauchamp-Feuillet notation in the early 18th century as the basis for new choreography. Weaver was himself a dance notator and would know all the steps that we use. The gestures were reconstructed by Moira Goff from Weaver’s own descriptions (for example — Astonishment: Both Hands are thrown up towards the Skies; the Eyes also lifted up, and the body cast backwards). Our show includes the famous ‘Dance, being altogether of the Pantomimic kind’ which unites dance and gesture and is at the heart of Weaver’s ambition for new, expressive dancing. The final piece of our jigsaw came with the designer Chris de Wilde who created the costumes.
With a tiny cast of one actor, who can dance, and two dancers, who can act (and one who also sings beautifully), and three musicians, we proudly presented our new The Loves of Mars and Venus, exactly 300 years to the day after the first performance, at the Fitzwilliam Auditorium in Cambridge on 2nd March 2017.
This first modern ballet was a remarkable work and it happened in London, not Paris or Moscow. It enjoyed considerable success in its own time and was subsequently far more influential than many realise. It may well have been seen by the young dancer Marie Sallé, who would herself later experiment with narrative and expressive dancing. Sallé influenced Jean-Georges Noverre when he came to create his ballets d’action. They led to the story ballets of the romantic period and onwards to today’s narrative dance works.