This year we are celebrating the 300th anniversary of the first modern ballet, John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus.
John Weaver (1673-1760) was a dancer, choreographer, dancing master and writer on dancing. If the first three go together almost automatically, the last is decidedly unusual. There have been very few professional dancers who have also been able to write about their art. Weaver was born in Shrewsbury, the son of a dancing master. He would return there to work as a dancing master himself after his final retirement from the stage in 1733.
Weaver seems to have left Shrewsbury for London in 1696 or 1697, although his first recorded performance in London was not until the summer of 1700. Only a handful of his stage appearances are documented up to 1703. Yet, Weaver must surely have been dancing more regularly, not least because his first work for the London stage, The Tavern Bilkers, was apparently produced in 1702 or 1703. The little evidence we have suggests that John Weaver was predominantly a comic dancer.
By the early 1700s, Weaver was part of a circle of dancing masters who were eager to promote the new French system of dance notation. Weaver translated Feuillet’s Choregraphie (Paris, 1700) into English as Orchesography (London, 1706), to make the treatise more widely accessible. He also notated a collection of six ball dances by Queen Anne’s dancing master Mr Isaac and in 1707 added The Union, created to celebrate not only the Queen’s birthday but also the Act of Union between England and Scotland. He must have met Hester Santlow around this time, for she performed The Union before the Queen with the French dancer Desbarques. Weaver left London and returned to Shrewsbury not long afterwards.
In Shrewsbury, Weaver embarked on a book of his own. In An Essay towards an History of Dancing, published in London in 1712, he admiringly recounts the achievements of the dancers – the mimes and pantomimes – of classical antiquity. He also appraises the stage dancing of his own time, setting down his ideas for its reform. Weaver wanted dancing to have the status of an art so that it could be a worthy rival to drama. He would realise this ambition only when he returned to London in 1717 and created The Loves of Mars and Venus.
There is no known portrait of John Weaver but a detailed account of his life and career, together with all of his writings on dance, can be found in Richard Ralph’s The Life and Works of John Weaver first published in 1985.