(This is a revised and expanded version of the talk that Moira gave before the 300th anniversary performance in Fitzwilliam College auditorium on 2nd March 2017).
When you try to recreate a ballet for which the score and the choreography are lost, which comes first – the music or the dance? With John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus it was the dance. When Evelyn Nallen and I came together to create a new score, I already had a close understanding of the ballet as well as a wide knowledge of dancing on the London stage at the period and much experience of reconstructing and performing the notated dances of the early 1700s. We worked from my detailed analysis of The Loves of Mars and Venus as well as drawing on Evelyn’s expertise in the music that Weaver would have known.
There had been ballets long before John Weaver became a dancer and choreographer. He writes of the deficiencies of what he calls ‘French Dancing’ in his 1712 Essay towards an History of Dancing, although he also recognises its beauties. Weaver undoubtedly used ‘French Dancing’ in The Loves of Mars and Venus.
The style and technique of dancing we now know as classical ballet began to develop at the court of Louis XIV, in the many ballets de cour performed by the king, his courtiers and professional dancers. The period between the Ballet de Cassandre (1651, in which the king made his dancing debut) and the Ballet de Flore (1669, in which Louis XIV may have danced in a ballet for the last time) is of particular importance.
These productions brought together a king who was himself an accomplished dancer with the most brilliant professional dancers France had to offer. Chief among them was Pierre Beauchamps, Louis XIV’s own dancing master. He is credited with codifying the five positions of the feet and the principle of opposition of the arms and legs, both still basic to ballet today.
When Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, he brought back French culture with him. The theatres reopened, actresses were seen in London’s theatres for the first time and French entertainments reappeared on stage as well as at court. French dancers came to London in the 1670s and again in the years around 1700, when two of the brightest stars from the Paris Opéra – Claude Ballon and Marie-Thérèse de Subligny – graced London’s theatres. She gave London audiences their first glimpse of a French ballerina, although I cannot believe that she actually danced a passacaille and a gigue in a floor-length gown.
They would herald a new generation of French-trained English professional dancers, among them Hester Santlow.
Louis XIV commanded his dancing masters to create a system of dance notation to record their choreographies. Feuillet’s Choregraphie was published in 1700, quickly followed by John Weaver’s English translation Orchesography in 1706.
These treatises tell us about the basic steps of ‘French Dancing’ at this period, as well as some of the more difficult ones. Some steps are still with us, others have changed or disappeared. Both the pas de bourée and the entrechat survive, albeit with many subtle differences.
Many dances were recorded in notation, including choreographies created for the stages of Paris and London. The French dancing master Anthony L’Abbé, who came to London in 1698 and stayed for 40 years to dance, teach and choreograph, created dances for Hester Santlow and Louis Dupré which show off the virtuosic skills of these professional dancers.
So, by 1717, dancers had at their feet a sophisticated, complex, virtuosic and even expressive style and technique of dancing. It was this ‘French Dancing’ that John Weaver meant when he confessed (in his preface to the published scenario for The Loves of Mars and Venus) he had ‘too much inclin’d to the Modern Dancing’.
How did ‘French Dancing’ help when we came to create a new score for The Loves of Mars and Venus? It gave us a ready-made repertoire of dance types to look out for as Evelyn searched for suitable music. It also gave us a good excuse to use some French dance music. In scene 1, Mars appears and dances an ‘Entry’. I wanted an entrée grave, the most serious and virtuosic of the dances performed by men in French operas, and suggested one from Lully’s Bellerophon (1679). In scene 2, Venus makes her entrance and dances a passacaille (a long and expressive dance, often performed as a solo by women in French opera – this is the only dance type that Weaver mentions explicitly). Evelyn found a beautiful chaconne by John Eccles which we agreed fitted perfectly. The only dance divertissement in the ballet comes in scene 4, which is set in ‘A Garden’ and thus has a pastoral feel. I wanted a lively duet for Mars and Venus in the midst of dances by their followers and a gavotte seemed the perfect choice. We turned again to French opera and chose a gavotte from Lully’s Roland (1685). There was far more to it than that of course (I have said nothing about the comic dances or the pantomime which features throughout the ballet), but the choice of music was led by the dancing described in Weaver’s scenario.