The first modern ballet was John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, performed at London’s Drury Lane Theatre on 2 March 1717. John Weaver (1673-1760) was a dancer, choreographer, teacher and scholar. The Loves of Mars and Venus was the first dance work to tell a story through dance, gesture and music alone. 2017 marks its 300th anniversary.
The dancing we call classical ballet began in 17th-century France, but before 1717 it had always been part of operas and plays and dependant on their words to narrate the drama. The Loves of Mars and Venus was the drama. Described in its own time as a ‘Dramatic Entertainment of Dancing’ it established dance as an independent art and influenced ballet throughout Europe.
Weaver’s ballet tells the story of the love affair between Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war, and the revenge enacted on them by her husband Vulcan. It draws on classical mythology, but contemporary passions abound. Despite Weaver’s appeal to the revered performances of the ‘mimes and pantomimes’ of classical antiquity, who he wished to emulate, his ballet was a thoroughly modern work in tune with the sophisticated comedies of his own time.
The Loves of Mars and Venus told the familiar story in six short scenes full of dancing and gestures. It lasted, perhaps, 40 minutes. Mars appears with his soldiers and performs a war dance. Venus is shown surrounded by the Graces and displays her allure in a sensual passacaille, but when Vulcan arrives she quarrels with him in a dance ‘of the pantomimic kind’. Vulcan retires to his smithy to devise revenge with the help of his workmen the Cyclops. Mars and Venus meet and, with their followers, perform dances expressive of love and desire. Vulcan completes his plan of revenge against the lovers. In the final scene, Vulcan and the Cyclops catch Mars and Venus together and expose them to the derision of the other gods, until Neptune intervenes and harmony is restored in a final ‘Grand Dance’.
At the first performances of The Loves of Mars and Venus, Mars was danced by Louis Dupré, Venus was Hester Santlow and John Weaver himself danced Vulcan. Dupré was a virtuoso dancer who was probably French, although he was definitely not the famous ‘Le grand’ Dupré of the Paris Opera. Mrs Santlow was an English dancer-actress, greatly admired for her beauty as well as her dancing skills – one contemporary described her as ‘incomparable’. Weaver’s stage skills were essentially those of a comic dancer, although he was obviously also a master of rhetorical gesture. They were supported by Drury Lane’s best dancers as the ‘Followers’ of Mars and Venus, with the company’s comedians as Weaver’s workmen the Cyclops.
The Loves of Mars and Venus was an undoubted success, with seven performances during its first season and revivals at the Drury Lane Theatre until 1724. It was subsequently far more influential than many realise. It may well have been seen by the young French ballerina Marie Sallé, who would herself later experiment with narrative and expressive dancing. Sallé, of course, influenced the choreographer 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 the narrative dance works for which English ballet became famous in the 20th century.