The Loves of Mars and Venus, a ballet by John Weaver, arguably the first modern ballet, the first dance work to tell a story through dance, gesture and music alone, had its first performance at London’s Drury Lane Theatre on this date in 1717. There was nothing new about ballet, as such. Ballets had always been part of operas and plays and helped narrate the dramas. The Loves of Mars and Venus was a standalone danced drama, with all the action conveyed in dance and mime alone.
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 sacred legend and its immediate source was Peter Anthony Motteux’s play, The Loves of Mars and Venus, written in 1695. Despite Weaver’s appeal to the revered performances of the ‘mimes and pantomimes’ of classical antiquity his ballet was a thoroughly modern work in tune with the sophisticated stage works 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 Cyclopes. 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 Cyclopes 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 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. Weaver’s stage skills were essentially those of a comic dancer, although he was 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 Cyclopes.
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. Colley Cibber the English actor-manager, playwright and Poet Laureate, said of it:
To give even Dancing therefore some Improvement; and to make it something more than Motion without Meaning, the Fable of Mars and Venus, was form’d into a connected Presentation of Dances in Character, wherein the Passions were so happily expressed, and the whole Story so intelligibly told, by a mute Narration of Gesture only, that even thinking Spectators allow’d it both a pleasing and a rational Entertainment.
It also inspired a parody version by John Rich 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.
This clip gives an idea, but I am not especially happy with it. I have spent considerable energy reconstructing 17th and 18th century English dances, but I won’t bore you with my quibbles.
I would like to give you Veal Kidney Florentine, from the 18th century Cookbook of Unknown Ladies, a pastry tart with kidney, apples, lettuce, orange peel, spices and currants (pictured), but I do not have a copy to hand.
Here’s other tarts from the same MS:
A Spinach Tart.
Take 6 eggs, yolks & whites. Beat them well with a pint of sweet cream, a quarter of a pound of crumbs of bread, a good handful of spinach cut small, half a quarter of currants, half a quarter of almonds pounded with a little rose water, half a nutmeg, half a pound of white sugar. Half a pound of drawn butter, 3 spoonfuls of brandy. Mix all well together. Lay paste thin at the bottom & sides of the dish & cross bar at top. 3 quarters of an hour bakes it.
Tort De Moy
Pound a quarter of a pound of almonds with sack, and beat the white part of a young pullet that is very tender & half boiled. Skin it and pound it very small. 4 biscuits grated, some pounded cinnamon, half a pint of sack, 6 spoonfuls of rose water, some pounded mace, half a nutmeg, some sugar to your taste, sliced citron & candied lemon peel. Then beat 4 eggs, two whites and mix it with half a pint of cream. When you have beaten your eggs and cream well together, put your other ingredients to it and mix them well together and put them in a skillet over the fire and keep continually stirring one way till it is as thick as a tansy. Your fire must be slow. Then have a dish with puff pastry at the bottom and sides, and when it is pretty cool, put half of [the mixture] in your dish and then a layer of whole marrow and the juice of a lemon over it. Then put the other half in, then cross bar it with pastry top and bake it in a very slow oven. 3 quarters of an hour bakes it. You can leave out the marrow if you like.