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Recreating the first ballet

Posted on May 31, 2012

John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, performed in London in 1717, was the first work to tell a story solely through dance, mime and music, with no spoken or sung words. Now widely recognised as the first modern ballet, it has not been recreated in its entirety since its last performance in 1724.

Indeed, the difficulties of such a project seem insurmountable. No music and no choreography survive for Weaver’s ballet, and there is only his very detailed libretto published to accompany its first performances. The ballet tells the story of the love affair between Venus and Mars and the revenge taken by her husband Vulcan. In his libretto, Weaver explains how to perform the mime gestures used by his leading characters and describes some of the dances performed by them and their followers.

For many years Moira Goff has researched dancing on the 18th-century London stage, and she has also been lucky enough to work closely on baroque dance and music during that time with the leading recorder player Evelyn Nallen. Over the past two years, the pair has studied incidental music from the London stage of the late 17th and early 18th century. From this considerable repertoire they chose music to fit the action described by Weaver, and using the works of several London-based composers, together with two pieces of French baroque dance music, they put together a 40-minute score for the ballet. This was given its first performance on February 18, 2012 at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge. The concert was recorded, and the resulting CD will allow practical work on the action of this most significant work in the history of theatrical dancing.

The next stage will be to recreate the dance and mime for the entire ballet. This will include a series of workshops, beginning in June 2012, and will culminate, hopefully, in a public performance of the ballet in the summer of 2013. Moira Goff and Evelyn Nallen wish to involve dancers and musicians from a range of backgrounds in this process, including early dance societies and groups as well as dance and drama students from universities and other institutions.

They will start with a one-day workshop in Cambridge on Saturday, June 23, 2012, which will explore early 18th-century dance and gesture and work on excerpts from one scene of The Loves of Mars and Venus. Join them for a unique creative experiment – and a first for early dance.

 

For further details contact: Moira Goff at moiragoff@ntlworld.com  or Evelyn Nallen at evelyn@evelyn-nallen.com

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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