Samuel Butler originally built the quaint Georgian Theatre Royal in 1788, and with a capacity of only 214, women were reminded not to wear their hoops when attending. Squeezing into the upper balcony when seven months pregnant was no easy task, but after shuffling into my seat, I prepared myself for a truly eighteenth-century experience. On the small and simply set stage, the story of John Weaver’s original 1717 ballet, The Loves of Mars and Venus, played out.
Performed by the Weaver Dance Company, the cast of six, including three musicians and three dancing actors, barely had room to manoeuvre, but that did not hold them back. The talented recorder player Evelyn Nallen introduced the production, before joining the baroque musical ensemble, featuring Jamie Akers on lute, and Gareth Deats on cello. The audience was then met by John Weaver, played by Michael Spenceley, who pandered to the “beaus” in the pit, and “ladies” in the gallery, and all those squeezed onto the upper balcony who could not afford the better seats. Weaver explained his work as an actor, dancer and choreographer, and his ambition to show the theatre that dancing could take a central role in the performance. In a quick history lesson regarding the development of ballet in France and Louis XIV’s technique for recording complex dance steps, Weaver explained his choice to create the first modern ballet – The Loves of Mars and Venus.
Unlike the ballets preceding Weaver’s, such as the French ballet de cour, or English masques, which often included speech or songs, The Loves of Mars and Venus was performed only with dance and accompanying instrumental music. Weaver brought the simple story of a love triangle between the beautiful Venus, her lacklustre husband Vulcan (played by Weaver) and the heroic Mars, to the Drury Lane Theatre in 1717. In this production Spenceley was joined on stage by Chiara Vinci and Romain Arreghini, who took on the roles of Weaver’s original casting of Venus and Mars, the beautiful and crowd-pleasing Hester Santow, and the elegant French court dancer, Monsieur Louis Dupré, respectively.
A simple document published to accompany the first performance is all that remains of Weaver’s ballet. From this, it is evident that the original ballet was performed in six short scenes, with further dancers playing various supporting characters. In the show programme, eighteenth-century dance historian Moira Goff describes the scenes: “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[.] Vulcan arrives [and] 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 the final ‘Grand Dance’”.
Directed by Jenny Miller and written by Stephen Wyatt, the narrative of this performance shows the actors practising, and then performing the scenes of Venus and Mars’s first meeting, their flirtation and courtship, Vulcan and Venus’s argument, the discovery of his wife’s infidelity and subsequent plan for revenge. In this telling of the story, Vulcan plans to trap the lovers, somewhat comically, in a giant net. The stage, designed by Chris de Wilde, was decorated with a forest backdrop, a giant photo frame in the centre for the cast to walk through and hide behind, a trunk and a dressing screen for Vulcan to spy from, equipped with his large net, and catch his wife and her lover.
Although the original music is long lost, Nallen, taking on the role of musical director, created a score of actual eighteenth-century music to accompany the action. Goff also assisted in the choreography, led by Gilles Poirer, to produce the authentic, eighteenth-century dances to accompany the original scenes. The visual effect was finished off with beautiful contemporary costuming, particularly Venus’s rose pink corseted gown, complete with pannier, which swayed and jumped with every step. One of the highlights of the performance was Vinci’s singing – without words – to the music.
As far as eighteenth-century productions go, I could not have asked for more. While part of me is grateful the performance was only an hour long, with my knees bruising against the balcony, I was thoroughly entertained by the careful combination of Weaver’s narrative, subtle humour, and the elements of his original choreography, all brought together by beautiful music. The performance, marking the 300th anniversary of The Loves of Mars and Venus, aimed to celebrate Weaver’s almost unacknowledged role in the development of dance on the English stage.
The Loves of Mars and Venus was performed by the Weaver Dance Company (https://weaverdance.com) at The Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond as part of the Swaledale Festival and supported by Dyno and Rosi Keatinge. The Weaver Dance Company have performed the show at numerous theatres across the UK this year, hoping to bring life back to Weaver’s influential ballet.