What can I say? Sometimes, when I’m totally alone in the stacks I do a little jig for the sheer joy of being amongst the best company ever, and said books never judge my moves, at least that’s what I thought…
Until I discovered a copy of Anatomical and mechanical lectures upon dancing: wherein rules and institutions for that art are laid down and demonstrated. (London, 1721). Ok, so maybe I should think twice before I twerk.
This book, I’ll have you know, was written by John Weaver (21 July 1673 – 24 September 1760), an English dancer and choreographer often regarded as the father of English pantomime.
Weaver was born in Shrewsbury where he worked as a dance teacher, like his father, who suggested he go to London and become a ballet master. Working mainly at the Drury Lane Theatre, Weaver soon became a specialist in comic roles and created the first English pantomime ballet, the burlesque Tavern Bilkers (1702). This was his first choreographic work where he incorporated commedia dell’arte characters such as Harlequin and Scaramouche. Scaramouche? As in ‘Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango’? The very Bohemian one (thank you Freddie), generally a stock clown character of the commedia dell’arte, a particular Italian theatrical form that flourished throughout Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
The role of Scaramouche combined characteristics of the zanni (servant) and the Capitano (masked henchman). Usually attired in black Spanish dress and burlesquing a don, he was often beaten for his boasting and cowardice by Harlequin – another key commedia dell’arte character, known by his chequered costume and his role as the light-hearted and astute servant constantly trying to outwit his master and pursue his own love interest.
Weaver included these two characters in his ballet at a time when dance was generally seen as a form of amusement but for Weaver, the art of dance was something far more substantial and artistic.
In his celebrated work, The Loves of Mars and Venus (1717), he combined themes from classical literature with the dramatic elements that characterised Italian pantomime and English dance, so the story was conveyed through gesture and movement rather than any spoken or sung explanation. Weaver was one of the first choreographers to develop dance so that it performed a dramatic and expressive role rather than a simple comic and decorative one, and because of his attempts to use emotion and plot as opposed to complicated technical and speech methods, he is seen as a huge influence on later choreographers such as Gasparo Angiolini, and in particular the French dancer and ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810). Like Weaver, Noverre would later react against the ornamental function of ballet, believing that dance movement should also reflect its action.
Weaver’s writings on dance are also hugely significant. Published in 1706, Orchesography was the first English translation of the French choreographer Raoul-Auger Feuilllet’s Chorégraphie, and included the most common dance notation system of the time, thereby enabling the introduction of a consistent standard of dance throughout England (something akin to the ‘Macarena’ of the 90s I wonder)? In An Essay Towards the History of Dancing (1712), he documented the history of dance whilst arguing for its recognition as a means of expression and a sign of social accomplishment.
Weaver was also the first dance teacher to insist that dance instructors should have a thorough knowledge of anatomy in order to best use the body as a tool of expression. Hence his Anatomical and Mechanical Lectures upon Dancing were aimed at ‘introducing the Art of dancing among the liberal arts and sciences’, at a time when ‘the Art of Dancing is arrived at so great an Excellence’. A knowledge of anatomy he argues, may ‘not be well relish’d by the Masters in Dancing at first view’, but on further consideration they will come to recognise its great use towards the following discourse on the ‘Proportion and Symmetry of Parts’, and the ‘Mechanical Parts’ of the body, all of which he maintains are the ‘fundamentals of our profession, so they deserve, nay, require, our utmost observation’.
To Weaver, dancing ‘is an elegant, and regular movement, harmonically composed of beautiful Attitudes, and contrasted graceful Postures of the Body, and Parts thereof’. And if you’re in the mood for a groove then just so you know: ‘motion consists of various Steps, produc’d by the Sinking, Rising, Turning, and Springing of the Body and Limbs’. Make of that what you will the next time you tackle the moonwalk or your Gangnam Style, and if these moves may fail you fear not, for there is plenty of inspiration to be had, as I very pleasantly discovered as I Harlem-shuffled my way over to our Historical Music Collection:
With International Dance Day upon us tomorrow (as well as Jean-George Noverre’s birthday), remember what Weaver says as you throw out your best moves, whether it’s the Charleston, the Twist, or the Chicken Dance: ‘Attitude is a posture, or graceful disposition of the body’. And so the moral of this blog-post is, sometimes even the old books can make you lose yourself to dance. Happy dancing people!