The Loves of Mars and Venus:Celebrating the 300th Anniversary of the birth of modern ballet, performed at Drury Lane Theatre in 1717

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Reviewed by Jonathan Steffen

2nd March 2017
Auditorium, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

Dance is arguably the most ephemeral of art forms, eternally of the moment and impossible to capture in its totality. From the late 19th century, it became possible to document it in photographs, and from the 20th century in film, but even footage of Rudolf Nureyev, Josephine Baker or Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers in their pomp cannot quite render of power and brilliance that must have blazed forth from their every step when they danced live. It is all the most surprising, therefore, that we today still remember dancers whose performances were never captured on screen – William Kempe, for instance, who performed with Shakespeare’s theatre troupe and danced all the way from London to Norwich for a bet, or Salome, whose dance of the seven veils with rewarded with the gift of John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

A dancer who has undeservedly been forgotten for many centuries is Hester Santlow (c. 1690–1773), who may justly be described as Britain’s first ballerina.

In a career that spanned almost three decades, she was the undisputed top female dancer on the British stage.

She became famous for her “Harlequin Dance” and also for her collaborations with the English choreographer John Weaver in productions such as “The Loves of Mars and Venus” (1717) and “The Judgment of Paris” (1733). Sadly, none of the original choreography or music for these productions survive. A remarkable new production has, however, created a vivid sense of how “The Harlequin Woman” must have danced, using choreography and music of the period in a work that is a homage to Santlow, Weaver and the many unknown artists with whom they must have worked.

Performed at the Auditorium of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, on 2 March 2017, The Loves of Mars and Venus, brought the spirit of Hester Santlow back to the stage, 300 years to the day after the ballet was first performed at London’s Drury Lane Theatre.

Presented by The Weaver Dance Company together with Barefoot Opera, this “Dramatick Entertainment” was the brainchild of Evelyn Nallen, who has long found inspiration in the life and work of Hester Santlow. Written by Stephen Wyatt and directed by Jenny Miller, The Loves of Mars and Venus tells the story of how this ground-breaking entertainment was conceived and gives a vivid taste of the extraordinary grace of Baroque dancing. Stephen Spenceley doubled as John Weaver and Vulcan, with Romain Arreghini doubling as the French dancer Louis Dupré and Mars and Chiara Vinci taking the roles of Hester Santlow herself and Venus.

In the movements of Arreghini and Vinci one discerned the basic movements of today’s ballet – delivered, however, with an intimacy and naturalness that brought the period vividly to life.

The excellent choreography by Gilles Poirer (informed by the work of dance historian Moira Goff) was elegant supported by the virtuoso musicianship of Jamie Akers (Baroque guitar), Gareth Deats (cello) and Evelyn Nallen herself (recorder). “I wanted to create something full of joy and beauty,” said Nallen after the performance, reflecting on the long journey that had brought the spirit of the Harlequin Woman back to the stage after three centuries. She and her fellow artists have succeeded in doing that. Whatever was lost of Hester Santlow has not been lost forever.

This review first appeared in The Recorder Magazine, Summer 2017.

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