Weaver, John

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John Weaver


Dance Master

Dancer and Writer.

England's great early eighteenth-century dancer was born the son of a dance master, and attended school at Shrewsbury for a time before settling in Oxford with his father. There his father ran a studio of dance, and John Weaver picked up his techniques there before heading to London around 1700 to make his way as a theatrical dancer. In 1703, Weaver staged his first ballet, The Tavern Bilkers. Somewhat later, the dancer was to praise his early production as the first "Entertainment that appeared on the English stage, where the Representation and Story was carried on by Dancing, Action and Motion only." Scant information survives about the production, so it is difficult to tell whether The Tavern Bilkers was actually England's first pantomime ballet. Weaver must have been an accomplished dancer and choreographer even at this date, because Mister Isaac, the greatest dance master in London at the time, soon befriended him. Under his encouragement, Weaver translated Feuillet's Choreography, an important French dance manual of the time. He published his version as Orchesography in 1706. Around the same time he also published six of Mister Isaac's dances, which he set down using the new Beauchamp-Feuillet style of notation.


Sometime around 1707 or 1708, Weaver returned to Shrewsbury, where he settled with his family. The town served as his home base for the rest of his life, although he did return to London on several occasions to stage productions. Back in his childhood home, Weaver soon devoted himself to dance history and theory. Under the prodding of the dramatist and man of letters Sir Richard Steele, the dance master began to write a history of dance. This work of scholarship, An Essay Towards a History of Dancing (1712), treated at great length the development of dance in Antiquity, but concluded that a new kind of art needed to flourish in contemporary times. Weaver supported dance that would display human manners and emotions and convey a story line. Thus his work anticipated the great achievements of pantomime ballet and ballets d'action that were to follow in the mid- and later eighteenth century. In 1717, he returned to London where he was engaged to produce the pantomime ballet, The Loves of Mars and Venus, at the Drury Lane Theater, the site where many of eighteenth-century London's experiments in dance were produced. Weaver styled his Loves as a work made in "imitation of the pantomimes of the ancient Greeks and Romans," and his attempt to revive these ancient arts fit neatly with much of the eighteenth-century Neoclassical spirit in Britain. While Weaver was generally admiring of ancient practices, his own pantomimes did not slavishly imitate antique art. In his theoretical writings on Greek and Roman pantomime, he stressed that the ancients had used a single actor to portray many different characters. By contrast, Weaver himself relied on many professional dancers to stage his production of the Loves.


Weaver followed the success of his first pantomime ballet with another work, Orpheus and Eurydice. Around this time he began to study the anatomy of the human body with a special emphasis on how the musculature supported movement. In 1721 he published a work entitled Mechanical and Anatomical Lectures upon Dancing, the first study of the science of human movement. Two other pantomime ballets were to follow: the first, Perseus and Andromeda, was staged at Drury Lane in 1728, while the final work, The Judgment of Paris, was performed during 1733. In this last work, Weaver included much pantomime, but he also reintegrated songs and music into his drama, a return to some of the conventions of ballet that remained in force at the time. After the Judgment of Paris, Weaver did not return to produce ballets in London. He remained at Shrewsbury, where he continued to serve as a dance master.


Although Weaver was a visionary in the field of dance, his ideas were not to be taken up by subsequent masters for several decades. When these new experiments in dramatic ballet arose, they appeared in the court theaters of the German- and French-speaking world, rather than in Weaver's England. In his own time, his productions were noteworthy but not widely successful. Neither were they widely imitated because the impresarios of the period concentrated their attentions on other works that were more commercially viable. Lacking the rich budget of a court theater, where subsidies made experimentation possible, Weaver's vision of pantomime ballet largely withered on the vine. His literary importance as a commentator on dance and as a force that helped to establish Feuillet notation throughout Europe has ensured the survival of his reputation in posterity.


I. K. Fletcher, S. J. Cohen, and R. Lonsdale, eds., Famed for Dance: Essays on the Theory and Practice of Theatrical Dancing in England, 1660–1740 (New York: Books for Libraries, 1980).

Susan Leigh Foster, Choreography and Narrative. Ballet's Staging of Story and Desire (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1996).

Richard Ralph, The Life and Works of John Weaver (New York: Dance Horizons, 1988).

Marian H. Winter, Pre-Romantic Ballet (London: Pitman Publishing, 1974).