Ballets and pantomimes were related categories of theatrical movement. In English dancing master John Weaver’s treatise on “serious,” or mythological, pantomimes, his use of the word “pantomime” was much closer to our current understanding of ballet than to the then-popular pantomime genre of harlequinade, a type of commedia-based pantomime. Ballet d’action or ballet-pantomime was a mute, movement-based drama expressed to music, with pure dance used where appropriate, as in a wedding scene or victory dance. Themes were drawn from classical sources, histories, pastoral stories, or, later, nationalistic subjects. Dancers had to be fine actors and, increasingly over the course of the eighteenth century, ballet virtuosi as well, as professional technique expanded far beyond the expectations of ballroom performance. Stellar dancers like Auguste Vestris dazzled audiences and inspired imitators—like the young John Durang, who, in his early appearances with the Old American Company, sought to achieve Vestris’s phenomenal elevation by springing from trampoline to stage.
The nature of balletic movement, costuming, and presentation changed dramatically in the course of John Durang’s lifetime. In the 1780s, when he began on the stage, the baroque aesthetic was still evident in the ballet’s movement vocabulary, structural formality, cumbersome costumes, and histrionic presentation.
As Durang’s stage career was drawing to a close, in the 1810s, balletic movement showed a greater range of motion in the arms and torso, “naturalism” in costuming and coiffure, and more human—as opposed to mythically heroic—sentiments and expressions.
Alexander Placide’s troupe, skilled also in wire-dancing and other acrobatics, was instrumental in bringing American audiences along on this terpsichorean journey. Placide and dancers produced “pantomime-ballets” such as The Two Philosophers, or the Merry Girl, staged in New York in February 1792. Durang danced in that work with the Old American Company in October 1794 in Philadelphia, and then produced it himself for a New York summer theatre in July 1795.
In Placide’s presentation of The Bird Catcher, billed as a “Dancing Ballet,” Placide played the Bird Catcher, Mme. Placide was Rosetta, and Durang a Hunter. Other French artists such as Alexandre Quesnet, Jean-Baptiste Francisqui, and Anna Gardie, continued to bring ballets and pantomimes of this sort to American theatres, combining their troupes or individual talents with the OAC at times. Later, the fine English actor-dancer, William Francis, worked with Durang at the Chestnut St. Theatre, producing such works as Hercules and Omphale, a “grand Heroic Pantomime” first presented at Covent Garden in 1794.