John Durang’s work in theatre and circus highlights a trend in eighteenth-century American and European theatre: a focus on movement-based works. The necessity for unlicensed English theatres to develop non-spoken productions to evade patent laws resulted in an explosion of movement-based and musical theatre genres. In the United States, suspicions about “drama” as opposed to “musical entertainment” further shaped early American stage repertory. Pantomimes constituted about 14% of the repertory at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theatre in the early nineteenth century, when melodrama, also movement-and-music-based, swept the stages, and ballets were at a constant, but low level—one or two each season. Dances and acrobatics were frequently inserted into plays, farces, and operas. At interludes between the two parts of the evening, short, lively dance numbers were featured, such as Durang’s hornpipe, allemande, minuet, Indian dance, or fandango.
It was primarily in the interlude works that Durang made his best-known choreographic contributions, including the “pas seul” in imitation of Vestris that he performed in his youth with the Old American Company; his own hornpipe with music by Mr. Hoffmaster; the transformation dance that he called “The Dwarf Metamorphosed,” “The Dwarf Dance,” or some version of that name; his “Indian characteristic dance,” which Durang claimed to have learned and costumed in Canada and that proved a mainstay of his benefits after that point; “The Dutch Fisherman,” a song-and-dance number that he performed in Albany; and “Stoffle Rilps” [or Rilbs], which he created for his summer tours in the early nineteenth century. Durang also staged versions of works he learned with major companies, which he set on the small troupes he managed at summer gardens and on tours with the circus or his family troupe. Interlude dances were important enough to be listed boldly by title on newspaper advertisements; these listings often provide clues that John Durang was on stage for that act.
Probably, Durang also created interlude versions of well-known social dances, such as the “Minuet de la Cour,” for the theatre as he would arrange simpler versions for his students when he ran his dancing academy, either with teaching and performance colleague William Francis, or on his own.
Altogether, Durang’s years in the theatre and as a dancing master would have given Durang facility with creating, arranging, and staging dances of many types, contributing to his adaptability as a performer, manager, and teacher.