Horsing around with dance at Astley’s Amphitheatre
In the early 1780s, the success of ballets by Noverre and the celebrity of the Vestris père et fils inspired a wave of spoofs, satires and loving send-ups among London’s theatrical establishments. From south of the Thames, Astley’s Amphitheatre played its part with the announcement of an “astonishing” new spectacle of dancing on horseback by young John Astley, comprising both comic and serious dances. Taking his cue from the ballet’s topicality, John’s dashing blend of terpsichorean dexterity and equestrian mastery was to become the mainstay of the Amphitheatre’s entertainments during the ensuing years, fusing physical athleticism with refinement, and introducing elegance into the motley milieu of circus. This paper will focus on the Amphitheatre’s borrowings from ballet, and what John and his father Philip Astley usefully gleaned about the tastes of fashionable Londoners by observing practices at theatrical venues such as the opera house. The paper will also consider what the ballet dancers at the opera house might conceivably have learned from Astley’s about the business of spectacle—and horsing around—on the 18thcentury London stage.