From Saddle to Stage: Ballet at Astley's Amphitheatre, 1780-1800
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 how John and his father Philip Astley charmed, thrilled and perplexed the London public with their balletic offerings. In the process, the paper will reflect on the role of ballet in the evolution of the circus as family-friendly entertainment—and the contribution of circus to the accessibility and growing appeal of ballet in the late eighteenth century.