With a beautifully presented selection of images, Dr. Caitlyn Lehmann—a cultural historian who specialises in ballet history, with particular expertise in the events of the 18th and 19th centuries—treated us to an inspiring and illuminating talk on ballet and balleticised performance at Astley's Circus.
Philip Astley (1742-1814) was an English equestrian, soldier and circus owner, and is regarded as the father of the modern circus. The circus industry traces its heritage to Astley's Amphitheatre, originally a riding school founded by Philip in London in 1768, where he and his wife Patty gave their trick-riding displays alongside other animal acts, acrobatics, and clowning.
Over the next forty years, the Astleys continuously expanded and improved their establishment, as well as rebuilding again and again after successive fires. The venue went through a variety of name changes from Astley’s Royal Grove to Astley's Amphitheatre of Arts. The Astleys went on to establish other permanent bases throughout the British Isles and Europe.
In the early 1780s, as Caitlyn has written, the success of ballets by Jean-George Noverre and the celebrity of the Vestris (father Gaetano and son Auguste) at London’s opera house inspired a wave of spoofs, satires and loving send-ups among the city’s theatrical establishments. Astley's Amphitheatre played its part by announcing an ‘astonishing’ new spectacle of dancing on horseback by John Astley, Philip and Patty's young son. John’s horseback dancing, comprising both ‘comic and serious dances’, was originally meant to lampoon the ballet, but instead became the mainstay of the Astley’s entertainments during the ensuing years, with John fusing physical athleticism to refinement, and introducing elegance into the motley milieu of circus. Over time, ballet itself also became a significant component of the circus’s offerings.
Fast-forwarding to the 1850s and Melbourne, Australia: in September 1854, London-born G. B. W. Lewis (1818-1906) opened his antipodean version of the famed Astley's Amphitheatre on the corner of Spring and Little Bourke Streets. The venue, owned by his business partner Thomas Mooney, was attached to the Mazeppa Hotel (named after the famous poem by Lord Byron) which encompassed shops and boasted ‘stablings for ten horses’ (The Argus, 22 September 1855). Lewis had left his home in Deal, Kent, and headed to Australia, like many performers, attracted by Victoria's Gold Rush and the thought of the inevitable audiences.
Although possessed of management, riding and gymnastic skills, Lewis was beset by ill luck and Melbourne’s Astley's Amphitheatre closed less than a year after opening. In 1855, George Selth Coppin (1819-1906), actor-manager and entrepreneur, leased the building as the Royal Amphitheatre, which, finally, became the Princess's Theatre two years later. Almost three decades later, the New Princess's, built in the fashionable French Renaissance style, replaced the original building.
Just last year—2018—there was a variety of events celebrating the 250th anniversary of Astley's first shows. These took place in London, Monte Carlo and around the United Kingdom with new plaques unveiled, monuments created, plays performed.
Caitlyn Lehmann has given papers at Oxford's New College, at Melbourne University, in Castlemaine and Dunedin; has written articles for London's Dancing Times, Dance Australia, and the Australian Ballet's magazines and programmes; contributed to a BBC documentary, curated exhibitions—the list goes on and on. To learn more about her please refer to her utterly intriguing website, www.vintagepointe.org.
Once again, it was very hard to tear ourselves away from the post-talk gathering conducted below The Channel in one of the Arts Centre's many cafe bars!
Grateful thanks are due to Dr. Caitlyn Lehmann, to Dr. Mimi Colligan and to Joshua Cowie and the Arts Centre staff.
Held at The Channel on Saturday, 15 June 2019