- Kate Van Winkle Keller
Durang, John (06 January 1768–29 March 1822), dancer, choreographer, and theatrical entrepreneur, was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of Jacob Durang, a physician, and Joeann Catharine Arter, who had emigrated from Strasbourg, France, in 1767. Settling first in York, the family moved to Philadelphia in 1778. America’s first native-born theatrical dancer of prominence, Durang was influenced in his youth by Louis Roussell, a French dancer and teacher. In his memoirs he states that he emulated Roussell’s “pigeon wing” and learned the correct way of dancing a hornpipe “in the French stile [ sic]” and “an allemande and steps for a country dance” from him. From the roles he played and his drawings of himself performing, it is evident that Durang became master of the three genres of stage dancing: danse noble, both abstract and dramatic; character roles in pantomimes; and comic harlequinade, uniting dance, acrobatics, and dialogue.
At fifteen Durang ran away to follow a traveling showman to Boston. He gained invaluable performance experience on the tour, and on his return to Philadelphia he joined Lewis Hallam’s theatrical company, making his debut in a solo hornpipe. The solo hornpipe “in the caracter [sic] of a sailor” was to become Durang’s stock-in-trade. The dance published by his son Charles, in Durang’s Terpsichore: or Ball Room Guide (1847), is believed to be his personal routine. It reflects elements from formal French stage hornpipes, with light steps such as sissonne and entrechat, as well as movements and shuffle steps associated with plebeian clog or “wooden shoe” dancing.
From 1784 until its dissolution in 1793, Durang appeared in many performances with Hallam’s Old American Company, chiefly in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. It was during the 1785 New York run that a local musician named Hoffmaster wrote a piece he called “Durang’s Hornpipe” for him. The tune apparently became very popular through his performances and is still played by traditional fiddlers. An early print is in Riley’s Flute Melodies (1814). John Durang married Mary McEwen in 1787; their family eventually included seven children, all of whom followed in his footsteps, appearing on the stage as dancers or singers.
In 1794 Durang joined the company at the new Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia under the management of Thomas Wignell. The ballet company was directed by William Francis and included several well-trained European artists. It was here that La Forêt noire, the first serious ballet to be mounted in the United States, was performed for the debut of Madame Gardie, a brilliant dancer from Santo Domingo and Paris. In 1796 the company was joined in New York by Jean Baptiste Francisqui, a choreographer of great originality who produced the most brilliant season of ballets and pantomimes ever seen in the United States. Although Durang danced opposite Gardie on tour, the presence of these foreign stars decreased his opportunities for roles and benefits. He learned much from them but soon decided to seek greener pastures.
John B. Ricketts had opened a circus and riding school in Philadelphia in 1792 and began to compete with the theater by adding pantomimes and farces to the equestrian performances. He had approached Durang to join his troupe earlier and finally engaged him as ballet master and performer in 1796. In the fall of that year Durang produced two comic ballets, The Country Frolic and The Two Huntsmen, and several pantomimes, and the following spring he mounted Francisqui’s popular Independence of America. When the company moved to New York Durang produced several new ballets, all in 1797: The Peasant of the Alps, The Country Wake, The Magic Tree, and a pantomime with a lively American title, The Western Exhibition, or The Whiskey Boys’ Liberty Pole. He also revived Francisqui’s The Milliners (1797) and organized several patriotic productions that introduced spectacular stage effects popular with a thrill-seeking public, notably The Battle of Trenton and The Battle of the Kegs (both 1799). Off-season, Durang toured with Ricketts’s company, making an arduous tour in 1797–1798 to Montreal and Quebec, during which he learned and performed several Native-American dances.
In December 1799 fire destroyed Ricketts’ Circus in Philadelphia, putting the company out of business. After an independent season at the old Southwark, Durang rejoined Wignell’s company, where he remained until he retired in 1819. His family was growing rapidly, and through his success and prudence, lived comfortably in a double house on Cedar (now South) Street. Durang continued to act small roles in the plays and to dance in pantomimes and ballets. In addition, he ran a dancing school in partnership with William Francis in Philadelphia and also in Baltimore when the company was in residence there.
During the off-seasons, the entrepreneurial Durang organized and trained touring companies featuring his talented family. Under his management they made many successful tours to Baltimore and towns in western Maryland and central Pennsylvania, bringing the wonders of the big-city spectaculars to rural audiences. After his first wife’s death, Durang married Elizabeth Cole in 1814. They had no children.
In 1816 Durang wrote his memoir and in it created a vigorous self-portrait of forty years of industrious application to a variety of theatrical efforts. Show business had possessed him wholly: he danced, painted scenery, performed acrobatic feats, organized and directed acting companies, devised ballets, pantomimes, and pyrotechnic displays, and had played innumerable major and minor roles in legitimate drama to appreciative audiences. Durang died in Philadelphia.
A devout German Catholic, proud of his personal integrity and wholesome family life, Durang was a tireless worker. He must have been personable and persuasive: Hallam credited him with “a tongue that could wheedle with the devil” (Sonneck, Early Opera in America , p. 25). Of himself Durang said: “My mind was never idle, but allways [sic] employed in some project and invention; I was not fond of an inactive life.” He was shrewd with a shilling but was willing to test markets and take risks. John Durang was a pioneer on the expanding frontier of theater in early America.
While his personal memoir and watercolor paintings, now at the Historical Society of York County, Pennsylvania, are full of details, Durang’s memory was not always accurate, and they are far from being a complete record of his life. Alan S. Downer edited the manuscript published as The Memoir of John Durang, American Actor, 1785–1816 (1966); the dates in the title refer to the span of Durang’s career. The best biography is Elizabeth Clarke Kieffer, “John Durang, the First Native American Dancer,” in the Dutchman 6, no. 1 (June 1954): 26–38. See also Chrystelle Bond, “A Chronicle of Dance in Baltimore 1780–1814,” Dance Perspectives 17, monograph no. 66 (Summer 1976): 1–48.