Flashback: Emma Livry, 1862
Ballet loves a tragic ingenue: Odette, Giselle, the girl in the red shoes–but the storied lives of its early dancers upstaged the roles they played.
It’s hard not to romanticize the 19th century Paris Opera–Degas sketching the feathery dancers from his box above the flickering footlights–but offstage, the lives of his subjects were less idyllic. In fact, the biographies of the Romantic Era ballerina make the Paris Opera sound like a soap.
Perhaps the saddest is that of Emma Livry. The last star of the romantic ballet, she is most remembered for her deadly costume choice. But hers is not the story of a skirt. It is the age-old tale of societal class, and the art of survival for those in the lower levels.
Before the theater, ballet was danced in the royal courts, where a performer’s costume emulated the aristocracy, and in turn, helped design the dance itself.
Whalebone corsets synched a woman’s waist—and held a dancer’s core strong for balance; An open neckline showcased the jewels over her décolletage and a dancers epaulment. The ankle length muslin skirt, preserving her modesty, was gradually hemmed to reveal the dancer’s leg work, and made lighter to allow for intricate footwork and ethereal effects.
In 1832, the shortened romantic tutu made its debut on the hips of Marie Taglioni, the most famous dancer of the Romantic Period, and Livry’s future mentor. Cut a few inches below the knee, a high kick would reveal more leg than thought tasteful. Women in the audience were openly scandalized but men were intrigued.
In the romantic Era theaters began using gaslight to create otherworldly effects when the house lights were dimmed. As theaters were relying more on subscribers, male dancers were pushed upstage and females brought front and center, closer to the footlights, increasing aesthetics—and ticket sales.
Despite refined posture and opulent on-stage dress, the dancing daughters of the impoverished working class were penniless, and deemed unmarriageable. Many moonlighted as seamstresses or prostitutes to supplement measly theater wages. If a ballerina became a muse (or mistress), an attentive patron of the Foyer de la Danse might pluck her from poverty.
In the notorious Foyer de la Danse, liaisons were arranged between dancers and prominent male patrons. Emma’s mother, herself a dancer, caught the eye of a baron. Emma’s grandmother, an unwed linen worker, supported the arrangement, as there was no other way to make ends meet. When Emma was born in the Fall of 1842, the baron left her mother and denied paternity. Luckily, his replacement, Vicomte Ferdinand de Montguyon, was more of a father figure. 16 years later, he negotiated Emma’s contract and placed Marie Taglioni in the audience for her debut at The Paris Opera.
When Emma danced the Sylph in La Sylphide, Marie Taglioni was watching. She saw herself revived in the girl, and took her on as her protege.
Emma had all the technical prowess of the Italian school, with the soft grace of the French. Taglioni feared herself outshined, but loved her student as her own. She presented Emma with a portrait of herself. The inscription read “Make me forgotten, but don’t forget me.”
Livry was becoming the brightest jewel of the Paris Opera, but only four years past her debut, her coda came too soon.
During a rehearsal of La Muette de Portici, she ran across the stage three times in flames when her tutu caught fire on a gas lamp in the wings. Though legislation required all costumes be fireproofed, she had refused, lest her tulle become stiff and yellowed from the treatment.
Through months of agony strapped to a stretcher, her stance was unshaken. “Yes, they are, as you say, less dangerous, but should I ever return to the stage, I would never think of wearing them – they are so ugly.”
She died soon after.
Beauty is a central component of ballet, a visual art in which Livry could not afford to lose the audience’s eye. In clinging to her skirt, she had hoped to preserve the lightness of her step, the aesthetic of her art, and the ethereal quality for which she was revered. In all, the career that kept her from a desolate existence.
Were Livry’s tale squeezed into a book of fables, it might warn of the perils of vanity. However, her days were set outside the fairy world, where her choices were less her own. Nevermind unenforced legislation. In a case of life imitating tragedy, the theater rewarded the heroine delicate and fair..and let her burn playing the part.
If the tragic events of one short life could exemplify the hostile conditions of the otherworldly but antiquated Romantic Ballet, Livry would play the lead.
Sources for this article include: 1. What Great Paintings Say, Volume 1, Rose Marie Hagen, Rainer Hagen 2. The Dance Encyclopedia, Anatole Chujoy, P.W. Manchester 3.Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, Deirdre Kelly 4.Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850, edited by Christopher John Murray