The Divine Elssler and the Quaker City

July 10, 2012

Her step so light–her brow so fair,
She boundeth like a thing of air;–
Or fairy in her wanton play,–
Or naiad on the moonlight spray.
Like gossamer on wings of light,
She floats before our tranced sight.
Let’s gaze no more–nor speak–nor stir–
Lest we fall down and worship her.

Memoir of Fanny Elssler, 1840

THE CULT OF THE BALLERINA
In the late 1830s, all of Europe was caught up in the intense rivalry between two star ballerinas, Swedish born Marie Taglioniand the Austrian, Fanny Elssler. Taglioni, left, embodied the early romantic balletic ideal of the ethereal, spiritual and sylph-like female, while Elssler was fiery, earthy and sexy.  If Taglioni became associated with La Sylphide, Elssler took as her signature dance the exotic Spanish cachucha, which she executed with spirit and attack, below, right. Even from these romantic-era lithographs, it’s easy to see the difference in temperament and style of the two. This period was the beginning of the nineteenth century “cult of the ballerina”  when male dancers were relegated to character roles and female dancers were idolized.  It was not unusual for ballet  stages to be so strewn with flowers and bouquets by audiences that dancers could scarcely proceed.

By 1838, Philadelphia newspapers, keen to keep up with European gossip,  avidly reported on the state of the Taglioni-Elssler rivalry.  Incidents at theatres reached a fevered pitch which would be shocking today. For instance, when Elssler appeared for the first time at the Paris Opéra as Ondine, la Fille du Danube, The Philadelphia National Gazette reported:

“At length, when the Elsslerites were so bold as to call for an encore in the last act, the Taglionites rose in a body, and poured in a volley of hisses . . .  the claquers of her (Elssler’s) party pummelled without mercy some of the refractory of the opposite party, and the police coming to their aid, the most prominent unfortunate Taglionites were hauled out of the pit by main force. Fanny Elssler remains mistress of the field, or rather of the flood, and she is now the Daughter of the Danube.”

When Stephen Price, the manager of the Park Theatre in New York decided it might be good business to take advantage of all this media attention and engage Elssler to perform in the U.S., he enlisted the aid of Henry Wikoff, left, a Philadelphian who was living in Paris at the time. Wikoff has been called, at times, a gossip, a globe-trotting rogue and a philanderer. Wikoff was, however,  able to make the dancer’s acquaintance and talked Elssler into signing a contract. When Price’s partner at the Park Theatre decided not to honor the contract, Wikoff stepped in and took over the role of impresario, bringing her to America himself.

* * *

ELSSLER IN THE NEW WORLD

When she arrived in New York, on May 3, 1840, the anti-Elssler forces were already at work. The French had assured her that she would not be received well here. It’s important to remember that ballet dancers were often seen as “loose women” at this time, not much better than actresses or chorus girls. The fact that Wikoff and Elssler had adjoining rooms when travelling scandalized Philadelphia matrons staying at their Coney Island hotel.  All the gossip and the efforts of the anti-Elssler faction were a dismal failure, however; the Park Theater in New York where she performed sold out every night.

In June, she moved on to Philadelphia and the Chestnut Street Theatre, near 6th Street, above. The French diplomat the Chevalier de Bacourt, who was passing through Philadelphia at the time, complained about the railroads, the rudeness of servants here and the uncomfortableness of the hotels, but had this memory of Fanny:

“All Philadelphia was astir to see Fanny Elssler, who danced this evening. She is staying at the same hotel as me. I was very much pleased with her dancing, but what amused me as much was to see the hall crowded, and to hear the furious applause, far exceeding London or Paris, and that applause at Philadelphia, the chief city of the Quakers–Quakers wildly excited over the dancer Fanny elssler. The theater is neither large nor well arranged; on the first row were many very pretty women, all young, and dressed so exactly alike, that one would have taken them for sisters had there not been so many of them.”

The National Gazette proclaimed: “Every dance was encored and she was twice called for to receive bouquets and wreaths by the bushel.” Just as would happen in Baltimore, below, after the performance, cheering Philadelphia dandies unhitched the horses from her carriage and pulled it themselves back to the City Hotel on 3rd Street. The North American, just short of calling them asses, quipped: “The two legged donkeys engaged in this enterprise were, we hope, well fed and curried after their laborious duties were performed.”

For her 10 performances in Philadelphia that summer, Elssler received $6,386. This was at a time when most laborers earned about $3 a week!

* * *

A PHILADELPHIA LEGACY

Elssler had come to America with her dancing partner and ballet master, James Sylvain. They had difficult finding adequate stages, orchestras and corps de ballet to work with in the U.S. While in Philadelphia, they hired and trained both Mary Ann Lee and George Washington Smith, right. Both of them would accompany Elssler and Sylvain on their American tour and both would become important dancers in their own right.

Elssler would return to Philadelphia a few times. Her six month leave of absence from the Paris Opéra extended into a two year tour of America and Cuba. She would not return to Paris until July of 1842, having earned an astounding $100,000 in the U.S.

Fanny was more than just the first European superstar, dance or otherwise, to enthrall the American public. Her impact on the popularity of romantic ballet in America was phenomenal, directly inspiring Philadelphia dancers Mary Ann Lee and George Washington Smith, who later formed their own successful touring company. Lee retired at 24, but Smith would have a long career and later founded one of the first classical ballet schools in Philadelphia. In 1858, he paid a great tribute to the divine Austrian ballerina by naming his daughter, Fanny Elssler Smith, after her.

■ Below is a video of Yulia Makhalina dancing a reconstruction of Fanny Elssler’s Cachucha at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. I think Makhalina beautifully captured the energy, precision and spirit of Elssler’s dancing:

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2 Responses to “The Divine Elssler and the Quaker City”


  1. Wonderful drama! Who was Philadelphia’s first prima ballerina?

    • ilcorago Says:

      It’s hard to say, but that honor may very well go to Philadelphia’s own Mary Ann Lee, whose career included the first American performance of Giselle in Boston in 1846.


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