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:


March being Women’s History Month, during the next few weeks I’ll highlight Philadelphia women in dance. History tends to ignore the influence of dance on popular culture and, in doing so, often keeps hidden the inspiring stories of daring, creative women.

* * *

OF FAIRIES AND BALLET-GIRLS

Throughout the 19th century, ballets in America most often served as diverting, if lightweight,  additions to opera and theatre. The eye-pleasing color and motion of  these “incidental dances”  relieved the often static staging of serious operas and plays; both the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera maintained a corps of dancers. In the complementary world of vaudeville and popular music houses, elaborately costumed dances were usually part of a kaleidoscopic program that might include songs, magic acts, trained dogs, pantomimes and clowns. There were exceptions, like Philadelphia’s own Mary Ann Lee and Augusta Maywood (more on them next time), but the ballet dancer, daring to expose her shapely limbs in “fleshings,” spangles and short skirts,  was generally seen as something closer to chorus girl than to ethereal fairy. In short, the “ballet-girl” was something no better than her wicked sister, the actress. The Daily Evening Bulletin described this scene from a ballet presented at the American Theatre in 1867:

“The dancers are dressed in an extreme ballet costumes, the majority of them are wearing the shortest possible skirts, with their extemities clothed in flesh colored tights . . .  The dance is perhaps no worse than many others of the same character that are given at other places of amusement, and yet it will scarcely be denied that its chief attraction was its lascivious character, and that the theatre was crowded nightly by men, who came her for the extreme purpose of seeing this dance, and the women who engaged in it”

* * *

PAVLOVA – THE IMMORTAL SWAN

The person who did the most to publicize ballet and create new audiences in the early 20th century was without a doubt Anna Pavlova. It was for the frail-looking Pavlova that Michel Fokine created the solo The Dying Swan, the role with which she would become most closely associated. In an era before air travel, it was estimated that Pavlova logged over 400,000 miles while touring the globe. She first appeared in Philadelphia with the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets in 1910 to a house nearly filled by a curious public.  The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that “this form of entertainment possesses pleasurable possibilities which had not before been adequately realized in this vicinity . . . it did prove once more that the dance is entitled to be admitted to the company of the fine arts.” Indeed, Pavlova was to return to Philadelphia many times in the teens. Her face appeared on Wanamaker Department Store ads and, over eighteen weeks in 1915, The Evening Public Ledger published a series of  illustrated articles in which “Pavlowa, peerless dancer” would instruct Ledger readers  in her versions of the waltz, the onestep and the polka. The incomparable Pavlova had shrewdly used the mania for ragtime ballroom dancing to promote her company and classical ballet, widening her audiences and her appeal.

* * *

CATHERINE LITTLEFIELD – FIERY AND COOL

Around the same time that Pavlova began appearing on Philadelphia stages, West Philadelphian Catherine Littlefield began studying at her mother Caroline’s dance school. Later, she studied and performed in New York, then in Europe with the Paris Opera. Returning home to Philadelphia, she began choreographing and dancing for the Philadelphia Civic Opera, of which her mother was ballet director, and the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company. Soon, she was teaching at the family’s Littlefield School of Ballet at 1815 Ludlow St., near Rittenhouse Square. From that school, in 1935, grew the Littlefield Ballet which quickly became the Philadelphia Ballet. Mother Caroline accompanied classes on piano, sister Dorothie was ballet mistress and brother Carl was enlisted to dance with the company.  (See Catherine rehearsing the Philadelphia Ballet in the Ludlow St. studio, right.) The New York Times wrote of the new company in December of 1935:

“With no fanfare whatever, but considerable promise of success, a new ballet organization has slipped into the American field with Philadelphia at its centre and Catherine Littlefield as its director. Though it came into official existence no longer ago than Oct. 25 with a modest suburban performance, it is already worthy of attention for several reasons. In the first place, it is a healthy step in the direction of breaking down the centralization of all dance activity in New York . . . In the second place, Miss Littlefield’s procedure is eminently practical, devoid of all pretension and Barnumism, and based on the good old fashioned principal of making haste slowly.  . . At present the repertoire consists of three pieces composed by Miss Littlefield with a very definite end in view. They have been designed to make an appeal to audiences which may never have seen any kind of dance before, and at the same time to be in every way up to the best standards of dance.”

Appealing to a wide audience was just what Littlefield did. The Company performed where they could find an engagement – in high schools, women’s clubs and athletic associations.  The company was fresh, young and full of enthusiasm. They performed pieces set to classical European music choreographed for them by Littlefield, such as Bolero to music by Ravel, Viennese Waltz to Strauss melodies and a full length Sleeping Beauty. However, they also performed American themed pieces like Barn Dance, which popularized American rural themes before Agnes DeMille’s Rodeo and Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid (see photo, below); The Rising Sun, an historical piece marking the 150th anniversary of the Pennsylvania constitution and Cafe Society, a spoof of the nightclub scene. The company performed to acclaim in New York, and later with the Chicago City Opera. In 1937, Littlefield’s Philadelphia Ballet became the first American company to tour Europe.

In the early 1940s Littlefield lost too many men to the war draft  to maintain a performing company – she had always stressed the importance of strong, athletic male dancers. She spent the rest of the decade choreographing ice shows and making significant contributions to musical theatre. Littlefield crackled with energy yet was calmy focused; a contemporary commented, “She was dry ice–fiery and cool.” Cancer ended her life in 1951.

The short career of Philadelphia dancer, teacher, choreographer and director Catherine Littlefield, as well as the fact that she was a woman artistic director in what had been a man’s game, only make her accomplishments more extraordinary. Like Pavlova, she widened the audience for dance with her commitment, high technical standards and personal vision. An amazing woman,  Littlefield’s story is a significant, if forgotten,  chapter in the history of 20th century American dance.

%d bloggers like this: