Burned Butterfly Emma Livry
Le Papillon, in which a kidnapped princess is transformed into a butterfly, is sillier than your average ballet. It’s not even scientifically accurate — the climax involves a butterfly’s wings burning after it flies into a torch, even though, unlike moths, butterflies aren’t attracted to bright lights. In fact, the most significant thing about the production was that its star, Emma Livry, became famous for playing the flame-injured butterfly. And for dying when she drew too close to an open flame.
The young ballerina wasn’t the only one; scores of dancers are believed to have died after gas lighting became popular in 19th-century theaters. A gas light, a flimsy tutu and — bam! Ballerinas in Philadelphia, London and Paris perished in what was referred to as a holocaust. But Livry stands out, both as a defiant voice against change in the ballet world and as a catalyst for it.
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.
When you hear someone called a “wet blanket” you never think, “Where that expression comes from?” but it comes from a incident in ballet history. Young people of today never think how the stage was illuminated before electricity. At first candles were placed inside a reflector. Later gas jets were used for foot-light and also for special effects.
In March 1845, the English dancer Clara Webster was playing the role of Zelika, the Royal Slave, in the ballet, Revolt of the Harem. As she gambolled about in a titillating bath-scene, splashing water on the other sylph-like slave-girls, her filmy costume brushed against a gas-lamp and caught fire. As the audience, her mother and colleagues looked on, Webster sustained such terrible burns that she died two days later.
At the time nothing was done to prevent this occurrence from happening again. They did find away to flame-retard clothing. But when this was done to the flowing tulle of the romantic tutu, it became discolored and stiff. Some of the ballerinas chose not to use it.
Until electricity replaced gas lamps and burning torches on the stage, Victorian ballet girls died as Clara Webster did with a horrible frequency. Julia McEwen, Fanny Smith, Emma Livry and others from Marseilles, New York, Liverpool, Trieste, Rio de Janeiro and Naples all contributed to this ‘holocaust of ballet girls’. The muslin skirts they wore were highly flammable, and they were surrounded by fire on stage as they danced – little wonder that accidents occurred.
These accidents could have been easily avoided. Managers of the day knew how to fireproof materials. The gas lamps could have been protected by wire, and prompters could have been given fire blankets to hand out in an emergency. Instead, dancers were simply given the choice to soak their costumes in a solution of alum – a move which made the dresses uncomfortable and unattractive – and then blamed if they chose against it. Knowing this, ‘it is hard to resist the conclusion that burning ballet-dancers were good for trade’.
Whether or not the possibility of a burning dancer added to the piquant suspense of the Victorian ballet, it was certainly the case that their deaths were discussed with a lugubrious relish in the press. Note this melancholy luxuriance in Clara Webster’s death, for instance, and shiver at its romantic flippancy:
‘Lovely butterfly of the passing hour, she attracted the gaze of the gay votaries of fashion and pleasure, and like the doomed moth, fluttering in the flame, consumed her ephemeral existence!’
Emma Livry was born Emma Marie Emarot on 24 September 1842. She studied at the Paris Opera Ballet School at Madame Dominique. In times when in a ballerina appreciated rounded shapes, Livry was noted for her subtle, delicate silhouette. First, she was criticized for being too thin, but the quality of dancing and her outstanding acting skills made the audience forget this “deficiency”.
Livry was the illegitimate daughter of Célestine Emarot, a ballet dancer, and Baron Charles de Chassiron, which prompted the following rhyming verse:
Can so skinny a rat
Be the daughter of so round a cat?
Livry was 16 when she made her Paris Opéra debut in 1858. Plain but captivating, she swiftly became a huge star. Livry was a prodigy, to the extent that a notoriously territorial prima ballerina known as La Taglioni came to Paris to see the upstart for herself — and, stunned by her dancing, immediately took the teenager on as a protégée. Ballet was a deceptively dangerous profession. Not only were dancers at risk of death by fire, they were sometimes killed by overambitious stagecraft or crushed by falling sets. In 1859, imperial decree demanded that all sets and costumes be flameproofed as best they could via a process known as carteronizing: Tutus were immersed in a chemical bath before being worn onstage. But the process left the delicate skirts dingy, and the ballerinas — the very people at risk of public immolation — fought the safety measures. “I insist, sir, on dancing at all first performances of the ballet in my ordinary ballet skirt,” Livry wrote to the Paris Opéra’s director in 1860 in a formal declaration of independence — one that would result in her death just two years later.
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 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.
Her Promising career, one of the last ballerinas of the Romantic ballet era Emma Livry was cut short in November 1862. She was 20 years old… In anticipation of the new ballet productions Taglioni suggested Emma to play a pantomime party of Fenella in the opera “La Muette de Portici”.
Unfortunately, it ended badly for Livry. On Nov. 15, 1862, she fluffed her skirts too close to a gas lamp and went up in flames. As Livry ran in circles around the set screaming, fellow cast members and the audience watched in horror. Another dancer and a fireman tried to save her — the emperor later rewarded them for their bravery with cash — and managed to smother the flames by wrapping her in a blanket. But 40 percent of Livry’s body had been burned, and her corset melted into her ribs.
She spent 36 hours wrapped in bandages in her dressing room, then another eight months recuperating, before dying of blood poisoning.
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.”
Suffering from terrible burns, Livry died eight months later and was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre. During the farewell ceremony of the poet Theophile Gautier noticed two white butterflies that tirelessly fluttered above the bier. The ballet “Butterfly”, despite its popularity, forever disappeared from the repertoire of the Opera.
Many dance scholars pinpoint Livry’s demise as the end of France’s dominant role in ballet. But her death also inspired safety measures: new designs for gas lamps, the invention of flame-retardant gauze and wet blankets hung in the wings just in case.
Though Livry is not remembered today, even by many in the dance world, her story, and those of other dancers like her, touch a nerve. When the skirt of French ballerina Janine Charrat caught on fire during a rehearsal and burned more than half of her body in 1961, she reportedly said, “Comme Emma Livry!” after the fire had been extinguished. Luckily for Charrat, she lived, and returned to ballet. But the idea of being consumed, literally, by your art has a romantic connection to ballet, an art that over the last 100 years has become deeply dedicated to what Kelly calls “the cult of thin” — the stripping down and distilling of a dancer’s physical presence to fulfill a romantic ideal.
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.
Emma Livry became the last of the romantic ballerinas. The romantic ballet was losing favour with the Paris audience. In Demark Bournonville kept the La Sylphide alive as a living ballet and we have his choreography to day.
The saddest part of Livrys life is that she is remembered for the ballerina that was burned and later died, instead of the great dancer she was. I guess the public then as now wants their stars to be remembered for their life style or scandals.