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.
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 (star of the Paris Opera Ballet) 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.
As historian John Elsom points out, however, those 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’, Elsom says.
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!’
Picture of Russian ballerine, Pierina Legnani, in Le Corsaire (St Petersburg, 1899), a ballet with similar themes and costumes to Revolt of the Harem. The vogue for these ballets in the 1840s was an obvious precursor to the one for Circassian slave-girls in late-Victorian freak shows.
Aloff, Mindy, Dance Anecdotes: Stories From the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom and Modern Dance (Oxford & NY: 2006), 155.
Elson, John, Erotic Theatre (London: 1973).
Guest, Ivor, Victorian Ballet-Girl: The Tragic Story of Clara Webster (London: 1957), ch called ‘The Holocaust of Ballet Girls’.
‘Shocking Death of Miss Clara Webster’, The Public Ledger, 18 March 1845, available here.
Image of Le Corsaire from Wikipedia Commons.