Tag Archives: Circassian beauties

This holocaust of ballet girls

20 Feb

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.

The Eagle Rider of Circassia

26 Oct

Recently I wrote a post about kick-arse Victorian heroines in melodramatic productions on London’s East End. I’ve also written about the vogue for Circassian ladies in freak-shows in the late nineteenth century. Now I’ve stumbled across an undated playbill in the V&A Theatre Museum’s Enthoven Collection which neatly merges the two phenomena.

The playbill is for an East London melodrama featuring the derring-do of a Circassian heroine. Roll up, the poster declares, for an evening of Grand Equestiran and Dramatic Military Romantic Spectacle:

“The Conquest of Tartary; or the Eagle Rider of Circassia and Her Monarch Steed of the Desert, has surpassed the most sanguine expectations of the Management,… the general Acting, with the powerful Equestrian tablueax, Effects, Battles, Processions, and Gorgeous Scenery, with the strong interest created by the perilous adventures and feaful Escapes of the Circassian Prophetess, supported by Mrs R Buxton Taylor (the celebrated Female Equestrian), totally defies competition”.

This Eagle Rider of Circassia sounds even more like an exotic Lara Croft than the characters played by Amy Stirling at the Standard Theatre discussed in that recent post of mine. Picture her with bust rearing beneath beaded dress, diaphanous harem pants beneath, silver sword in hand, with her beer-frazzled hair abundant beneath a fetching helmet… All she needs is a Within Temptation goth-rock-style backing, and the Victorian heroine-does-World of Warcraft image is complete.

(NB above Circassian-beauty image from http://www.missioncreep.com/mundie/gallery/gallery5.htm)

The good oil, & other things Circassian

22 Apr

For anyone interested in Circassian Beauties, the subject of a post I wrote last week, this offering on the Virtual Dime Musuem adds a great postscript…