Emma Livry (1842 - 1863)
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.
As with many problems, someone must be injured and killed, before something is done. In 1844 Clara Webster's (1821 - 1844) costume caught fire while in performance, although there was those who tried to save her she was so critically burned that two days later she died. 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.
Emma Livry was the newest star of the Paris Opera. Being French, she was replacing many of the Italian ballerinas. She soon became the darling of the Paris audiences dancing leading roles in the most famous romantic ballets, La Sylphide. Became her favorite ballet .One night when Marie Taglioni was in the audience she was entranced by Livry. Taglioni had created the role originally. She was so impressed that she adopted Livry as her protégée. Taglioni worked with her daily and choreographed Papillon a commissioned piece by Offenbach. It was written, "The Butterfly would not be possible [without Livry]. She was so, ethereal, and diaphanous, an intangible artist imperative, an artist with ballon Mlle. Livry had a ballon which has never been equaled - she bounds and leaps as no one else could do. She skims over the ground, the water and the flowers, apparently without touching them. Shims like feather and falls like a snowflake."
Livry refused to have her costume flame retarded because it caused the material to turn yellow and stiff. She was required to sign a release stated she was willing to take the chance. As she dance her tulle skirt came in contact with the gas jet and caught a fire. Two male dancers tried to extinguish the flame, but unsuccessfully. She suffered severe burns and died eight months later from complications. From that time until the advent of electric stage lighting, blankets soaked in water were kept ready on both sides of the stage. Hence, "wet blanket."
Emma Livry became the last of the romantic ballerinas. The romantic ballet was losing favor with the Paris audience. In Demark Bournonville kept the La Sylphide alive as a living ballet and we have his choreography to day.
To me the saddest part of Livry 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.
(First published 2000)
Next: Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)