The Ballet Girls Who Burned to Death
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they died for their art.
By Fiona Zublin
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.
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.
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.
Today’s ballerinas are expected to starve and punish themselves for fear of being pushed off the assembly line, says Deirdre Kelly, dance critic and author of Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection. But with Livry, “the directors said, ‘No, please, you’re our labor force, we want to preserve you,’ ” Kelly says, noting how Livry’s refusal to wear the chemically treated tutus, while tragic and unwise, showed a certain admirable willfulness. It was an example of a dancer setting her own priorities and seizing authority as an artist, Kelly believes, rather than as the embodiment of a choreographer’s vision.
Forty percent of Livry’s body had been burned, and her corset melted into her ribs.
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. 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.
Dancers in Livry’s day, for all the dangers, enjoyed more autonomy. While ballerinas in the 18th and 19th centuries endured plenty of hardship, “a 20th-century ballerina could envy them,” says Kelly, “because they were much more in control of their artistic destinies.”