More Musings on Lineage: Emma Livry (1842-1863)
Lineage is a fragile thing. I think about that every time I think about ballet, and I probably learned more about what it takes to maintain and nourish a lineage through having been a dancer than in all the studies and religious work I’ve done since. Lineage is connection, power, tradition, rootedness, identity, culture, and that culture is directed at maintaining and expressing something precious (be it devotion in our case as polytheists, or beauty and art, a different type of devotion, in the case of the dancers I’m discussing here). It is passed through bodies, through the stories, material culture, and lived experience of one generation to the next. One generation takes the next in hand, carefully forming them, teaching them, helping them, and entrusting to them whatever lineage and tradition it is that one carries. That is a sacred trust, something to be cherished, reverenced, protected.
In ballet, it’s not just greatness that is shaped this way, but the endurance of specific choreographies, pedagogies, and ballets themselves. One learns directly from those who danced before one. One dancer teaches a particular role to another, or a dancer begins to teach and passes on all he or she has learned to those students seeking to step into the art, and that is how the lineage and tradition survives. It is terrifyingly ephemeral. Break that chain and you can shatter the lineage.
It is the same with religious traditions, which is why intergenerational passage of knowledge i.e. polytheists raising children as polytheists, cultivating devotion from the womb is so terribly important. We don’t have the societal structure (yet) to support any type of devotion let alone ours, but we can make our households, our homes, our minds, and our hearts living temples to the Gods one by one. We can restore. There’s a line in the Talmud that says that to save a single soul is to save the entire world. I’d like to think that raising up one good polytheist or being one oneself, or leaving behind a body of work to help the next generation, is similarly restorative to our traditions in the world. Anyway, I’m digressing when instead I specifically want to talk about a break in ballet lineage.
In the mid 19th century, there were two main centers of ballet: France and Italy. Denmark also had a significant school. The Imperial Russian school existed but hadn’t yet come into the fullness of its tradition. That would take thirty plus years of Italian and French dancers and ballet masters working in St. Petersburg and sharing their knowledge, establishing clear lines of pedagogy, and training up several generations of dancers, each better than the last. After 1863 the locus of ballet moved to Italy and then Russia and French ballet fell into … not oblivion but let us say disregard. I’ll explain in a moment. It wasn’t until the Ballet Russe – shaped by French and Italian pedagogy – returned to Paris in the early 20thcentury that French ballet experienced a renaissance. I believe strongly that part of the reason for French ballet losing its place for close to a hundred years was the death of ballerina Emma Livry (and I will caution you before you read further, I’m going to talk about her death, and it was horrific).
In each generation there are dancers who stand out from the rest, the truly great artists and/or pedagogues. The heaviest weight of a tradition rests on their shoulders and they pass it on to their apprentices and students. They infuse the ballet tradition of a particular place with power, life, and vitality and make it shine like the sun in its glory. In the generation before Livry, the key dancers were Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) and Fanny Essler (1810-1884 – Essler actually visited the east coast of the US on one of her many tours! She performed in Baltimore). There was also Carlotta Grisi (1819-1899), Lucille Grahn (1819-1907), and Fanny Cerrito (1817-1909). It’s important to note that many of these women were also noted choreographers, a fact that until recently received very little attention (1). The same can be said for their predecessor Marie Salle (1709-1756). While all of these dancers at some point danced at the Paris Opera Ballet, it was Taglioni who truly reigned in Paris (and I think can probably be counted the greatest of the dancers mentioned here, though she and Essler were rivals on pretty equal terms technique-wise. Their artistic styles were almost diametrically opposed).
Emma Livry was Taglioni’s student and protegee. Before she met Taglioni, she debuted at age sixteen at the Paris Opera ballet in Taglioni’s signature role La Sylphide. When Taglioni saw her dance, she took Livry as a student and eventually choregraphed a ballet named Le Papillon (the butterfly) for the girl. Livry was incredibly talented and a noted sculptor at the time, Jean-Auguste Barre created sculptures of her. She was praised by ballet critics and it was clear, even in her own day, that she was the one destined to inherit the mantle of the French ballet tradition, and in doing so, carry it into the next generation. Sadly, tragically – and I don’t use that word often—that did not happen.
On November 15, 1862, during a ballet rehearsal, her skirts caught fire. At that time, stages were lit by gaslights, not electricity. There had been fire related deaths before due to this, so dancers had the option of fire-proofing their skirts. Livry, as many dancers, declined because the substance used in fireproofing made the skirts stiff, unpleasant, and more importantly heavy. When she went up in flames, two male dancers rushed to help her, but by the time they were able to put the fire out, she was so burned that the stays of her corset (dancers wore corsets when they danced in the 19th century) had burned/fused into her ribs. Her face and breasts were unburned. Taglioni was present and tried to help her as the girl as well, and it is recorded Livry prayed fervently immediately after the ordeal. She didn’t die immediately but lingered bed-bound for months in an agony it is recorded she bore with piety and stoicism, dying on July 26, 1863. She died of septicemia when her wounds reopened (they never really healed) at the age of twenty. She is buried in Montmartre Cemetery. I knew most of this from my own time in ballet, but here’s the wiki article on her.
As a dancer, Livry was particularly noted for her extraordinary ballon: the quality of her jumps, the ability to jump lightly and to seemingly hover in the air. Le Papillon was the only ballet Marie Taglioni ever choreographed.
Here’s the thing: the power of French ballet died with her for decades. It’s a noticeably glaring gap in the history of ballet. Many of the leading pedagogues had moved to St. Petersburg (which led to the glory days of the Imperial ballet there, and the Ballet Russe, which returned and repaid the debt to France generations later). Livry’s death, however, left a lacuna in the mid 19th century that no other French dancer could fill. I’m not the only historian to note this. I can’t recall where I read it, possibly here, but other historians have also pointed out that with Livry’s death, ballet in France went into a serious decline (2).
I will close by pointing out that the work you do matters. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is. It matters even if all you’re doing is choosing to pray or make an offering. In the eyes of our Gods, I do not believe this is insignificant. It is restoration, the whisper of lineage, devotion and in a tiny way, the restoration of our world. Never ever doubt that your lives matter, that the choices you make matter. You may not realize how much at the time. You don’t have to be a spiritual specialist like a spirit worker or priest for that to be true. It matters and what you create matters. So, find your devotional voice. Find the medium by which you will bring beauty into the world and throw yourself into it without hesitation. It doesn’t matter if others think it ‘good.’ Pray. Do your devotions. Bring beauty into the world and know that in doing so you are reweaving delicate threads of traditions through which the Gods, I think, are aching to express Themselves. You’re restoring windows to the world through which They can act. May be so always and may you be blessed in the striving.
- Until the past two, maybe three years, there was in ballet circles the mistaken idea that until the 20th century choreographers were male. Even now, it’s still seen as men choreograph, women dance. This is not the case at all though historically. Women, from the earliest significant periods of ballet, like Marie Salle in the 18th century, were choreographers, and noted as such in their heyday.
- The prestige of French ballet began to rise again in the 1920s (after the Ballet Russe re-infused ballet there with vitality). Several noted Imperial ballerinas, most especially Matilda Kchessinska , Olga Preobrajenska, and I believe, Lyubov Egorova began teaching in Paris. Then there was ballerina Yvette Chauvire and Claude Bessy, the latter the youngest child to ever be admitted to the Paris Opera Ballet School, and who later became director of the school. Both of whom helped train the incomparable Sylvie Guillem, and thus the tradition in France was revived, restored, and holds its place today as one of the great schools of modern ballet.