Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ballet-1872 (2)

Upon assembling for the evening performance, the girls are dressed by a practical costumer, whose business it is to see that each one wears her costume properly. This arranged, they pass down to the painter's room, where their cheeks, ears, and nostrils are "touched up" by an artist. Their hair is dressed by another artist, and every defect of face and figure is overcome as far as is possible. Thus adorned, the dull and jaded girl of the morning becomes, under the magical influence of the footlights, a dazzling sprite, and the object of the admiration of the half-grown boys and brainless men who crowd the front rows of orchestra seats.

The performance is not over until near midnight. Then the dancer must change her dress, fold her stage dress carefully away, make up her bundle, and set out for home. The principal dancers, such as Bonafanti, and Morlacchi, of course, have an easier time than the ordinary ballet girls, but all work hard.

It is commonly supposed that the ballet-dancer is of necessity an impure woman. Too many of them are; but, as a class, they are much abused. They work hard, and do not have much leisure time, and deserve more sympathy than reproach. Men, especially, think that, because they appear on the stage in a state of semi-nudity, they are immodest and of easy virtue; and in New York there is a class of men, of nominal respectability, who appear to regard ballet-dancers as their legitimate prey. They exert all their arts to lead these poor girls astray, and are too often successful. There is not a ballet-dancer in the city but can tell many a tale of persecutions of this kind; and if ever the devil employed a legion of emissaries to do his work, they must be the grinning, leering men who occupy the front seats in the theatres during the ballet performances, and who spend their leisure time in seeking to compass the ballet-girl's ruin.

The ballet-girl, says Olive Logan, "is a dancer, and loves dancing as an art. That pose into which she now throws herself with such abandon, is not a vile pandering to the tastes of those giggling men in the orchestra stalls, but is an effort, which, to her idea, is as loving a tribute to a beloved art as a painter's dearest pencil touch is to him. I have seen these women burst into tears on leaving the stage because they had observed men laughing among themselves, rolling their eyes about, and evidently making unworthy comments on the pretty creatures before them, whose whole heart was for the hour lovingly given over to Terpsichore. 'It is they who are bad,' said Mdlle. B_ to me, the other night; 'it is not we.'"

The majority of the ballet-dancers dwell with their parents, but many of those in the upper ranks of the profession like the freedom of Bleecker street, and reside in that thoroughfare. Thompson street also contains several boarding-houses patronized by dancers and burlesque actresses. A writer in the New York World gives the following clever sketch of the more prosperous ballet-girl at home:

"It was strictly a theatrical boarding-house, and all the young ladies were dancers. 'It would never do to have anybody else here. Mrs. Sullivan is Miss Jones's dresser at the "Adelphi," and she has kept house here some years. Her husband was an actor, and he went to California and never came back. She's a dear good woman, and treats us like her daughters.'
"'How many of you board here?"
" 'Thirteen. All of them are high-priced dancers, no ballet and utility girls here. No, sir! We pay $10 to $15 a week for board. She treats us like her own family.'

"Miss Bell then suggested a tour of the house, offering to be the guide of such an exploration. Tripping down stairs with the elastic hop of a bird, she knocked at the door of the lower front chamber, and immediately ushered her companion into the room. It was large and elegant, and in exquisite order. One really beautiful girl was driving a sewing-machine before a window with the industry of a seamstress. Another was engaged in trimming a tiny pair of satin boots with beads of every color. She was short, small, and swarthy, her chief beauty being a languishing pair of black eyes. A third lay at full length on a small bed in an alcove, reading Harper's Bazaar with the avidity of a milliner, or a lady of fashion. She was exceedingly pretty and ladylike. Two of them wore the inevitable white wrapper, while the third was fully dressed in a simple gray walking-suit. The lovely creature at the sewing-machine was Miss Ethel Lynn of the "Lyceum;" the swarthy girl was Miss Lottie Taylor of the 'Gaiety,' and the third was another Miss Lynn, pseudo-sister of Ethel, with whom she 'worked,' but in reality a no-relation named Ellis. The three girls smiled prettily enough on learning their visitor's object, and recumbent beauty regretted that it was impossible, under the circumstance, to publish a picture of the scene.

"The next room was occupied by 'a very great swell,' the premiere danseuse of the 'Lyceum.' It contained a superb piano littered with stage properties, dresses, and general odds and ends. The furniture was of splendid quality, and large tinted photographs of prominent French 'professionals,' including an unusually prepossessing likeness of Schneider, decked the walls. Satin tights, exquisitely pink, hung out of a half-open trunk. The danseuse was seated at a small table, her own profuse golden hair coiled after an indolent fashion, while her diamonded fingers were hard at work saturating some superb yellow tresses in a saucer of colorless fluid, a bleaching agent for continuing the luster of blond hair. A clamorous parrot trolled a bar or two of 'Un Mari Sage' overhead, and a shaggy poodle lay couched in leonine fashion at her feet, munching a handsome though fractured fan. A well-directed kick of her dainty little slippered foot sent the sacrilegious animal flying on the entrance of the two invaders. This was Mademoiselle Helene Devereux, a young lady who twirled her toes for a salary scarcely less than that of the President of the United States. French by birth, she spoke English with a pure accent. She seemed much amused at the errand of her masculine visitor.

"'You want to see a premiere at home? Look at me now dyeing my own hair. And see that dress there. I made it every bit myself. I get up every morning at 8. Some of the other lazy things in the house never think of breakfast till 10. But I turn out at 8; eat some breakfast; do all my mending; sort out my washing; got to rehearsal; practice new dances; come home to lunch; drive out to the Park; eat my dinner; go to the theatre; eat my supper, and go straight to bed. Can anybody live more properly? I don't think it possible. Mrs. Sullivan says I'm a model. I don't give her the least bit of trouble, and she wouldn't part with me for anything. You ought to have been here just now, and seen little Vulfi of the "Melodeon." She makes $100 a night, and yet she doesn't dress any more stylishly than Mrs. Sullivan; and she never bought a jewel in her life. She supports a mother, and sends a brother to college in Florence. You people think we are fast. That's all nonsense. It is only the little dancers, la canaille, who can afford to be dissipated. I can't, I know that. I'm too tired after the theatre to think of going out on a spree, as they call it. Besides, it doesn't do for a dancer to be too cheap. It hurts her business.'

"'Devereux's nice, isn't she?' said Miss Bell. 'She's very good, and she's plucky. A fellow once followed her home from rehearsal, chirping to her all the way. She said nothing, but went right on into the livery stable next door. The fellow went in after her, and she snatched a carriage whip out of the office, and, oh my! didn't she thrash him? Nobody interfered, and she whipped him till her arm ached. Ever since then she's been receiving dreadful letters, and so has Mrs. Sullivan. She can't find out who sends them, and she's never seen the fellow again.'"

Source of Information: Sights and Sensations of the Great City by James Dabney McCabe. Publisher: National Publication Co. 1872 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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