Spotlight: Fanny Elssler

Spotlight Saturday is back! Today's instalment features noted Romantic-era ballerina Fanny Elssler.

She was born Franziska Elssler on 23 June 1810, the daughter of Johann Florian Elssler. Her father worked as a copyist for the composer Joseph Haydn, an employee of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterhazy. Fanny was trained for the ballet from her earliest years, and made her appearance at the Karntnertortheater in Vienna before the age of 7.

Fanny almost always danced with her elder sister Therese, two years her senior. After Fanny's ninth birthday, the two girls studied under Jean-Pierre Aumer and Friedrich Horschelt, as well as travelling to Naples to study under Gaetano Gioja. In 1827, after seven years of experience in Vienna, Fanny and Therese returned to Naples. While there, the 17 year old Fanny had an affair with Leopold, Prince of Salerno, the son of King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies. As a result, she bore a son, Franz.

As Florinda in 'Le Diable boiteux'

The sisters were very successful in Naples, though their popularity had more to do with Fanny than Therese. Their success led to an engagement in Berlin in 1830. Fanny experienced a number of triumphs in Berlin and Vienna, captivating not only the audiences, but also the aged statesman Friedrich von Gentz. Soon after she visited London, where she gave birth to a daughter. The child was adopted by Mr and Mrs Grote, close friends of Fanny who looked after her during her stay in England.

As Florinda in 'Le Diable boiteux'

In September 1834, Fanny appeared with the Ballet du Theatre de l'Academie Royale de Musique, now known as the Paris Opera Ballet. Though she originally harboured some misgivings about appearing on that stage due to the celebrated ballerina Marie Taglioni having almost sole possession of it, her performance was a great success. Fanny and Taglioni were exceptionally different dancers; Taglioni was famous for her light jumps and her fragile portrayal of the sylph, whereas Fanny was a quick, precise dancer, more suited to 'earthy' roles and tarantellas. She popularised ballets in which she portrayed a Spanish, Italian, Russian or Polish girl, always performing the national dances of that country. Her success in France led to a brief eclipse of Taglioni and the two became rivals, particularly after she danced the fiery Spanish Cachucha dance from the 1836 Coralli/Gide ballet Le Diable boiteux.

As Florinda in 'Le Diable boiteux'

The poet Theophile Gautier called Fanny a 'pagan dancer', because of her performances of the Cachucha. She became associated with the Spanish dancer, even though she was not in fact Spanish, as well as experiencing great success with the other roles of the period. Fanny was not only technically gifted, she was an exceptionally good dramatist as well; her performances lifted established characters to new heights.

In the ballet 'La Esmeralda'

In 1840, Fanny and Therese sailed for America for a tour organised by Henry Wikoff, a writer and American diplomat. Fanny experienced two years of unmitigated success in America, and whilst in New York City was seen dining with and being escorted by John Van Buren, son of American President Martin Van Buren. She then toured until 1845, visiting Germany, Austria, France, England, and Russia. There is a story that Fanny once interrupted a thief in the midst of stealing her jewels, and proceeded to aim a grande battement directly at his stomach; the man was sent to the infirmary and died the next day, but Fanny was in the clear because her actions had been in self-defence.

As Sarah Campbell in 'La Gypsy', performed at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, 1839

In 1845, she refused an invitation to join with her rivals Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Lucile Grahn in a new work being staged in London by Jules Perrot, later named Pas de Quatre. Instead, having gathered quite the fortune, she retired from the stage and bought a house near Hamburg, where she lived until moving to Vienna in 1854. Her sister Therese, who had contracted a morganatic marriage with Prince Adalbert of Prussia and had become Baroness von Barnim, was left a widow in 1873, and died on 19 November 1878. Fanny herself died in Vienna on 27 November 1884, aged 74. She was, without doubt, one of the greatest ballerinas of the period.

In 'Russian Seasons'

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Agrippina Vaganova.

- Selene

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