Born in Milan on February 16, 1845, Maria Bonfanti, also known as Marietta, is one of the most important dancers in history. Her father, Giuseppe, died when she was an infant, and when she was nine her mother sent her to the dance academy of Carlo Blasis, a famous Neapolitan dancer, choreographer and dance theoretician, where she studied for 5 years. At sixteen, she made her stage debut and she became an instant success: six months later she was the prima ballerina at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the most important Italian theatre. On September 12, 1866, she danced for the first time at 3,200-seat Niblo's Garden in New York in The Black Crook, known as "the first musical comedy", which ran for two years, followed by The White Fawn, another musical which ran for 175 performances.
In 1869, 24 years old Maria Bonfanti traveled to San Francisco, a dangerous trip, where she danced with her company a spectacular version of Robinson Crusoe.
On August 20, 1872, she secretly married 18-year old George Hoffman, who was from an aristocratic Fifth Avenue family, while in Paris. They went to England, where Maria had professional engagements in Manchester and other places, until owing to George's illness and lack of funds (he had squandered over $100,000 of his father's property, and the latter placed heavy restrictions against his obtaining more) she became ill and they went to Como where, on July 14, 1873, their daughter was born.
They needed more money to survive and they came back to New York. Devotedly attached to her husband, and willing to sacrifice anything for his love, the young wife and mother went right back to work: she danced in The Children in the Wood (1873) for a year, and in the play Life (1876).
On January 29, 1878, George Hoffman died and Maria arrived to his deathbed a few minutes later, followed by his mother who met her daughter-in-love for the first time. The family welcomed her and her five-year old child.
Maria kept working: she led the Triumphal Dance in Clara Louise Kellogg's presentation of Aida in Philadelphia (1879); she danced in Humpty Dumpty (1880), Donna Juanita (1882), Sylvia (1882), a long tour of the United States as prima ballerina of the Milan Italian Grand Opera Company (1884), Queen of Sheba (1885), Le Prophete (1886), Aladdin, Sardanapalus, The Merry War, and The Arabian Nights (1887).
At the end of her last US tour, in 1891, she went to Europe and stayed there for four years. When she came back to New York she opened a ballet school, where she taught for 20 years. She was extremely strict, following the principles of her famous teacher, Carlo Blasis.
On January 25, 1921, Maria Bonfanti died of pneumonia at Roosevelt Hospital, New York City, and was buried in Woodland Cemetery, New York.
Daily globe, April 16, 1883
Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary