The ballet seems at last to have found a home in New York, and to have become one of the permanent institutions of the great city,—witness the triumphs of The Black Crook, of Humpty Dumpty, and the spectacular plays of the Grand Opera House. It must be confessed that it is well done here. The Black Crook carries off the palm. Its ballets are the best arranged and the best executed, and its dancers are as good looking and attractive as ballet girls ever are.
There are several hundred girls and women in New York who earn their living by dancing in the ballets of the various theatres. The Black Crook alone employs about one hundred. Those who have seen these damsels in their glory, in the full glare of the foot and calcium lights, amidst the most gorgeous surroundings, and under the influence of delicious music, may have come to the conclusion that such a life must be very pleasant. They little know the experience of a ballet girl. “It’s a hard life,” said one of them, not long since, “and very little fun in it, if you’re decent.”
The ballet girl always appears on the bills as a miss, but some of them are married, and have to support helpless or worthless husbands. They are of all nationalities. The Premières are generally French or Italian—at least on the bills. These are usually excellent dancers, and are fond of their art.
They are well paid, and as a rule save their money. Mdlle. Bonafanti received $150 per week from the managers of Niblo’s Theatre. Mdlle. Morlacchi also receives large sums. She is a sensible woman, and has invested her earnings in a pretty home in New England, where she spends her summers.
Not more than one or two in the same establishment receive such high pay, however. The salaries, as a rule, are small. The Secondas at Niblo’s, the home of the Black Crook, receive from $50 to $100 per week. There are twelve coryphées who earn from $25 to $30 per week. Then follow the first, second, and third lines of the ballet, with wages ranging from $5 to $30 per week. The girls who march in the processions of female soldiers receive about $8 per week. The costumes, armor, etc., are furnished by the theatre, but there are many articles of dress which the girls are obliged to furnish at their own expense.
The ballet girl rises about eight o’clock in the morning, and is off to rehearsal by nine. A duller, more dreary sight than a rehearsal of a ballet by daylight, and in plain dress, cannot be imagined. The theatre is dark and gloomy, the stage not much lighter, and everything is in confusion. There is a smell of escaping gas in all parts of the building.
Scattered about the stage are a number of girls and women in half skirts, with fleshings on their legs, and some of them with woollen hose drawn over the fleshings to keep them warm. They are terribly jaded and hollow eyed, and they seem incapable of being interested in anything. A very different set from the smiling, graceful houris of the evening before.
At a given signal the music begins, and the girls commence a series of capers which seem utterly ridiculous. It is downright hard work for the girls, however; and those who are not engaged in leaping, or pirouetting, or wriggling, are leaning against the scenery and panting with fatigue. The leader of the ballet storms and swears at them, and is made frantic by every little mistake. The rehearsal occupies several hours. If there is a matinée that day, it is kept up until it is time for the girls to dress for that performance. Between the close of the matinée, and the opening of the evening performance, there is not much time for the tired girls to rest.
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 Maria Bonafanti, and Giuseppina 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 the recumbent beauty regretted that it was impossible, under the circumstances, to publish a picture of the scene.
“The next room was occupied by ‘a very great swell,’ the première 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 saucerful of colorless fluid, a bleaching agent for continuing the lustre 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 première 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; go to rehearsal; practise 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.’”
From: “Lights and Shadows of New York life; or, the sights and sensations of a great city.” by James D. Mccabe, Jr