Ballet productions in the 19th century were illuminated by lamps with open flames. Diaphanous tutus and gas stage lamps were a deadly combination. But dancers faced those risks for their art. Dozen were ignited by the lamps, which spread so quickly that many died as a result. One particularly horrifying onstage fire led to the gruesome death of French ballerina Emma Livry.
Ballet was a deceptively dangerous profession. Not only were dancers at risk of death by fire, they were sometimes killed by overambitious stagecraft or crushed by falling sets. In 1859, imperial decree demanded that all sets and costumes be flameproofed as best they could via a process known as carteronizing: Tutus were immersed in a chemical bath before being worn onstage. But the process left the delicate skirts dingy, and the ballerinas — the very people at risk of public immolation — fought the safety measures. “I insist, sir, on dancing at all first performances of the ballet in my ordinary ballet skirt,” Livry wrote to the Paris Opéra’s director in 1860 in a formal declaration of independence — one that would result in her death just two years later.
The story of Livry’s death and its aftermath is told at Ozy.