Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Bring on the (1860s) Dancing Girls ...

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I’m not a ‘dance’ man. I wasn’t allowed to learn dance as a boy, I never caught up later, and when I appeared on the stage and someone like Gillian Lynne was foolish enough to put me in the front row (of the singers-who-dance-a-bit) without a try-out, merely because I had a 36-26-36 figure and an, um, big personality, the truth became hideously obvious. When, circa 1972, I went to sea with the fabled Vic Ogley company as primo basso … well, there was no slacking in that company of a dozen-and-a-half bodies … everyone had to do everything. So, I sang bass and, when the occasion demanded, baritone or tenor (‘Song of the Daaaaawn’), and I ‘danced’. My partner, in those days, was the beautiful Alison, ex-Royal Ballet School. She took me in hand and she tried, my god she tried. But it was no good. No one rubbished me, but years later the company régisseur, who became (and was up till his death this month) my dearest friend, said to me: 'you couldn’t even march. You did ‘same arm same leg’'.

Maybe, as a result, I didn’t much enjoy watching Dance either. I remember as a child being taken to see Poul Gnatt as Peer Gynt at our local theatre. When my father asked me whether I had liked it, it appears I replied: ‘when does the opera come to our town again’. Then, when I met Ian, we went to several ballets. Ian had been publicity manager for the Russian ballet in Sydney in 1938, so elderly ladies called Tamara kept popping by, but when we went to Covent Garden … well, there was one incident that summed the whole Russian ballet thing up for me. Elderly lady in front of us no 1: 'on the thirteenth fouettée she didn’t .. 'lady no 2: 'MARGOT did fourteen …'; and now on to the floor exercises and the beam. It just wasn’t ‘me’. Too technical, too soulless … and what in the heck were those cake frills they were wearing.

But I was finally to find a dance show that I liked enormously. A French company guested at Covent Garden, and we were invited. We often were when there were empty seats. They played La Fille mal gardée … is that the one where there’s a chimney? … and La Sylphide ..  no, that was the chimney!'.. and it was enchanting. No gymnastics, no fifty-two fouettées, just glorious, graceful dance and pantomime.

Alas, France didn’t win. And nowadays thing have got to a desperately low state, with modern musical theatre and TV variety show choreography. On something like the unregretted American Idol you don’t know whether to turn the sound or the video off first … when I go to my local shows, lines of people doing 1960s TV routines (damn you, Paddy, Irving and Duggie)_...

Anyway, this isn’t what I set out to blog. So change gear.

The dancers I was thinking about weren’t the grand ones. Today I got led (via my blonde burlesque ladies) into the world of the ‘spectacular theatre’. You know, those shows where the main elements were .. and are .. the tricky and glamorous scenery and scene-changes, the billion costume changes, and the nubile ladies, roughly described as ‘ballet’ (can you hold third position dear?), who filled the evening’s entertainment when there wasn’t a smidgin of story or dialogue and an incidental pop song going on. And in English and French terms that means the ‘opéra bouffe à grand spectacle’, in German the ‘grosse Feerie Spektakel’ and in American … well, lets not quibble about precedence here, it’s that kind of show that was epitomised by the infamous The Black Crook.

So that’s where we are going. Did the dancers in shows of the grand spectacle genre actually dance as we would understand it? Or were they just glamorous girlies, lightly dressed, making movements that would cause their male audience to purr? Hmmm. Well, to start with, there don’t seem to have been any ballerinos. So the aim was clearly signified. But the principal dancing ladies were all from Europe. Well, they all had European names. Weren’t there any dancers in America? Morlacchi, Bonfanti, Palladino …

And even in the lower reaches … which is where I went today. Don’t ask me why. Ah, yes. I was scrubbing up the featured girls for one of Lydia Thompson’s shows and there was ‘Miss Schrötter’. Too weird not to be a real name. So I put away my singers, for a day, and went in search of the lowly Miss S.


 Well, I got more than I bargained for. There were three Fräuleins Schrotter. With or without umlaut. Carolina, Gabrielle and Henrietta, by any other spelling. Allegedly, they were imported to dance, with the multitude of others, in The Black Crook, like so many alleged others. And they may very well have been. They actually seem to have been trained-ish dancers.

Carolina turns up first to my gaze as a momentarily featured chorine in the production of The Forty Thieves at Niblo’s Garden in 1869: ‘A German Fay’. Then the ‘Misses Schrotter’, Carolina and Gabrielle, appear on the bills at the Theatre Comique, alongside Hattie Kelsey (sister of the better-known Lizzie and also, allegedly, a Crook rescapee), Lizzie Dark and, later, star dancer Annetta Galetti and a Blonde, Emma Grattan.


Third sister Henrietta joined them in the Edith Challis extravaganza Lalla Rookh at the Grand Opera House, I see them (two or sometimes three) at Pittsburgh, at the Olympic Theatre supporting Pauline Markham, dancing a ‘Sailors’ Festival’ at the Metropolitan variety house with Lizzie Kelsey, then a Can-Can, a Spanish Dance and a Flower Dance …  Carolina seems to have got solo billing in Ahmed at the Grand Opera House, then they can be seen at the Tivoli and the Parisian Varieties …

Nearly a decade as second danseuses on the New York variety and occasionally theatre stages. I suppose it was worth leaving Vienna for?

I tried to find out what became of them, and I partially succeeded.
Gabriella was married in 1875 to a Danish doctor named Otto Auris, and died of it 20 April 1876. At 44 Bond Street.
The others, I’m not wholly sure of, but there are very few Schrotters around in those years in New York, and when two of those few just happen to be a Carolina and a Henrietta …
The Carolina married an Austrian ex-army man by name Victor [von] Helly, of allegedly knightly extraction, had two children and lost him in 1891. She was still alive in the 1930 census ..
The Henrietta? Well there seem to have been two. One who married an Arnold Reifenstuhl and went off to Chicago to people the county with little Reifenstuhls; the other who became a Mrs Grunwald …

Carolina’s daughter became a lady in a shop. I imagine her mother and her aunts had had rather more fun dancing their way through life as young women.

Which should bring me back tidily to where I started, but absolutely doesn’t … I have had a bit of a ramble, haven’t I?

Dance, dance, dance, little lady ..


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