A young ballerina, the toast of Paris, achieves her greatest renown in the role of a butterfly -- a butterfly whose wings are consumed by the flames of a torch. A couple of years afterwards, during an opera rehearsal, her costume catches fire, and after eight months of excruciating suffering from the burns, she dies, not yet 21.
It sounds like a script for a 19th-century tearjerker, but the story is true. The ballerina's name was Emma Livry, and the poignancy of her fate has haunted the ballet world down to the present day.
All this is apropos because this week the Houston Ballet is bringing a resurrected version of "Papillon" -- Livry's butterfly ballet -- to Wolf Trap for three performances. The production, choreographed and directed by the noted Briton, Ronald Hynd, was given its world permiere in Houston in 1979. The performances here will mark the first full-scale appearance in the Washington area of the much-praised Houston troupe (a small touring contingent danced at Carter Barron a few years ago). It's a company with any number of Washington connections, ranging from artistic director Ben Stevenson, who co-directed Washington's National Ballet from 1969 to 1974, to five of the eight Houston principals, including ballerinas Suzanne Longley, Andrea Vodenhal and Jennifer Holmes.
The story of the original "Papillon" begins with Marie Taglioni (1804-1884), one of the most celebrated dancers of ballet history. It was Taglioni, in 1832, who created the title role in La Sylphide," giving the Romantic era one of its quintessential images -- a woman personifying an ethereal winged creature, a natural metaphor for the romanticists' unattainable ideal as well as an embodiment of the balletic quest for aerial delicacy. Ever since, the ballet realm has been periodically invaded by magical airborne spirits, from the Wilis of "Giselle" to the avian heroines of "Swan Lake" and "Firebird."
Taglioni retired from dancing in 1847, but she resumed her career over a decade later largely because of the sudden appearance of an exceptionally gifted French dancer -- Emma Livry (Livry was a stage name; she'd been christened Emma-Marie Emarot), who at the unprecedented age of 16 had made a sensational debut at the Paris Opera in Taglioni's signature role, the title part in "La Sylphide."
Historians seem convinced that Taglioni saw in Livry's burgeoning fame the chance for a vicarious resumption and extension of her own curtailed dancing career. Livry became Taglioni's pupil, and to display her talents, Talgioni turned choreographer for a single time in her life (women dominated dance in the 19th century, but women choreographers were still exceedinly rare). The ballet she proposed to mount was eventually entitled "Le Papillion," and the scenario, by Vernoy de Saint-Georges (co-author of "Giselle"), recounted an exceedingly complex, exotic yarn about a sultan, a prince, a witch called Hamza and a beautiful young maiden whom the witch turns into a butterfly. In this original story, the butterfly-maiden singes her wings by flying too close to a torch, but in the ends she's restored to human form and happily reunited with her princely lover. In Hynd's version for the Houston Ballet, the lover is a shepherd who perishes in the flames together with the butterfly; the pair, however, are rejoined for enternity in the ballet's concluding apotheosis.
To provide music for "Le Papillion," Taglioni commissioned Jacques Offenbach's one ballet score -- this is the music Hynd's production employs as well (Eliot Feld used it too, for another recent version of "Papillon" with an entirely new plot, seen at Kennedy Center last December). Taglioni's Paris production was opulent in the extreme -- no less than six designers worked on the decor -- and sparked by Livry's inspired dancing, it was a great commercial success as well, running for 42 performances in the course of three seasons. During the preparations for the premiere, which took place at the Paris Opera on Nov. 26, 1860, the composer sent Livry a note which read, "to the most poetic and most zealous of butterflies, Emma Livry, from her unworthy and grateful musician, Jacques Offenbach." Livry's reviews were ecstatic -- one exclaimed "Mile. Emma Livry gives proof, not only of elevations, lightness and grace, but of great artistry, a complete talent, an unbelievable strength."
Two years later, Livry was cast in the central mime role in a new production of Auber's opera, "La Muette de Portici" (by another history coincidence, a silent film made in Hollywood in 1915 on the same story, "The Dumb Girl of Portici," had Anna Pavlova in the identical role). Fire being a constant hazard in those gaslit days (among others, the distinguished English ballerine Clara Webster had died from a stage fire in Drury Lane in 1844), the management of the theater had required all costumes to be chemically fireproofed. But the treatment had an unfortunate discoloring effect, and Livry refused to accede to it. At the dress rehearsal at the Paris Opera, her skirt was ignited by a gas jet, and in a moment she was enveloped "in a searing column of fire," as one ballet historian has put it. A stagehand wrapped her in a blanket and managed to extinguish the flames, but the damage had been done, and nothing medical science was able to bring to her aid was sufficient to stave off inevitable infection and death. Taglioni and a host of dance notables, the composer Auber, Theophile Gautier and Alexander Dumas the younger were among the luminaries at her funeral services on July 29, 1863. Livry was buried in the cemetery at Montmartre, not far from where Gautier's body was later to lie. It has been said that two white butterflies hovered about Livry's coffin during the final procession.