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Fanny Elssler

Elssler, Fanny (Francesca), (1810-1884) This celebrated Austrian dancer was born in Vienna, the daughter of a musician who worked as a sheet music copyist for Joseph Hayden. With her two sisters, Therese and Anna, she embarked on her stage career at age five with the Horschelt Children's Ballet Company at the Theater an der Wien. At eleven she became a member of the Corps de Ballet of the Kaerntnertor Theater. When only in their teens, she and her sister Therese danced to acclaim in Berlin, London and Paris. Recognition in her native city was slower to arrive. From 1840 until 1843 she toured North America to enthusiastic audiences. Afte r this prolonged solo tour, she was a wealthy woman as well as a famous one. She continued to tour the continent with two appearances in Moscow until her retirement from the stage in Vienna in 1851 after a performance of "Faust." Elssler's realistic and adept interpretations of national and character dances helped build her reputation as well as that of the Viennese ballet. She shared the growing interest in national folk dances prior to 1840. Her accomplished performances of such dances as the Spanish Cachucha, similar to the Bolero, made them as popular on the city stage as they were in the countryside. Her costumes set styles for years following her appearances. The performance of Elssler's Cachucha, for example, was a fashion event in Vienna. Her pink dress trimmed with black lace at the low neckline and hem was copied and worn by admiring Viennese women at pre-Lenten balls. The white camellia she wore in her hair became a symbol of this dance r of the Romantic age, when audiences expected to be moved emotionally by the arts. Popular adulation of Fanny Elssler made profitable the production of plates, cups and other objects bearing her likeness, in addition to porcelain copies of her "elf-like" hand. Fanny Elssler's romantic admirers included the pre-March publicist and diplomat Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832). A man 45 years Elssler's senior, whose admiration and personal devotion she enjoyed from 1829 until his death, he was a frie nd and admirer of Prince Klemens von Metternich, who warned his friend and advisor unavailingly against the liaison with the younger woman, but his words were useless against the passion of Gentz's life. Metternich and others believed that Gentz's affair reflected a Romantic aspect never seen before in such a rational man. It was generally accepted by his friends that the involvement with the dancer hastened the former rationalist's death. But Gentz was one of many for Fanny Elssler, who was idol ized by fans at the peak of her career, like the singers Henriette Sontag and Jenny Lind who were similarly admired. This obsessive admiration reflected passion of many contemporaries for the performing arts during the Biedermeier era. Similarly those emerging middle classes, which made up Viennese audiences imagined Elssler's great rival, the Italian dancer Marie Taglioni (1804-1884), a heroic figure. Her enthusiastic supporters defended their idol's performance of the ballet La Sylphide in Paris in the 1830s, rioting with the Elsslerites to defend the reputation of Taglioni. For most admirers of Fanny Elssler, a performance brought intense enjoyment and a welcome respite from the economic difficulties and political repression of the age. At the same time the dancer made a great contribution to the development of the classical ballet. Her charisma and talent added to the reputation of her metier - classical ballet and folk dance in the decades prior to 1848.
Maria Wagner


Denk, Liselotte Fanny Elssler Tänzerin eines Jahrhunderts Legende und Wirklichkeit (Vienna: Amalthea Verlag, 1984).

Guest, Ivor Fanny Elssler (London: 1970).

Linden, Ilse Fanny Elssler Tänzerin des Biedermeier nach Briefen und zeitgeöessischen Berichten zusammengestellt (Berlin: 1921).

Pirchan, Emil Fanny Elssler (Vienna: 1940).

Raab, Riki Fanny Elssler: Eine Weltsensation (Vienna: 1962).

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