Updated: Jan 19, 2021
By 1868, the year after she first arrived in America, Giuseppina Morlacchi was by far the most famous dancer on the North American continent. In a list of news stories on August 19th of that year, the Detroit Free Press noted that "Mark Twain is in Hartford. Morlacchi is in Philadelphia." How did an Italian ballerina so catch the attention of the American public and the American press as to deserve mention alongside arguably the most important and famous American writer full stop? To understand that, we must look at Morlacchi's American debut, in New York City on October 23rd, 1867.
In the years immediately after the Civil War, Americans sought to assure the world—and perhaps to convince themselves—that they were as sophisticated as their European counterparts. Perhaps as a direct result of the brutality of the war they had just endured, Americans were intently self-conscious about perceptions of American artistic inferiority when compared to Europe and to Europeans. This concerned not just America's artists, but American audiences as well. And if New York theater was to prove that its audiences were just as capable as the most refined Italian, French, or British patrons of appreciating the most sophisticated art, it needed artists to merit filling the massive theaters of Broadway.
Banvard's Museum, a massive combination theater and museum on the corner of Manhattan's 30th Steet and Broadway, sought to meet the demand for the most refined of arts by staging a play called The Devil's Auction. Further south on Broadway Niblo's Garden, a massive 3,200 seat theater, was in the middle of a record-breaking 474 show run of The Black Crook, considered by many historians the first modern musical. John De Pol, the newly hired manager of Banvard's, sought to exceed the spectacle produced in The Black Crook by ensuring that his production was filled with the very best talent imported from Europe. "Every day," reported the New York Times, "the latest improvements in scenic art, the accessories to theatrical effects in science, and what is still more of avail with the American public—the great exponents of all that is truly great in all the branches of art, reach our shores and become embodied in the grand army of the American Theatre." The article goes on to inform the reader that John De Pol had traveled throughout Europe and engaged the services of "eight first-class danseuses, selected from the Theatres of London, Paris, Milan, Berlin, Bordeaux, Turin, Munich, St. Petersburg...all of whom reach our shores with reputations for artistic excellence."
Though the stage at Banvard's was already 5 feet wider than any other stage in the city, De Pol convinced the owners to extend it by another 20 feet to allow for his spectacle. With most of his new dancers having arrived, The Devil's Auction premiered on Wednesday, October 3rd, 1867. An advertisement in the New York Times notes that opening night included famed dancers Elisa Blasina of Milan, Augusta Sohlke of Berlin and Hamberg, Ermesilda Diani of Her Majesty's Theatre in London, Eugenie Lupo of Turin, Aurelia Ricci from the Brussels Theatre, Catrina Corradine of Paris, Giovanni Lupo of the Bordeaux Theatre, and a "numerous and talented corps of coryphees, figurantes, etc. etc." under the direction of "world-renowned maitre de ballet" Monsieur Domenico Ronzani. All received billing behind the show's star, Giuseppina Morlacchi, "the now reigning star of the Terpsichoean Art in Europe."
Morlacchi's arrival was delayed until after the show's premier, which meant that her arrival in New York was highly anticipated and highly publicized. De Pol arranged for an orchestra to play on the street below her hotel room, and a large crowd greeted her when she came to the window to see where the music was coming from. He rented out Delmonico's restaurant to throw a party a twhich to introduce her to the rest of the cast and crew. He insured Giuseppina's legs with Lloyd's of London, reportedly for $100,000, leading one reporter to comment that "Morlacchi's legs are worth more than Kentucky." She bought a few dresses that once belonged to Abraham's Lincoln's wife Mary Todd, as was reported in newspapers across the country, desperate for any news of the anticipated ballerina.
Morlacchi made her American debut on October 23rd, 1867. Reviews were glowing. The New York Herald was of the opinion that "Signorina Morlacchi fully justified the prestige of her European reputation. The lithe and symmetrical figure, the flashing, dark eyes, the graceful and dashing movements of this fascinating ‘queen of the dance’ elicited the heartiest applause." So many roses were tossed onto the wide stage of Banvard's that Morlacchi had difficulty making her way to take a bow to the thunderous applause of the appreciate audience. The Devil's Auction soon left Banvard's for the larger Academy of Music and its 4,000 seats. Months later, the show went on tour, Morlacchi taking more and more control of the show, it's dancers, and its choreography. Dancer Augusta Sohlke had introduced the Hungarian Polka, dancing with such "abandon and witchery" that some thought she would become "the most famous dancer in New York." Not to be outdone, Morlacchi introduced her own signature dance in Boston on December 23rd, 1867, becoming the first person to introduce America to the can-can.
The dance was a sensation, and the night after it was introduced proved to the theater's highest grossing night ever. Morlacchi, already regarded as the best dancer in America, became one of its biggest stars. Using her new fame, Morlacchi started her own ballet troupe, which allowed her to pay her ballerinas fairly, to control their schedules and allow them time to rest between performances, and to tour across America, with long stands in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and many major cities. Morlacchi had earned the appellation "The Peerless" while dancing in Paris, and American critics could not help but agree. “Of her dancing there is but one voice and one judgment," wrote the Chicago Tribune, "she is peerless—her graceful movements and postures are the poetry of motion—exquisitely beautiful and not vulgar—graceful, without offense to the most refined, one can only think of a light- limbed fairy, performing the most difficult evolutions with a masterly grace and finish as wonderful as beautiful.” Morlacchi embodied all of the sophisticated artistic and aesthetic elements that Europe cultivated and that American audiences embraced. She could dance the can-can without her virtue ever being questioned, and could teach American dancers to rise to the heights of the great ballerinas of Europe. When Ned Buntline convinced his rough plainsman friends Texas Jack Omohundro and Buffalo Bill Cody to join him in a stage production, he intuitively knew that the only way to guarantee full theaters was to hire a star. As Buntline's luck would have it, Morlacchi's latest run of Chicago performances was just coming to an end. As Texas Jack's luck would have it, Morlacchi's stage character would be "the beautiful Indian maiden with an Italian accent and weakness for handsome scouts."