A 1902 Colliers magazine article by Gustav Kobbé,
American music critic, author of “The Complete Opera Book," helps understand
the rigors of the aerial ballet performance:
"If you ever saw
them getting ready to rehearse, as I have, you would wonder how they
expected ever to move, let alone fly – their attire seems so heavy and
cumbersome. Fasten a corset of wood and iron around a bird’s body and see if
it can fly. Yet in the Grigolati ballet the entire trunk of each flying
dancer’s body is encased in such a corset. Without it the “act” would be
impossible. For to an iron hook, firmly set in the back of this corset, is
attached a silk-wrapped invisible wire [1/32" diameter] running to the flies
and in turn secured to a strong rope. Hooked to each shoulder of the corset
is a large wing. The bodice is of feathers, with a front of ruffled chiffon
resembling the soft down of a bird’s breast. Long suede gloves of suitable
color cover hands and arms, and there is a feathery muff. Then the merry
little bird is ready to skim the air – in spite of its corset of wood and
"It is the rope attached to the invisible wire upon the skillful manipulation
of which everything depends. Every spot on the stage on which these human
birds are to alight is marked off with geometrical accuracy; and all the
aerial flights, seemingly so natural and léger, have been measured off to a
"Were the men in charge of the ropes to let the wire run out too far – even a
trifle – the “bird” would touch the stage instead of hovering over it, and
seem heavy and clumsy instead of a graceful, airy creature. Every flight
must be managed with equal precision or the effect will be spoiled. For this
reason all the manipulators of the ropes are men who have served in the
German army and are accustomed to work under military discipline of the
severest kind. In fact, the ballet is of German origin, its inventor being
Friedrich Zschiegner, manager of the Apollo Theatre, Berlin, and is named
Grigolati after his wife [Preciosa Grigolatis (b. 1863)]. Even when the
ballet are appearing every night and at two matinees, they are rehearsed
four times a week. Most of the girls are German, but several American
understudies were rehearsed at the Broadway Theatre last season.
"They are a curious-looking lot at a dress rehearsal as they strut around
with their long wings almost sweeping the stage; and still more
curious-looking when they are being drilled between performances, for then
they just wear ordinary gymnasium suits over their corsets of wood and iron
and look like Santos-Dumonts from a female seminary.
“Mr. Bluebeard” also has been planned so as to introduce these human birds
in their aerial flights. We get our fairy spectacles a year late. “Mr.
Bluebeard,” for instance, is last year’s Drury Lane pantomime. But that need
made no difference here, since it does not figure on the American stage
either as a pantomime or a Christmas show. The great scene in it is a series
of tableaux and ballets giving a complete history of the fan.
"In the opening scene is shown the slave mart where Bluebeard buys Fatima. He
takes her home on a ship, which gives opportunity for a large moving
panorama, the ship appearing to sail along, though really it is stationary
while the scenery is moving. This is the way in which the chariot race in
“Ben Hur” was done. Then come the episodes familiar from the story until
Fatima enters the room where she discovers the heads of her predecessors.
She and her lover, Selim, are cast into prison and condemned to death.
However, just as the hour for their execution arrives, Selim blows his magic
horn, the prison walls crumble away and the army of the fairies, who are
their guardians, advance and rescue them.
"Here, or at an earlier point in the spectacle – for with an army of fairy
guardians at his disposal the happy author can work them in anywhere –
occurs the “fern scene,” or the story of the fan.
"The whole stage is a study in greens – a forest of ferns with waterfalls and
the flying ballet as green birds. The shape of the ferns suggests to the
fairies the making of a magic fan, and this leads to the ballet of the fans.
The groups of dancers, as they come in, successively illustrate the fans of
all times and nations, beginning with the Chinese and Persian and leading up
to the modern French fan, the girls in this last group wearing smart,
up-to-date dresses. Fans come down from the flies, cover the wings and the
drop, until the whole scene seems transformed into a huge fan. This is the
scenic climax of the production."