Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas’s Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando is an oil on canvas (46 x 30-1/2 inches), which belongs to The National Gallery, London
Circus performer Miss Lala was born Anna Olga Albertina Brown to Wilhelm Brown and Marie Christine Borchardt, on April 21 1858 in the former German (but now Polish) city of Stettin (Szczecin).
Lala who was of mixed race, was also known as, Olga Kaira or Kaire, “Olga the Mulatto”, “Olga the Negress”, “The Venus of the Tropics”, “The Cannon Woman” and “The African Princess.” Olga was the name of Lala’s sister, Olga Marie Brown, who had died at five months old, almost three years before she was born.
Although she was small of stature, Lala possessed incredible strength. She was an all-round circus artist and she worked at various times as a trapeze artist, a hand balancer, a wire walker, a strength artist and an iron jaw performer (A popular acrobatic strength act of the time) which saw her suspended high up in the air whilst holding a great weight using only her teeth.
Her first appearance in the circus was at the age of nine but it was at 21, in France where she found fame. She toured around numerous circuses and music halls throughout Europe including the UK where she performed at London’s Royal Aquarium’s central hall and at Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre.
Lala was part of the troupe called Folies Bergère and the Keziah Sisters. She partnered with another strength acrobat called Theophila Szterker/Kaira la Blanche. Together they were known as Les Deux Papillons (The two butterflies).
Miss Lala Olga Kaira at The Cirque Fernando (c.1880)
Collection Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University – Museum Purchase
Lala’s African and European ancestry was regularly exploited to create mystery around her background and reinforce her ‘exoticism’ thereby increasing ticket sales. In Paris she was hailed as ‘La Venus Noire’ and in London stories were circulated saying that she was an African Princess who lost her throne when her chiefs decided to pledge their allegiance to Queen Victoria. As a result they said, that Lala was sold into slavery and ended up in a circus in the South of France.
In writings of the time, Lala is described as a ‘dusky’ Amazon and greatly admired for her agility and strength and one who was ‘strong above the average of womankind in the jaw’. In Paris, Lala’s iron jaw act was described as so much better than those which had come before including those of male iron jaw performers.
To perform her act, Lala had to use equipment which was made up of a thick double sided two inch wide leather and metal strap or tongue about 12 inches long with a leather mouth piece at one end which was gripped by the artist’s teeth. At the other end there could be an extension or a metal hook.
A solo performer could hang the hook end from a trapeze bar or a rope and then clamp their teeth down on the mouthpiece end with their head and body facing upwards. A swivel underneath the hook allowed the iron jaw piece to turn and spin with the performer. In a duo one performer could hang upside down with their legs around the trapeze gripping the iron jaw mouthpiece with an extension attached at the waist or neck of a second performer suspended below.
In an 1879 newspaper report Lala’s act is described in detail. The article mentioned how Lala hung from her hocks (knees) on her trapeze whilst holding a second trapeze between her teeth. A child, a woman and a man took it in turns to perform poses on this second trapeze and then a duo act took their turn all the while with Lala bearing their weight between her teeth.
Folies Bergère performance poster by Jules Cheret (1880)
Then a woman performed a toehang off this second trapeze whilst holding the weight of another woman in her arms. The ante was then upped as Lala was lifted up to the roof rafters where she hung upside down on her trapeze in a one legged hocks (Hanging on just one knee) whilst holding the weight of a man on each arm and the weight of one between her teeth.
The grand finale of her act did not disappoint as Lala lifted a civil war era canon with wheels up into the air with her teeth. The canon was then fired with the aftershock of the blast causing Lala’s body to involuntarily rebound.
One reviewer/critic said “She does all that her muscular rivals have done and a great deal more. Lala as we have hinted is a representative of a dark skinned race but in the matter of strength she is prepared to assert her superiority of the boastful people who will have it that all virtues are associated with a light complexion.”
Lala was immortalised at the age of 21, when she was painted by Edgar Degas at the Cirque Fernando which was close to his studio in Montmartre. The painting depicts Lala suspended from the roof of the circus by a rope connected to a bit between her teeth.
In 1879 Degas made this preparatory drawing of the strength acrobat Miss LaLa
Degas who himself was of mixed race on his Creole mother’s side, watched Lala’s popular act for four nights but was challenged by the perspective that he was faced with, painting from underneath the subject as well as having to adhere to 1870′s theory on colour choices. He was also challenged by trying to paint a ‘pose that would convey her soaring movement and the strain on her jaws.’ Of the finished painting, critic Roy McMullen wrote that it was considered to be, ‘Among the artist’s most striking and complex achievements.”
Lala continued to perform from the 1860s up to the late 1880s. In 1888 she married an American contortionist by the name of Emanuel (Manuel) Woodson. This was the same year of her stage partner Theophila Szterker’s tragic death from a fall. Theophila had according to Le Figaro (October 26, 1879) previously suffered a bad fall whilst substituting for Lala in a rope act.
Emanuel and Lala went on to have a daughter Rose Eddie Woodson who was born in London in 1894. According to the newspaper The New York Age (October 21, 1915) the couple went on to have two more daughters who formed an act called the Three Keziahs.
In the last years of his life Lala’s husband Emanuel was the stage manager of the Palais d’Ete circus in Brussels. The last known date of Lala’s life, when she was known as Anna Woodson and Olga Woodson, is 1919, from a US passport application.
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