Grahn, Lucile (1819–1907)

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Grahn, Lucile (1819–1907)

Danish ballerina of the Romantic period. Born Lucina Alexia Grahn in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1819; died in Munich, Germany, in 1907; married Friederich Young (a tenor), in 1856 (died 1884); no children.

The daughter of a Norwegian officer and his Jutland wife, Lucile Grahn was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1819, and apparently mastered walking and dancing at about the same time. She received ballet instruction as part of her early schooling and, at age ten, became the protégée of dancer, choreographer, and teacher August Bournonville, head of the Royal Ballet School. Thus began a stormy relationship that would endure a decade, during which time Grahn made astonishing progress. At age 16, she danced the starring role in Bournonville's Waldemar and a year later appeared in his exquisite version of La Sylphide, a performance which so pleased King Frederick VI and Marie Sophie of Hesse-Cassel that they summoned the young dancer to the palace for afternoon chocolate with the princesses, Caroline (1793–1881) and Wilhelmine .

After becoming the toast of Copenhagen, Grahn set her sights on Paris, but Bournonville, now infatuated with the young dancer, vetoed her petition for a travel grant in order to keep her with him. Determined to have her way, Grahn bypassed Bournonville and enlisted the support of Princess Wilhelmine who gave her the approval she needed. In May 1837, Grahn set out for France, where she became the student of Jean-Baptiste Barrez, director of the Paris Opéra's ballet school. Unfortunately, her Paris debut was interrupted by instructions to return to Denmark to appear in Le Postillon de Longjumeau, which was to be staged for Queen Marie Sophie's 70th birthday. The return to Copenhagen infuriated Grahn, as did her status as solo dancer instead of première danseuse, the highest rank. Her quarrels with Bournonville began to take a violent turn, escalating to the point of involving ministers and even the king, who eventually granted permission for Grahn to leave Copenhagen to perform six guest appearances in Germany. Greeted with enthusiasm by the Germans, Grahn completed her performance schedule and then moved on independently to Paris, ignoring a number of summonses from Copenhagen. In June 1838, she was granted a permanent dismissal from the Danish Royal Ballet without pension, which left her free to pursue her career wherever she saw fit. Grahn never again returned to her homeland.

Back at the Paris Opéra with a three-year contract, Grahn continued to win acclaim from the critics, one of few exceptions being a sour

critique from Théophile Gautier, in which he nitpicked about the dancer's persistent smile. "[A] smile should hover about a dancer's lips in the way that a bird flutters about a rose," he instructed, "but it does not need to be fixed on those lips under pain of misshaping them." (Gautier was particularly unkind to dancers, once calling Louise Fitzjames as thin as a lizard, and suggesting that Maria Taglioni , at age 34, had lost much of her lightness and elevation.) Grahn went on to thrill Paris audiences with her performance in La Sylphide, a role that came her way at the last minute when Fanny Elssler was unable to dance because of illness. Unfortunately, Grahn's career at the Opéra ended prematurely in 1840, with a knee injury that sidelined her until 1843, when she turned up in Russia. Now 24, she made her debut in St Petersburg in Giselle, then went on to Milan, Italy, where she made some 40 appearances in Elda assia Il Patto degli Spiriti by Bernardo Vestris, during the 1844 season.

It was during a five-year period in England, however, that Grahn's career reached its zenith, beginning with her modest debut in Lady Henrietta, in 1844. That same year, after a triumph in Eoline, she appeared as one of the lovely protagonists in Jules Perrot's famous Le Pas de Quatre, considered one of the first "abstract" ballets. As the youngest of the quartet of dancers, which included Carlotta Grisi , Maria Taglioni, and Fanny Cerrito , Grahn delighted audiences with her freshness and point work, as well as her considerable acting ability.

Now a star of substantial magnitude, Grahn shunned Paris and returned instead to Germany, which she found so congenial that she purchased a house in Munich, where she also fell in love and married in 1856. Up until then, Grahn had avoided marriage, although she had been engaged years earlier to a Danish count, and her name had later been linked with Benjamin Lumley, director of Her Majesty's Theater. The groom was the English-born tenor Friederich Young who was enjoying a successful career in Germany. The marriage not only signaled the end of Grahn's dancing career but had a tragic outcome. In 1863, Young fell from a stage platform, injuring his spine so severely that he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. While he took up residence in a nursing home, Grahn rallied courageously to support him and herself. She taught privately for a time and then took a position at the Munich Hoftheatre, where she also choreographed a number of ballets, including the divertissements for Richard Wagner operas. After her husband's death in 1884, she remained in Munich, where she became a revered figure. She died in 1907, leaving her sizable estate to her adopted city to be used to help talented young artists. The citizens, in appreciation, named a street Lucile Grahn Strasse in her honor.


Kirstein, Lincoln. Four Centuries of Ballet: Fifty Masterworks. NY: Dover, 1984.

Migel, Parmenia. The Ballerinas. NY: Macmillan, 1972.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts