4.10.2010

That Gummy Epileptic! What a coffee-mill!

Emilie Marie Bouchaud was born May 14, 1874, in Algiers (though "of pure French stock" she was quick to add). Arriving in Paris about 1890, she styled herself Polaire and became a cabaret and stage sensation. Noted for her skittish energy and frenetic performances, she was given the nickname "la gommeuse épileptique." Google Translate renders it rather comically as "the gummy epileptic." (I'll assume we're losing a lot in English*...descriptive idioms turned hilarious crazy-talk in literal translation.) We read by way of explanation:
the gummy epileptic, she throws her head back, moving from one foot to another with clenched fists in song recitals with mocking words ... By her own admission, her feet are dancing alone in her shoes!
A petite 5 foot 3, she was celebrated for her tightly corseted wasp waist—ostensibly fourteen inches (although many promotional images seem to be retouched to alarming extremes). Decadent poet, novelist and dandy Jean Lorain evokes her mesmerizing performance as equal parts Orientalist seductress and fearsome whirling Dervish:
Polaire! The agitating and agitated Polaire! The tiny slip of a woman that you know, with the waist slender to the point of pain, of screaming out loud, of breaking in two...the phosphorus, the sulphur, the red pepper of that ghoulish, Salome-like face, the agitating and agitated Polaire!
What a devilish mimic, what a coffee-mill and what a belly-dancer! Yellow skirt tucked high, gloved in open-work stockings, Polaire skips, flutters, wriggles, arches from the hips, the back, the belly, mimes every kind of shock, twists, coils, rears, twirls... trembling like a stuck wasp, miaows, faints to what music and what words! The house, frozen with stupor, forgets to applaud.
What was performed on the stage in Paris of 1900 evidently took some time to get to America. Ten years later, after bubbling up from brothels and low dance halls, the "young set" of this country went "dance mad." (See an earlier post about the Grizzly Bear, Bunny Hug and the Turkey Trot)
Sheet music, drawing by C. Lavigne, 1900
M. DuFleuve, listed top right, is her brother
Picture from Polaire 1900
I'd love to get the back-story of this "Zippy the Pinhead" look. The intentionally grotesque character is fascinating for such a beautiful performer. Picture from Polaire 1900
My favorite image (above)— so vibrant, so kooky
Picture from Polaire 1900
postcard by Nadar, 1900
(the retouched photographer's stand, to help the subject keep still for the exposure, can still plainly be seen behind her legs) Picture from Polaire 1900
"the Female Torpedo" by Charles Leandre Picture from Polaire 1900
poster by Toulouse Lautrec, 1895. This seems to be her "gummy epileptic" dance!

Picture from Polaire 1900
Polaire was touted as having a 14-inch waist, though many of her publicity images (including this one) are noticeably retouched
As with a good many French performers, Polaire did not age well. She died in 1939.
Image above of Polaire (only) from Polaire 1900
Why is it that so many French women of a certain age seemed to shrivel into little hobgoblins? In later life, each appeared to have been issued a perennially dyspeptic expression, a slash of drawn-on brow, and an aureole of frazzled cotton-candy hair (often an unnatural shade of orange --see Jean-Claude Christo, and Sonia Rykiel).

* Michael Leddy tells me gommeuse may be "fop"—any French readers out there with additional information?

Images of Polaire are drawn from these very comprehensive French sites.

5 comments:

Michael Leddy said...

My old Harrap's also has "petit gommeuse": fop. A female fop?

angela said...

Aaah, interesting! perhaps an 'epileptic' fop--a hopping fop.
I get the idea-- now I wonder what the English idiom would be. Jimminy Cricket?

angela said...

The Foppish Mexican Jumping Bean!
hmmm

Maria said...

frazzled hobgoblins (french): Chanel, Colette...

Liza said...

Polaire starred in Colette's stage version of her novel, Claudine. And they were lovers. Very interesting, complex lives they both lead.

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