Miss La La / Olga Kaira
Black circus performers of 1800s ‘Gilded Age’ America found varying levels of fame over the years, but little is known about this luminary, lady aerialist of mid nineteenth century Europe, who astonished audiences across the continent with her stunning, agile strength and death-defying Circus acts.
Miss La La was already famous in her own right when she became the subject of one of the art worlds most prized artworks, ‘Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’, by French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas in 1879.
Several Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were inspired by the circus and other artists watched Miss La La perform, yet as far as it’s known she only modelled for Edgar Degas.
I chose Miss la la as one of my muses for her talent, fortitude and her spectacular aerial performance. She was not by definition an artist’s model or muse.
Miss La La was an extraordinary, courageous trapeze artist who defied the racist and sexist precepts of her time, crossing paths with renowned artists and performers of an innovative period of art history.
Miss Lala was born Anna Olga Albertina Brown on April 21st 1858, to a white, German Prussian mother, Marie-Christine Borchardt and a black father, Wilhelm Brown, an African-American freedman.
Both parents were employed as fairground artists and were living in the former Prussian (but now Polish) city of Stettin (Szczecin) at the time.
It is believed that her name Olga Kaira was adopted as a tribute to her sister, Olga Marie Brown, who died three years before she was born.
Charcoal sketch of a young Olga Kaira, by Marina Elphick, 2021
Olga Kaira was only nine years old when her talent was duly recognised by her parents and her mother placed her in the circus. From early on she was proficient on the high wire, the trapeze and the flying cord.
Olga Kaira, soon started a career in the circus and became better known as ‘Miss La La’, her stage name.
Charcoal drawing of a young Olga Kaira, by Marina Elphick, 2021
Undeterred by her petite stature, the delicate looking Miss La La possessed astonishing strength, her versatile repertoire included wire walking, flying trapeze acrobatics, strength balancing and a human cannon ball act.
She was a skilled, all-around performer who in her teens toured with numerous circuses and appeared at music halls throughout Europe.
It was in Paris in the 1870s where Miss La la, aged twenty-one, found real prominence with her aerial skills and incredible ‘iron jaw’ routines, which were very popular at the time.
Paris and The Cirque Fernando
By the second half of the 19th century, aesthetic circus was one of the most popular and fashionable forms of entertainment in Paris next to opera and theatre. The Cirque Fernando opened in Montmartre in the 1870s under the direction of great equestrian Ferdinand Beert, also known as Fernando. The venue attracted stylish crowds, including many well regarded artists.
As her career flourished, Miss La La became known by several other names that indicated her mixed race; she became ‘Olga the Negress’, ‘Venus of the Tropics’, ‘African Princess’, and ‘Olga the Mulatto’, all to satisfy the hype of the audience. Although these racist names would be unacceptable now, they were widely used and admissible at the time.
Miss La La’s African and European genealogy was routinely exploited to create speculation and mystery around her background and reinforce her ‘exoticism’. Stories were circulated saying that she was an African Princess who lost her throne and was sold into slavery, ending up in a circus.
Fictitious backstories like this were often created for circus acts, to heighten their enigmatic appeal, increase the public’s curiosity and inevitably, hype ticket sales.
The 19th Century Circus
19th Century women were not allowed to play professional sport, but the circus ring was an arena for them to exhibit their physical strength and daring skills, without prejudice or discrimination.
Aerial tight rope, trapeze, equestrian trick riding and acrobatics were without exception performed by women and by the late nineteenth century women aerial artists like Miss La La were among the highest paid of all circus performers. The Circus offered sustainable career opportunities to women especially those who were marginalised, either by race or class.
At this time the circus in particular, had become a hybrid space where class, gender, and race could converge in performance: where the sexuality associated with working-class women and foreignness of darker races could come together with the androgyny of acrobats; all of which could be enjoyed voyeuristically without jeopardising the detached observer’s own socially ordered sense of privilege and self regard.
Miss La la performed from the late 1860s until 1888. Early on she was the star attraction of the traveling Troupe Kaira, along with her fellow strength acrobat called Theophila Szterker, known as ‘Kaira la Blanche’ (1864-88).
Together they became ‘Les Deux Papillons’, or ‘The two butterflies’, and stunned the audience night after night with their aerial display.
Miss La la also worked for a time with the famous Parisian troupe ‘The Folies Bergères’.
Kaira and Olga ‘les deux Papillons’ poster. Miss Lala at the Folies-Bergere, Colour lithograph, by Jules Cheret.
The Acrobat with an iron jaw
Miss La La’s iron jaw act had made her famous, her performance was extolled as being superior to those which had come before including the male iron jaw performers, an accolade that must have caused much indignation for her male equivalents.
To perform her solo act, Miss La La made her ascent by rope to the top of the roof or tent, taking up with her a two-inch-wide leather and metal strap that had a mouthpiece, known as an iron jaw at one end and metal hook extending from the other end.
Here, forty to fifty foot high, she clamped the mouthpiece in her teeth and hooked it on to the trapeze bar or rope. With her head and body facing upwards she would hang in the air, gripping by her teeth alone.
The strength in her jaws enabled Miss La La to hold her weight for astounding lengths of time. A swivel underneath the hook permitted the iron jaw bit to turn and allowed her to spin gracefully in mid-air.
In a duo act Miss La La would hang upside down with her legs hooked around the trapeze bar, clenching the iron jaw mouthpiece in her teeth, with an extension strap attached to a second trapeze below, which could suspend a second or third performer. The petite Miss La La kept everyone from falling to their death with only her nerves, tenacity and jaws of steel.
Written Account of Miss La La’s Death-defying Acts
In an 1879 newspaper report Miss La La’s act was described in detail. The article mentioned how “La La” hung from her 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, during which time “La La” steadily bore their weight on her jaw.
The stake was then heightened as “La La” 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 another between her teeth.
The grand finale of her act did not disappoint as Miss La La lifted a 150 pound (70 Kilo) civil war era cannon with her teeth. The cannon was then fired and the aftershock of the blast sent her body twisting and turning in mid-air. For this she earned the name of ‘The Cannon Woman’, or ‘La Mulatresse-Canon’.
Edgar Degas was himself of mixed race on his Creole mother’s side. He was renowned for his paintings, pastels and drawings of ballet dancers, behind the scenes and on stage. He also painted portraits of women in their daily domestic life, including ladies at their ‘toilette’ and singers at cafe concerts.
In January of 1879, Edgar Degas attended Miss La La’s popular act at the Cirque Fernando for four nights in a row. He made sketches of her act from various angles as well as studies of the building itself.
There were several complexities for Degas to tackle: the task of painting a pose that would convey La La’s soaring upward movement and indicate the strain on her jaw; the perspective that he was faced with when painting from underneath the subject; and the technical challenge of depicting the nearly 70 foot high, 16 sided polygon of the Cirque Fernando. This in particular was a daunting tasks to Degas, according to the show’s curators:
“Degas was so daunted by the building’s steeply-viewed architecture that he enlisted a specialist to assist him with this aspect of the composition. …Revealing Degas’s repeated, unsatisfactory attempts to render the angled trusses, columns, and other architectural elements he had assiduously studied in his notebook; indeed, it appears that he delineated the roof beams no fewer than three times.”
Degas’s studio was located on rue Fontaine, close to the Cirque Fernando in Montmartre. Miss La La visited his studio several times so that Degas could refine his drawings and put finishing touches on the final painting of her. His conclusive choice of a side view, shows her bending her knees and stretching out her arms to counterbalance the spin and force of the rope lifting her.
In Degas’ portrayal Miss La La is captured as she was hoisted upwards to the imposing domed roof of the Cirque Fernando. Our viewpoint is the same as the audience would have seen her, from beneath looking upwards. The result was graceful and stunning.
It was only a few months after Degas first witnessed her spectacular performances, that his painting, ‘Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’ was exhibited at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in April 1879. This immortalisation of her increased Miss La La’s popularity and made her even more famous.
It was curious that Degas only painted the one circus scene when he would usually paint a whole series of ballet dancers or cafe concert singers. ‘Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’, was critically well received but no similar paintings of acrobats followed, despite the artwork’s great success.
In the early 1880s, Miss La La and Theophila Szterker, formed an acrobatic duo named the ‘Black and White Butterflies – Olga and Kaira’. They had their British debut in October 1883 in central London at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster (now the Methodist Central Hall) where their critically acclaimed act drew a great deal of press attention.
In this exhilarating performance, Olga would catch her partner in the air from a height of 30 feet. After two months their act also toured to Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre, then Canterbury Theatre of Varieties and finally Westminster Bridge for the Christmas season. Their duo act was successful and highly commended in all venues. Their act travelled onto Madrid, Spain and other major cities where their reputation had preceded them and already created demand.
In 1888 Miss La La suddenly ceased performing after her stage partner Theophila Szterker’s tragically plummeted to her death, aged only twenty-four. According to the French newspaper ‘Le Figaro’ (October 26, 1879) Theophila had previously suffered a bad fall whilst substituting for Lala in a rope act.
The fear, exertion and physical pain these brave women had concealed as they performed night after night, seemed a huge price to pay for approval and applause. Miss La La, now aged thirty, would have understood that the risks were to high for her to continue.
In 1888, the same year that Theophila died, Miss La La married African-American Emanuel Woodson, a talented contortionist known as ‘Manuel’. The couple had met when his minstrel troupe travelled from America to Europe and he performed in venues across Germany and France.
So Miss La La became Mrs Anna Woodson, also known as Olga Woodson. Together she and Emanuel had a daughter, Rose Eddie Woodson, who was born in London in March 1894.
The couple went on to have two more daughters, who would grow up to form a troupe of ladder acrobats created by Olga, called the Keziah Sisters, or ‘Three Keziahs’. They appeared with their parents on the worldwide variety circuit, including travelling to Australia and New Zealand. The family later settled in Brussels where Emanuel was the stage manager of the Palais d’Ete, and became a well respected citizen in the Belgian capital.
Mrs Olga Woodson the former Miss La La was widowed in 1915 when her husband died of liver disease aged fifty.
The last known date of Miss La La’s existence came from a U.S.A passport application filed in 1919, when she was sixty-one. Her details recorded her as Anna, Olga Woodson.
Unfortunately It is not known if she was successful with her application, neither do we have knowledge of her final resting place. I would Like to believe her passport was granted and she and her girls got to meet her husband’s family in St Louis, Missouri.
As it is, Edgar Degas has allowed Miss La La to live forever in his painting, where she is suspended in the great arched dome of the Cirque Fernando in Paris. The painting is now hung in the National Gallery, London, England.
Miss Lala muse at the ‘Fernando Circus,’ a detail of the painting by Edgar Degas, 1879.
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Acknowledgements & References
National Library of France- BnF https://cirque-cnac.bnf.fr/
Degas by himself : Drawings, prints, paintings and writings, Published by Little, Brown: New edition 2000