Olga Kaira

Miss Lala: The Iron Jawed Acrobat

 

There is a common misconception about Europe and Black people; that basically, there are no black people there other than maybe in London. As a first-generation West Indian born in London myself, I too fall victim to this strange phenomenon. Occasionally, a reader from Russia or as happened this week from Estonia will contact me and I'll think to myself “How on earth did black people get there?” Yea I know it’s dumb, but if you catch me on a miserable Monday morning, I’m liable to think anything. So, more to remind me than to educate anyone else that we are a global people, this particular slice of history is from Poland via Germany. Let me introduce you to Miss Lala also know as, Olga Kaira, “Olga the Mulatto”, “Olga the Negress”, “The Venus of the Tropics”, “The Cannon Woman” and “The African Princess.”

Miss Lala holding a high wire

Mixed fortunes

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).

Miss Lala though possessed incredible strength, an all-around circus performer she worked at various times as a wire walker, trapeze artist, hand balancer, strong woman and incredibly enough an iron jaw performer. 

She first appeared in the circus aged 9 and found fame aged 21 in France. She toured around Europe eventually finding her way to London where she performed at the Royal Aquarium and 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).

The circus played up Lala’s African ancestry to create mystery thereby and increase ticket sales. Stories were circulated saying that she was a dethroned African Princess who lost her throne and was sold into slavery. These kinds of fictitious back stories were often created for circus acts, and similar back stories for circus performers in America such as Zublia the “Circassian Lady” are well documented. I touch on the topic briefly in my podcast about Russian poet, Alexandar Pushkin who died 30 years before Miss Lala’s first circus performance.

The in writings of the time Lala is described as:

 

“Strong above the average of womankind in the jaw”

 

Lala’s Iron jaw act was hailed in Paris as being superior to the male iron jaw performers a compliment which must have stuck in many a man’s throat.

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 while 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.

Then a woman performed a toe hang off this second trapeze while 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 one-legged hocks (Hanging on just one knee) while 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 rebound involuntarily.

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.

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Degas who himself was of mixed race on his 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.

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.

Original Source: https://thecircusgirlblog.wordpress.com/tag/olga-kaira/

http://jstheater.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/proustdegassurrealist-drawing-morgan.html

 

 

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