From Modernism Lab Essays
Loie Fuller (1862-1928)
Loie Fuller (born Mary Louise Fuller in 1862) was one of the most innovative dance artists of the twentieth century. Her work influenced not only future artists in modern dance, such as Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, but also a whole range of poets, painters, sculptors, and intellectuals. She brought both revolutionary dance forms and technical innovations in costume and lighting to American, Caribbean, London, and Paris stages.
Unlike most of the pioneers in modern dance who followed her, Fuller was not classically trained in ballet or any other formal dance technique. Instead, she began her career as a burlesque skirt-dancer, in vaudeville, and in the circus. She choreographed her own dances, increasingly incorporating her own style of improvisational dance techniques, and designed vast silk costumes, animated by long baton-like wands (made of aluminum or bamboo) which she held and swirled beneath layers of transparent fabric. These had the effect of both amplifying her bodily movements and imparting a surreal, flowing quality to them.
Her swirling arm movements and colored lights produced a mesmerizing effect that many of her contemporary artists and filmmakers (including the Lumiére Brothers) attempted to capture and many later artists attempted to reproduce. Her early experience in burlesque, vaudeville, and circus was transformed into stunning visual effects and artistic innovations, resulting in what her French contemporary Arsène Alexandre called “the marvelous dream-creature you see dancing madly in a vision swirling among her dappled veils which change ten thousand times a minute.” (Arsène Alexandre, “Le théâtre de La Loie Fuller,” Le Théâtre 4, Auguust 11, 1900, 24). Perhaps in recognition of her stunning presence and the cultural sensation she produced, she was known to Paris not merely by her name, but as “La Loie Fuller”—one of many attempts, verbal and visual, to capture her magnificent yet transient effects on paper.
Her innovations in stage design included the complex use of mirrors and light on an otherwise bare stage to create impressionistic effects of constantly changing light. Her costumes, often constructed of more than one hundred yards of silk for a single dress, were illuminated by the changing light scheme with quasi-magical effects. Audiences were often said to be in raptures and ecstasy during her performance. One observer wrote,
One feels subtly transported into the strangest regions of the dream . . . in these astonishing apparitions, something satanic and demonic, but of a gentle Satanism, of a poetic and suggestive demonality, which sets one on the starry and luminous path of hashishian dreams . . . (F. de Ménil, Histoire de la Danse à travers les Âges, Paris, 1904, pp. 340-341).
For many painters and poets, especially those attracted to or associated with the Symbolist movement, Fuller’s performances embodied everything they hoped to accomplish in their work. Expressive yet barely mimetic, beautiful yet utterly modern, and with the suggestion of transport to otherworldly realms, her synthesis of color, movement, and music resonated deeply with other artists who saw her. Stéphane Mallarmé called her “the theatrical form of poetry par excellence,” and saw her as the personification of his artistic ideals.
Visual artists of the Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements, among others, were inspired by her combination of light, color, and motion, and responded with works designed to create similar or complementary effects. Toulouse-Lautrec, John W. Alexander, James McNeill Whistler, Georges de Feure, Théodore Rivière, Georges Meunier, Pierre Roche, Auguste Rodin, Ferdinand Bac, Alfred Choubrac, and Jules Cheret created paintings, posters, and sculptures, of her, while the Lumiére brothers, Georges Méliès, and Léon Gaumont worked with her on ambitious new projects in film.
As her career progressed, she used increasingly innovative music as well, by composers such as Hector Berlioz, Edvard Grieg, Florent Schmitt, Claude Debussy, and Alexander Scriabin. Poets such as Mallarmé, Georges Rodenbach, and Count Robert de Montesquiou devoted essays and poems to her, while W.B. Yeats included her school of students in his poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”:
When Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers enwound
A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,
It seemed that a dragon of air
Had fallen among dancers, had whirled them round
Or hurried them off on its own furious path;
So the Platonic Year
Whirls out new right and wrong,
Whirls in the old instead;
All men are dancers and their tread
Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong. (ll.49-58).
Fuller herself, far from being the purely instinctual creature that her audience often imagined her as, was deeply committed to exploring new forms, and intellectually aware of her own art. In a 1914 interview, she explained that
I wanted to create a new form of art, an art completely irrelevant to the usual theories, an art giving to the soul and the senses at the same time complete delight, where reality and dream, light and sound, movement and rhythm form an exciting unity […] For this ideal I am drawn most particularly to modern music where so much pictorial orchestration opens such an enormous field to magical lighting that imagination directs me to unceasing innovation […] Music is the joy of the ears, I wish it also the delight of the eyes, and to this end, to render it pictorial, to make it visible…I march, torch in hand, in unknown paths.” (Covielle, “Danse, musique, lumière, chez La Loie Fuller.” Éclair (May 5, 1914).
As a spectacle of light and as a figure (on stage and in her own career) in endless metamorphosis, Loie Fuller made public many of the Symbolist and avant-garde experiments in light, color, sound, movement, and syntheses of the arts. From 1893 until her death in 1928, she toured Europe and America, performing hundreds of times. One writer called her “the creation of her own imagination and the fantasies of fin-de-siècle Paris.” (Loie Fuller: Magician of Light, The Virginia Museum, Richmond, 1979, p.13)
Fuller’s work came to be seen as a bridge between Romanticism and modernism, between ballet and the multiple forms of “new dance,” and between the nineteenth- and twentieth centuries. Fuller both prepared the way for and to some extent was contemporaneous with better-known innovators in dance, such as Diaghilev, Fokine, the Ballets Russes, and Isadora Duncan. Her innovations in movement and stagecraft were unique and inspiring but never fully reproduced by the dance pioneers who followed her.
Loie Fuller’s “Serpentine Dance” can be seen by clicking on the following link: http://www.archive.org/details/VueLumiere765DanseSerpentine