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Loie: The American pioneer of modern dance

Published : Aug 8, 2017, 12:31 am IST
Updated : Aug 8, 2017, 12:32 am IST

Apparently Fuller’s off-stage life was as complex as her carefully choreographed performances.

Loie Fuller’s stage set-up
 Loie Fuller’s stage set-up

No modern dancer is more fascinating than Loie Fuller. Her transformative wizardry on stage puts her at the beginning of what is called “modern dance”. You may well have heard of Isadora Duncan and not of Loie Fuller if you don’t have a particular interest in dance history or pioneers of theatrical lighting, but she has intrigued me since childhood.

She was once the most famous dancer in the world, breaking the mould of traditional choreography and paving the way for other pioneers of modern dance. Isadora Duncan trained with Loie at the start of her career in Paris, though the two soon parted and became bitter rivals. One critic said “Isadora sculpts. Loie Fuller paints. It is useless to compare them.” Loie and Isadora were both American and both found true success in Europe. Loie said, “I was born in America but I was made in Paris.”; To my delight, a 2016 Cannes Film Festival movie “La Danseuse” (in English, The Dancer), was showing in flight as I went abroad recently for the first time in six years. The film brought to life much of the research coming out of the resurgence of interest in this influential artist who gave Isadora Duncan her European launch and influenced Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Cubism and Futurism movements during the Belle Epoque at the turn of the 19 th century.

Simply put, Loie developed improvisational techniques of free movement as she manipulated light-weight silk fabric into space, extended by wands held in her hands as part of the costume, which became screens for light effects and magic-lantern projections. Not so simply, her creative concepts being stolen by others in the USA lead her to travel to Europe in hope and the ultimate achievement of graduating from dancing in burlesque and vaudeville to the Folies Bergere to finally the Paris Opera. She also gained intellectual property rights over her inventiveness. Electric lighting was quite new at the time in public and for stage, so her innovations led to stage lighting patents for chemical compounds for creating color gels and also the use of chemical salts for luminescent lighting and garments. (I remember learning about “salt-water dimmers” in a college stage lighting course.) She even was a member of the French Astronomical Society.

In the film about her life directed by Stéphanie de Giusto, we see the challenging childhood of the high-spirited, theatrically inclined Marie Louise Fuller in a Chicago, Illinois suburb. A “costume malfunction” when she was a child actress is shown as the chance discovery of using a dropped skirt to waft around and develop an act as a skirt dancer in burlesque. Instead of simply dancing about waving a skirt, she eliminated the corseted bodice to move the waistline up and added lots of silk fabric in lieu of the multiple pleats of skirt dancer.

This then became a projection screen for lights. In the film, Loie is played by Soko, a French indie electronic singer/songwriter and actress who passionately recreates Loie Fuller’s technique trained by Jody Sperling, who did the choreography for the film and served as creative consultant. Sperling is an example of the lasting influence on contemporary choreographers. She has choreographed dozens of works inspired by Fuller, expanding Fuller’s vocabulary and technique into the 21st century with her Time Lapse Dance company of six dancers.

In a classic example of a “friend” ambitiously taking advantage, a prettier girl copies her costume and takes the performance space during Loie’s brief absence from the theater. And like most such hurtful experiences, the results turn out for the best. When the impresario justifies that it is “just entertainment” and she can’t own her creative property, she determines to go to Europe and (as shown in the film) takes the money from a decadent acquaintance, a poor royal married to a wealthy American Heiress.

Apparently Fuller’s off-stage life was as complex as her carefully choreographed performances. She was a businesswoman of the theater but invested in productions lavishly and was often living well beyond her means. In the film, we see her kindness and generosity when he returns to Paris, penniless and divorced, and she rents his palatial home for rehearsals and residence for her troupe. Between America and heading her own full productions around Europe, we see her pluck in convincing the Folies Bergere to take her on and invest in her expensive technical needs. She had technicians manually rotating a disc of different colored gels through a plate-glass cutaway below her as well as from side and other angles. She could completely disappear simply by raising her arms and twirling.

She was innovative in eliminating stage scenery and performing in total blackout except for her lights and projections, such as photographs of the moon’s surface. Her 1891 Serpentine Dance was seen at the Folies Bergere in Paris in 1892, which produced a genre that was widely imitated. Among other famous shadows and silhouettes choreographies was the Fire Dance, which created the illusion of being ringed by flames. For the film, Ann Cooper Albright collaborated with a lighting designer on a series of works that drew inspiration from Fuller’s original lighting design patents.

Also in the film, we see the grueling physical training, ice baths and pain to be able to constantly move the wands supporting the yards upon yards of material throughout the minutes of each dance. This was coupled with the irritation, redness and loss of vision caused by the heat and brightness of the lights blasted at her from close quarters. She appeared elegantly tall while dancing.

As the original pioneering dance path maker, Loie Fuller supported other performers such as Isadora Duncan. In the film, the effervescent Isadora is played by Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of French vocalist Vanessa Paradis and American actor Johnny Depp. Here we see an Isadora happy to manipulate Loie emotionally to get established and then discredit her as not a real dancer, dependent on imagery and not the body in performance.

Along with Loie and Isadora, Ruth St.Denis completes the triumvirate of modern dance pioneers at the start of the 20 th century. Ruth St. Denis was an admirer of Fuller and choreographed works in homage. Amongst her many friends were scientists Pierre and Marie Curie, artists Auguste Rodin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, poet Stephane Mallarme and Queen Marie of Romania.

She was one of the most influential women in America and occasionally returned there from Paris to stage performances by her students, the “Fullerets” or Muses along with a large contingent of electricians. She also wrote plays, established a school and two art museums, choreographed and produced countless shows for world tours, advanced techniques of stagecraft and inspired the emerging Art Nouveau.

Loie Fuller passed away at the start of 1928, shortly before turning 66. She left behind an amazing dance, theater and stage lighting legacy that inspired at the time and continues to enthrall with the unimaginable and unattainable achievements she actually accomplished.

Tags: modern dancer, loie fuller