100 Dance Treasures

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    an essay by Jody Sperling

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  • Loïe Fuller, Photo by B.J. Falk
    Pictured above: This 1892 photograph shows Fuller costumed for her Serpentine Dance and holding a typical "skirt dance" pose. While the connection with skirt dancing is evident, the image also reveals Fuller's innovations. She has done away with the skirt dancer's usual corseted bodice, moved the waistline higher, added more fabric to the skirt, and used sheer lightweight white silk (in lieu of a skirt dancer's pleated fabric) to serve as a mobile screen for her colored lights and projections. (Photograph by B.J. Falk. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.)

Loïe Fuller, Folies-Bergere poster Pictured: Jules Chéret's 1893 poster advertising Loïe Fuller's performances at the Folies Bergère is one of the most iconic images of Art Nouveau. Utilizing the new technology of chromolithography, it reproduced the brilliant colors Fuller achieved on stage with the new technology of electric lighting. It appeared in four different color combinations and was later re-printed in Chéret's Maître d'Affiche, a small-format collection of poster art. Although compelling, the image is hardly a likeness of Fuller and the flagrant exposure of the dancer's physique is pure fantasy. (Collection William G. & Sally R. Sommer.)

Loïe Fuller was a visionary artist who crafted a novel genre of performance, one that combined billowing costumes with dazzling lights and projections to conjure transformative imagery of hypnotic beauty. Born Marie Louise Fuller 1862 in Fullersburg, Illinois, she embarked on an early theatrical career as an actress and singer in vaudeville, stock companies, and burlesque before developing the dance style that made her famous in the early 1890s. Through experiments with silk drapery and colored lights, she evolved her first Serpentine Dance. Thereafter, the genre became known as "serpentine dancing" and was widely imitated. Fuller was heralded as a technological wizardress for her many stagecraft innovations, which included: doing away with scenic elements and plunging the theater into total darkness; harnessing a revolving disc of colored gels to shine ever-shifting multi-hued patterns on her swirling skirts; projecting images (such as photographs of the moon's surface) onto her garments; lighting the stage from below, as in her famous Fire Dance to create the illusion of being ringed by flames; and choreographing shadows and silhouettes. Fuller's 1892 debut at the Folies Bergère in Paris catapulted her into international celebrity. Her performances enraptured the fin de siècle artists, poets and intellectuals. She was depicted by artists in many media and became influential in such movements as Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Cubism, and Futurism. Fuller's serpentine dancing lies at the origin of modern dance. Although they later became rivals, Fuller helped the career of a young Isadora Duncan. Ruth St. Denis was an admirer of Fuller and choreographed works in homage. At the turn of the 20th century, Fuller brought dance to the cutting edge of modernity, and her energy and ambition made her one of the most influential American women of her era. Fuller died in Paris, France, on January 2, 1928.

Loïe Fuller Pictured left: Fuller sewed wands inside her silk garments to extend her reach into space. Thus, she was able to manipulate the fabric into larger-than-life sculptural forms. On stage, the white silk seen here would have been stained with multi-colored lights and magic-lantern projections. (Photographer unknown. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.)

Loïe Fuller. Photo by Samuel Joshua Beckett Pictured right: One of the most mysterious aspects of Fuller's dance is the way she could completely disappear into imagery of her creation. Here, by merely raising her arms and twirling in place, Fuller materialized a tornado in a quiet garden. (Photograph attributed to Samuel Joshua Beckett, c.1898. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.)

Learn more in Loïe Fuller, an essay by Jody Sperling.

Loïe Fuller, Folies-Bergere poster Pictured left: This unauthorized illustration, originally published in Scientific American June 20, 1896, reveals the stage set-up for a Fuller-style dance. Operators shine lights on the dancer from the sides of the stage and from below, through a plate-glass cutaway. Each technician manually rotates a disc of gels to change the lamp's color and textural effects. At the bottom left of the stage, the magic-lantern operator is poised to cast images onto the dancer's costume. From Hopkins, Albert A., Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, including Trick Photography, Munn & Co., New York, 1901.)

Loïe Fuller, Folies-Bergere poster Pictured left: This poster by the artist PAL (Jean de Paleologue) beautifully illustrates Fuller's concept of harmonic spectacle. Here, beams of light dynamically intersect like chords "singing" a city skyline on Fuller's costume. As in Chéret's poster, the apparition of Fuller's idealized, nude-seeming body within the cityscape, is more advertising and imagination than a reflection of reality. (From The Zimmerli Museum of Art.)