Loïe Fuller, A Subversive Pioneer
Born towards the end of the Victorian era, Loïe Fuller (like her contemporary Isadora Duncan) was the embodiment of the social changes of her time. She developed her art at a time when women's bodies were starting to be liberated, through movements such as the dress reformers’, who promoted garments that would let the body move more freely, or Delsartism, inspired by French pedagogue François Delsarte, who advocated for physical discipline and expression. In this excerpt from the collective volume Nouvelle Histoire de la danse en Occident, published in 2020 by Editions du Seuil, the dance scholar Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau examines Loïe Fuller through the prism of this artistic, aesthetic and political revolution.
Born in a rather rural suburb of Chicago, Loïe Fuller grew up in a middle-class family who moved around a lot. She was not trained as a dancer, but made her acting debut while still a child. From her bohemian childhood, she retained a taste for change, and spent the first years of her career moving from place to place according to her contracts. She arrived in France in 1892, three years after the 1889 Universal Exposition during which the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated. Eight years later, she was the star of the 1900 Universal Exposition; in the space of a few years, the little Illinois native had become the darling of Paris, “La Loïe Fuller,” “la Fée lumière” (“the Light Fairy”), “la Fée électricité” (“the Electric Fairy”).
In her autobiography, she explains how her “serpentine dance” was created. At the time she was a simple skirt dancer – a dance that was all the rage in the U.S. and U.K., in which the dancer would make her full skirt fly around her – and tried to make this hybrid technique more spectacular by adding ballet-inspired steps, mixed with what was known as clog dancing (a kind of ancestor of tap dancing, performed in clogs). Fuller lengthened the skirt and invented a system to make it undulate around the dancer, like fluttering butterfly wings. Her technique was immediately plagiarized, and Fuller's lawsuits to have the technique acknowledged as her own were unsuccessful; she remained obsessed with the issue of artistic and intellectual property, and filed numerous patent claims for all her inventions. Her experience of the theater world also led her to develop exceptional ingenuity and resilience. Fuller was not a dancer, as she was constantly reminded: the American impresarios and managers she consulted laughed in her face and encouraged her to stick to acting. She was no more successful at the Paris Opera, where she applied on her arrival in France. “National Academy of Choreography! I still naively believed in labels. And I imagined that an institution of this kind would be welcoming to dance innovators. But alas! That illusion was short-lived,” she remembered in her autobiography Fifteen Years of my Life. She therefore made her Parisian debut at the Folies-Bergère music hall.
Away from the institution, she found the world of music-hall offered many opportunities for innovation. Fuller was stubborn, and quickly realized that her Americanness could work in her favor. Yankee exoticism was all the rage: Buffalo Bill and his troupe had toured successfully in 1889 (and returned in 1905), and for Parisians, Americans embodied a blend of spontaneity, childlike energy, innocence and wildness. They were perceived as “new,” like their country, and for this reason they were forgiven for their audacity. Fuller embodied this pioneering spirit to perfection: she was fearless, and although she was not a trained dancer, she chose to invent her own dances instead.
In the field of lighting and staging, Fuller left an indelible mark on the theater world. No technique existed at the time to provide the lighting effects she dreamed of, which led her to carry out her own research. Fuller became a light designer, set designer, chemist, costume-maker and stagehand: she invented a wooden structure to lengthen the movement of her arms and make the fabric of her costumes fly higher, and visited the laboratories of the Curies and Edison to borrow a few grams of their strange powders. She used Edison's salts to create a phosphorescent effect on her costumes, and combined them with lighting of her own invention to produce a twinkling similar to the light of a starry sky. The powder used by the Curies to highlight ultra-violet rays was similarly incorporated into her costume, associated to special lighting to create her “ultra-violet dance”. To emphasize her lighting effects, she abandoned the usual backdrops in favor of a black background. Stage lighting was no longer fixed: Fuller invented a complex system of strategically placed spotlights to create impressive effects for an audience accustomed to ramp lighting alone. A glass pedestal even allowed her to be lit from below; using chemical components and pigments, she composed a rotating spotlight, with gelatin panels in different hues, to produce a kaleidoscopic effect.
A true one-woman orchestra, Fuller controlled the creative and production process from start to finish, and she wasn’t shy about imposing her ideas on theater directors. She led a team of some thirty technicians and set up a system that allowed her to keep the production of the show secret, even from members of her team, to whom she would not reveal everything; the work of the lighting technicians was controlled from the stage via a system of signals. In a sense, Fuller was stirring up gender trouble, as Judith Butler put it in her eponymous 1990 book. Her choreographic style was subversive in relation to the gendered norms of the time: although the posters for her shows emphasized her femininity and offered a deliberately sexualized vision of the dancer – curvy, batting her eyelashes, showing cleavage – the reality of her performances was quite different. When she danced, Fuller did not reveal herself, and sought less to seduce than to turn the body into an abstract entity. The physical form fades away to showcase the dance: enveloped in the swirling cocoon of her costume, the dancer becomes a lily, a butterfly, a wisp of flame – in other words, a mobile materialization of light and music. Historian Giovanni Lista quotes a journalist who said of Fuller: “Is she pretty, this American girl? I don't know, and she doesn't need to be pretty.” In her dance, movement supersedes her body, which is removed from any erotic gaze and becomes a shifting, protean entity.
A queer artist, Fuller freed the female body from heteronormative representation and expression. She shared her life with a woman, Gabrielle Bloch, known as Gab Sorère, and both were regulars in Parisian lesbian art circles. Her many references to flowers – whether choreographic or in the names she gave her students (nicknamed “Orchid,” etc.) – can also be read as various ways of expressing the artist's homosexuality, since flowers are associated with the female sex, both metaphorically and visually (as in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings). The school Fuller founded, like Duncan's early schools, enveloped her young pupils in a benevolent female atmosphere, an extension of her own experience in the Paris lesbian community – which corresponds to poet Adrienne Rich's 1980 definition of the lesbian continuum in her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Fuller's dance does not anticipate the male gaze which underpins the exhibition of the female body on stage, particularly at the time – and it does not seek to arouse his sexual desire. In her reinterpretation of the story of Salome, for example, the dancer is no longer the one who uses her dance to seduce and manipulate, but the one whose dance seduces a corrupting force in Herod, his guilty desire consuming her in spite of herself.
By leading the body and dance along the path of abstraction, Fuller embodied what Mallarmé called the “elocutionary disappearance” of the artist, which he saw as the primary condition for the creation of “pure poetry.” Mallarmé, who is widely considered one of the tutelary figures of modern poetry, was deeply influenced by Fuller's work, and wrote extensively about it. For him, her dance was a model for modern art, theater or poetry. The dancer is no longer a person: she is the dance, i.e. pure movement. This move towards impersonality is also characteristic of the new poetic forms developing at the same time: for all modernist poets, and later for contemporary poets, the lyric self is increasingly abstract. For Fuller, “I” is definitely “other,” as Rimbaud put it. In her autobiography, she recounts with a touch of amusement how a child who came to see her in her dressing room at the Folies-Bergère after the show had not recognized “the fairy” she had seen on stage in this “fat American lady”; in response to the child's protests, Fuller suggested that they were perhaps two separate people.
As with the posters advertising her shows, the gap between the image that society and the Belle-Époque culture wanted to assign Fuller and the reality of the artist is striking. While they hailed her as a a sensation, a name that would thrill the crowds, Fuller consciously made “La Loïe Fuller” a public figure, a myth dissociated from the person. She understood that this self-construction could sell – as shown by the impressive sales of merchandise including statuettes, posters and lamps in her effigy – and she incorporated a meta-iconographic reflection on her own reproducibility in her art. One of her dances, for example, takes place in the midst of a series of mirrors, which reproduce and diffract the dancer's image ad infinitum. She also reproduced herself through her students, who had to physically resemble her and became as many “miniature Loïes.” Still, while Fuller was concerned with celebrity and the reproducibility of the artist's image, long before Warhol, her performances were not intended to be exactly replicable – mainly because Fuller jealously guarded their secrets. The dances that were filmed were thus calibrated for the camera, and did not reproduce the full reality of Fuller's performances.
The 1900 Universal Exposition and its Dance Palace (designed as a tribute to Fuller) bear witness to the success of this modern artist: Fuller built her own Theater-Museum on the grounds of the fair, wishing to present her art on her own terms rather than within an imposed structure.
This article is a translated excerpt from the chapter « À l'aube de la modernité : Loïe Fuller, Isadora Duncan », published in Nouvelle Histoire de la danse en Occident, edited by Laura Cappelle (© Seuil, 2020).
Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau is Associate Professor of American literature (poetry, 19th century) and dance studies at Sorbonne University and a junior member of the IUF (Institut Universitaire de France). She is the author of Emily Dickinson du côté de Shakespeare, modalités théâtrales du lyrisme (PUBP, 2020), and she has edited the special issue of the journal Cahiers Élisabéthains on Shakespeare and dance.