Dance Reflections – fascinating moves from a performance pioneer

One little girl, taken backstage to meet Loie Fuller in her heyday of the 1890s, was unimpressed: “This is a fat Lady! It was a Fairy I saw dancing,” Fuller recalled in his memoir Fifteen years in the life of a dancer.

A stocky midwestern frump, Marie Louise Fuller was an unlikely superstar. Born in Illinois in 1862, she led a lackluster career as a singer and maid until she fell, at age 30, on a formula that was to turn the world upside down.

This month at the Royal Opera House in London, as part of Van Cleef & Arpels dance reflections initiative, Paris-based Polish-born dancer Ola Maciejewska performs the UK premieres of two pieces inspired by Fuller and his legacy. Maciejewska mirrors Fuller in her characteristic use of large expanses of fabric. As Fuller explained, “every movement of the body was expressed in the folds of the silk, in a play of colors. . . it could be mathematically and systematically calculated.

One of Loïe Fuller’s dance performances, circa 1900

A figure, resembling an archetypal witch, concealed under swathes of black cloth

“Bombyx Mori” by Ola Maciejewska, one of the dance pieces inspired by Fuller’s work © Martin Argyroglo

“Skirt dancing,” a primitive half-sister to the more salacious cancan, was nothing new, but Fuller elevated it from a music-hall twist to high art. After having tried her “Serpentine Dance” in New York in 1891, she decided to conquer Paris.

His autobiography, first published in French in 1908, may not be reliable, but his success is beyond doubt. In 1892, she began a series of 300 performances at the Folies Bergère, where she attracted a new audience: aristocrats, artists and Symbolist poets, all fascinated by the magnificent abstractions she created by projecting colored light onto the 500 meters of silk that she she manipulates with the bamboo canes concealed in her sleeves.

She won everyone’s admiration from Auguste Rodin – who declared her “a woman of genius!” — to Queen Marie of Romania, whose signed photograph bore the inscription “in memory of an evening during which you filled my heart with joy”. Composer Jules Massenet was so impressed that he gave Fuller unrestricted performing rights (free) to its entire back catalog. Sarah Bernhardt – another fan – asked for her opinion on the stage lighting. Stéphane Mallarmé called it “the theatrical form of poetry par excellence”.

She gave a private performance for Pierre and Marie Curie and, despite a meager formal education, Fuller mastered the latest electrical and chemical developments in order to achieve her effects. The Curies refused her request for samples, but she invented the 1904 “Radium Dance” nonetheless, describing her trademark silks with phosphorescent paints of her own design.

In this black and white image, a dancer completely wrapped in flowing fabric creates a wing shape behind her

Fuller, in one of his elaborate costumes, performing his “Serpentine” dance, circa 1905 © Ullstein Bild / ArenaPAL

“La Loïe”, like Duse, Isadora and Nijinsky, despised for being immortalized in the cinema. Even if she had consented, the first cine camera, dependent on high levels of light, could never have captured her ability to glow in the dark. One can only imagine the thrill of a live performance: the house’s gas lamps extinguished (unheard of in the 1890s), the stage a simple black box lined with soot velvet. The “electric fairy” would appear like a genie in a beam of colored light and conjure up ectoplasmic visions of the natural world: waves, butterflies, massive canna lilies, the embodiment of new art.

These revolutionary trade secrets were jealously guarded. Fuller’s “Mirror Dance” set multiplied its image using a clever (and fully patented) placement of lights and mirrors. In his 1895 “Fire Dance,” Fuller appears surrounded by a blazing tornado 15 feet high, lit by lamps concealed under a glass trap in the stage floor: “an agony of flames that cannot scorch a sleeve,” marvels WB Yeats.

Fuller’s name is often bracketed with that of Isadora Duncan as a pioneer of modern dance, but the meticulously plotted effects of La Loïe were a far cry from Isadora’s barefoot rhapsodies: Apollo vs. Dionysus. Fuller admired the young dancer and helped launch her career in Vienna in 1902, although the alliance was short-lived. Duncan’s flippant lack of professionalism infuriated her mentor, and the young “free spirit” seemed taken aback by Fuller’s openly lesbian entourage.

Fuller was not much of a dancer – she had only a handful of childhood lessons – and although lithographs by Toulouse Lautrec and Jules Chéret depict her in conventional form with pretty bare ankles and a comely gaze here, her stage persona was entirely asexual—seven veils minus the Salome. His many 1890s imitators tended to be smiling lovers, beautifully dressed dervishes in colorful silks, but 21st-century dancers such as Maciejewska prefer to explore Fuller’s legacy on a more fundamental level.

A vintage poster for the Folies Bergère, advertising a performance by Fuller

An 1893 Toulouse Lautrec image of Fuller performing on stage, but seen from behind the scenes

Fuller’s prismatic extravaganzas — which might seem like a natural fit for a jewelry house-sponsored festival — are getting a minimalistic makeover. Light and color are kept simple, and Maciejewska instead focuses on Fuller’s bulky costumes in “Research,” a solo performed by Maciejewska herself, and “Bombyx Mori,” a trio named after the worm that spun these famous silks.

Maciejewska and her two collaborators (one male, one female) climb inside their massive suits and, using Fuller-style bamboo canes, work the vast lengths of wispy fabric until they form the inflated spirals of the “Serpentine Dance”.. So far, so Fuller, but it’s not meant to be a retort: ​​”It’s certainly do not a reconstruction,” insists Maciejewska, “and I wouldn’t say it was a tribute.”

And the music ? Fuller, like Duncan, was happy to encroach on scores that weren’t originally intended for dancing. Maciejewska would have been spoiled for choice – anyone from Chopin to Stravinsky – but she goes completely without melodies: “I hardly work with music”, she says. The extraordinary soundscape of ‘Bombyx Mori’ is created by recording and remixing the rustles of silk itself: ‘The ‘Serpentine Dances’ produce very particular sounds,” she says.

His deconstruction of the “Serpentine Dance” seems to remove much of what made La Loïe so magical. Yet he is clearly underpinned by a deep admiration for his art and for his fierce devotion to it. “She’s one of my artistic heroines,” says Maciejewska.

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