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The United States dancer Loie Fuller (1862–1928) found theatrical dance in the late nineteenth century artistically unfulfilling. She considered herself an artist rather than a mere entertainer, and she, in turn, attracted the notice of other artists.
Fuller devised a type of dance that focused on the shifting play of lights and colors on the voluminous skirts or draperies she wore, which she kept in constant motion principally through movements of her arms, sometimes extended with wands concealed under her costumes. She rejected the technical virtuosity of movement in ballet, the most prestigious form of theatrical dance at that time, perhaps because her formal dance training was minimal. Although her early theatrical career had included stints as an actress, she was not primarily interested in storytelling or expressing emotions through dance; the drama of her dancing emanated from her visual effects.
Although she discovered and introduced her art in the United States, she achieved her greatest glory in Paris, where she was engaged by the Folies Bergère in 1892 and soon became “La Loie,” the darling of Parisian audiences. Many of her dances represented elements or natural objects—Fire, the Lily, the Butterfly, and so on—and thus accorded well with the fashionable Art Nouveau style, which emphasized nature imagery and fluid, sinuous lines. Her dancing also attracted the attention of French poets and painters of the period, for it appealed to their liking for mystery, their belief in art for art’s sake, a nineteenth-century idea that art is valuable in itself rather than because it may have some moral or educational benefit, and their efforts to synthesize form and content.
Fuller had scientific leanings and constantly experimented with electrical lighting (which was then in its infancy), colored gels, slide projections, and other aspects of stage technology. She invented and patented special arrangements of mirrors and concocted chemical dyes for her draperies. Her interest in color and light paralleled the research of several artists of the period, notably the painter Seurat, famed for his Pointillist technique of creating a sense of shapes and light on canvas by applying extremely small dots of color rather than by painting lines. One of Fuller’s major inventions was underlighting, in which she stood on a pane of frosted glass illuminated from underneath. This was particularly effective in her Fire Dance (1895), performed to the music of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” The dance caught the eye of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who depicted it in a lithograph.
As her technological expertise grew more sophisticated, so did the other aspects of her dances. Although she gave little thought to music in her earliest dances, she later used scores by Gluck, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Wagner, eventually graduating to Stravinsky, Fauré, Debussy, and Mussorgsky, composers who were then considered progressive. She began to address more ambitious themes in her dances such as The Sea, in which her dancers invisibly agitated a huge expanse of silk, played upon by colored lights. Always open to scientific and technological innovations, she befriended the scientists Marie and Pierre Curie upon their discovery of radium and created a Radium Dance, which simulated the phosphorescence of that element. She both appeared in films—then in an early stage of development—and made them herself; the hero of her fairy-tale film Le Lys de la Vie (1919) was played by René Clair, later a leading French film director.
At the Paris Exposition in 1900, she had her own theater, where, in addition to her own dances, she presented pantomimes by the Japanese actress Sada Yocco. She assembled an all-female company at this time and established a school around 1908, but neither survived her. Although she is remembered today chiefly for her innovations in stage lighting, her activities also touched Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, two other United States dancers who were experimenting with new types of dance. She sponsored Duncan’s first appearance in Europe. Her theater at the Paris Exposition was visited by St. Denis, who found new ideas about stagecraft in Fuller’s work and fresh sources for her art in Sada Yocco’s plays. In 1924 St. Denis paid tribute to Fuller with the duet Valse à la Loie.
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