Loie Fuller and the Serpentine
With her “serpentine dance” — a show of swirling silk and rainbow lights — Loie Fuller became one of the most celebrated dancers of the fin de siècle. Rhonda K. Garelick explores Fuller’s unlikely stardom and how her beguiling art embodied the era’s newly blurred boundaries between human and machine.
November 6, 2019
In 1892, Loie Fuller (née Mary-Louise Fuller, in Illinois) packed her theater costumes into a trunk and, with her elderly mother in tow, left the United States and a mid-level vaudeville career to try her luck in Paris. Within days of her arrival, she had secured an interview with Édouard Marchand, director of the Folies-Bergère. Alighting from her carriage in front of the theater, she stopped short at the sight of the large placard depicting the Folies’ current dance attraction: a young woman waving enormous veils over her head, billed as the “serpentine dancer”. “Here was the cataclysm, my utter annihilation”, Fuller would later write, for she had come to the Folies that day precisely to audition her own, new “serpentine dance”, an art form she had invented in the United States.1 The woman already performing this dance at the Folies turned out to be one Maybelle Stewart of New York City, an acquaintance of Fuller’s who had seen her perform in New York City and, apparently, had liked what she had seen a little too much.2
Told that Marchand could speak with her only after Stewart’s matinee, a horrified Fuller settled in to watch her imitator. Although initially “trembling” and covered with “cold perspiration”, she soon overcame her anxiety, determining that Stewart was no match for her. “The longer she danced the calmer I became. I could gladly have kissed her for her . . . inefficiency.”3 After the performance, Fuller put on her robes, took the stage in the now-empty theater, and, with only one violinist left to accompany her, auditioned her own serpentine dance. By the end of the day, Marchand had granted Fuller a solo show of her own choreography and agreed to dismiss the imitator Stewart. However, since publicity for Stewart had already been circulated, and Marchand feared public protest, Fuller agreed to perform for the first two nights (October 28 and 29) under the name Maybelle Stewart, dancing her own imitation of Stewart’s imitation of the serpentine dance. With this triple-layer simulation, worthy of an essay by Jean Baudrillard, Loie Fuller launched her career as a modernist dance and performance artist. Although no one in Paris could have known it at the time, it was an ironically perfect beginning for someone destined to construct her career around self-replication, mirrored images, and identity play.
On November 5, 1892, Loie Fuller, short, plump, and thirty years old, finally premiered under her own name at the Folies, a venue known at the time for its strippers, gymnasts, trapeze artists, and other circus-style, often bawdy acts. Swathed in a vast costume of billowing white Chinese silk that left only her face and hands visible, Fuller began her performance. Using rods sewn inside her sleeves, she shaped the fabric into gigantic, swirling sculptures that floated over her head. As she turned onstage, her arms lifted and molded the silk into undulating patterns. At the same time, rotating, colored spotlights dyed the silken images a variety of deep jewel tones. The audience saw not a woman, but a giant violet, a butterfly, a slithering snake, and a white ocean wave. Each shape rose weightlessly into the air, spun gently in its pool of changing rainbow lights, hovered, and then wilted away to be replaced by a new form. After forty-five minutes, the last shape melted to the floorboards, Fuller sank to her knees, head bowed, and the stage went black. The audience was silent for a few seconds. When the lights went back on, Fuller reappeared to the thunderous applause that signaled the beginning of her triumphant new career.
By the next morning, all of Paris was talking about this “priestess of pure fire” and the danses lumineuses that had “transformed the Folies-Bergère”, in Marchand’s words, creating a “success without precedence in this theatre”.4 Fuller would perform at the Folies for an unheard-of three hundred consecutive nights, well launched on what was to become an unbroken thirty-year reign as one of Europe’s most wildly celebrated dancers.
But Fuller was an unlikely candidate for such stardom. She had had no formal training and exhibited, frankly, little natural grace. There was nothing of the showgirl about her. “You should see her, she walks like a bird, but that bird is a duck”, wrote one reviewer.5 To say she was unglamorous is an understatement. Her round face, wide blue eyes, and short, stout body gave her a cherubic rather than sultry look. And at thirty, Fuller was nearly of retirement age for a music-hall dancer of that time. Offstage, she dressed haphazardly in oversized clothes, kept her hair in a tight bun, and wore little round spectacles. “She had a shapeless figure. She was an odd, badly dressed girl”, recalled Eve Curie (daughter of Marie and Pierre).6 “For heaven’s sake, fix yourself up; you’re a sight!” chastised one journalist who interviewed her.7 But such remarks never bothered Fuller, who seemed to take curious pride in her own ungainliness. She even begins her autobiography with a description of herself as a badly dressed infant, a “poor little waif” partially clad in a meager “yellow flannel garment”. She goes on to write, “I have likewise continued not to bother much about my personal appearance”.8 Despite her many decades in France, Fuller’s French (as attested to by her voluminous correspondence in the language) remained garbled and fractured all her life. To complete the picture, she never went anywhere without her ailing mother, whose dour countenance and austere dress conjured the pair’s hardscrabble past in the American Midwest so distant in every way from the music halls of fin-de-siècle Paris.
In other words, Fuller’s stardom owed nothing to the sexual glamour that, to this day, usually comprises the appeal of female performing artists. Fuller even managed to be openly lesbian while evoking virtually no titillation or disapproval in her public. Contemporary journalists tended to describe her personal life as “chaste” and “correct”, writing often of her relationship with her mother and rarely even mentioning her live-in female companion of over twenty years, Gabrielle Bloch, a Jewish-French banking heiress who dressed only in men’s suits.
Nevertheless, when she stepped onstage, this stout and seemingly ungraceful American woman vanished, replaced by her sequences of ephemeral sculptures. Routinely hidden by hundreds of yards of silk, Fuller manipulated her voluminous robes into swirling shapes above her head, transforming herself by turns into lilies, butterflies, raging fires, even the surface of the moon. Audiences were left breathless. What so captivated them was the unique amalgam of Fuller’s human agency, the creativity and force she exhibited as she wielded the enormous costumes; the power of her technology, the innovative stagecraft that she had designed and patented herself; and the oneiric, ephemeral landscapes evoked by this combination of body and machine, the disembodied, rising and falling silken shapes. “She acquires the virginity of un-dreamt of places”, wrote Stéphane Mallarmé in his famous essay on Fuller.9
Fuller had invented an art form balanced delicately between the organic and the inorganic, playing out onstage a very literal drama of theatrical transformation. Unlike actors playing theatrical roles or costumed dancers portraying swans, fairies, or gypsies, Fuller hardly ever “played” or “portrayed”. Rather, in the vast majority of her performances she became the forms she described in silk, subsuming her physical self within them. Her work, therefore, drew upon and exaggerated a very deep aspect of performance: the magical, undecidable doubleness implied in any theatrical mimesis, what Diderot called the actor’s paradox: “One is oneself by nature; one is another by imitation; the heart you imagine for yourself is not the heart you have.”10
Contemporary reviews bear out the fact that Fuller’s power derived from her thrilling enactments of metamorphosis. Her capacity to merge with the realm of the nonhuman or the supernatural attracted the most critical attention. While most music-hall stars of the era garnered praise for their singing or dancing, their charm, or their beauty, Fuller earned accolades for her nearly supernatural transcendence of self. She was “Herculaneum buried beneath the ashes . . . the Styx and the shores of Hades . . . a terrifying apparition, some huge pale bird of the polar seas”, rhapsodized Jean Lorrain.11 Another reviewer imagined her as “something elemental and immense, like the tide or the heavens, whose palpitations imitated the most primitive movements of life . . . the vibrations of the first cell.”12
Virtually nothing about Fuller’s dowdy offstage persona or her physical self ever crept into her performances, but when occasionally something did, reviews could be unforgiving. Her 1895 dance-pantomime version of Salome, for example, met with critical failure — largely because it failed to keep a plump and visibly sweating Fuller under wraps or at a suitable distance from the audience. In other words, although she would become famous as a “Salome moderne” for her veil-like costumes, Fuller failed to impress audiences as an in-character Salome, having “lost that aura of unreality, ineffability, and mystery” on which her appeal depended.13 Biographer Giovanni Lista refers to the problem as the “collapse of magic into the banal”.14 But so long as Fuller kept her somewhat graceless self out of sight and centered her performance on her technological genius, she dazzled her crowds, succeeding as more of an Electric Salome than a biblical one.
Since her offstage self did not jibe with her onstage appeal, Fuller never achieved the convergence of life and art that would come to mark the age of media stardom. This is not to say, however, that her personality did not play a crucial role in her career. On the contrary, Fuller’s offstage persona, with its odd admixture of magical child and unthreatening matron, only helped endear her to the public. She was perceived as a kind of whimsical, female version of Thomas Edison, a mad lady scientist, known as “la fée éléctricité”. She lent her face and name to soap and perfume advertisements. Her costumes were copied and sold as streetwear at the Bon Marché and Louvre department stores. Women bought “Loie” skirts and scarves; men sported “Loie ties”. Bar patrons sipped “Loie cocktails”. Fuller, a savvy businesswoman, even sold likenesses of herself in theater lobbies, in the form of lamps, figurines, and other household objects. Later in her career, she tried her hand at the newest and most powerful form of mass culture — cinema — and made several films, working with luminaries such as Pathé, the Lumière brothers, and Georges Méliès.
Fuller managed then, to reify herself offstage, commodifying her image by marketing and multiplying her persona, just as onstage she transformed her physical body into countless, reproducible shapes. In this way, she qualifies as a direct forerunner of today’s modern media celebrities. She cannily created both an art form and a commercial business that exploited her era’s fascination with the alchemy inherent in the union of human and machine. Indeed, Henry Adams might have been thinking of Fuller’s effect on audiences when he explored, in “The Virgin and the Dynamo”, the nearly religious ecstasy that technology inspired during the late nineteenth century. Fuller was neither entirely human, nor entirely machine, but an onstage enactment of the fin de siècle’s — and modernism’s — newly blurred boundaries between these realms.
The fin de siècle also dismantled much of the boundary between high and low or popular culture, and Fuller’s career typified this new fluidity as well. She was what we would call today a “crossover artist”, poised between the music hall and the concert or recital stage and devoting her life to bringing increased respect and status to dance as an art in itself.15 She succeeded, to a large extent, in bridging both social and artistic chasms. The working-class cabaret audiences loved her; but she was equally beloved of the aristocracy. Europe’s wealthy and powerful flocked to see her at the Folies, as well as on the stages of the Odéon, the Olympia, and the Athénée. These luminaries made for unfamiliar customers in such populist venues. A journalist for L’Écho de Paris wrote: “There is nothing so curious as the . . . change . . . in the clientele of the Folies Bergère. One now sees black dress coats . . . carriages decorated with coats of arms; the aristocracy is lining up to applaud Loie Fuller.”16 And the upper class’s interest in Fuller extended beyond the theaters. The Vanderbilts, the Rothschilds, and even Queen Marie of Romania sought her out as a friend and frequent houseguest, inviting Fuller to use their villas and manicured gardens as stages for her works.
Along with the aristocracy, European high culture embraced “la Loie” and used her often as an object of aesthetic contemplation. Stéphane Mallarmé and W. B. Yeats wrote of her; René Lalique, Émile Gallé, and Louis Comfort Tiffany fashioned her image in glass and crystal objects; Pierre Roche sculpted her in marble. Jules Massenet and Claude Debussy composed music for her; James McNeill Whistler painted her; and her close friend Auguste Rodin made bronze casts of her hands. Fuller even fascinated the world of academic science, gaining the admiration and friendship of Marie and Pierre Curie, as well as of astronomer Camille Flammarion, all of whose laboratories she regularly visited. Flammarion even arranged for Fuller to become a member of the French Astronomical Society for her investigations into the physical properties of light.17 In 1924, the Louvre itself honored Fuller with a twenty-four-piece exhibition of her work, focusing on her experiments with light and fabric.18
Given this degree of celebrity and wide sweep of artistic influence, one might have expected Loie Fuller to remain in the cultural imagination long after her death in 1928. But this did not happen. Although Fuller would choreograph 128 dances between 1892 and 1925 and die a wildly famous woman, she quickly faded from popular consciousness. Today, it is largely only scholars who are familiar with her work. The general, educated public has lost sight of her.
The factors depriving Fuller of lasting fame are the very factors that made her such a household name during her lifetime: her whimsical but unglamorous persona, her technical genius, and the uncategorizable nature of her art itself. By not fitting into established and narrow parameters for female performers, by branching out into such overwhelmingly male fields as stage design, mechanical invention, and filmmaking, and by straddling both music-hall and “high” culture concert dance, Fuller left no ready “hook” on which to hang memories of her. While too different not to be noticed in life, Fuller may have also been too different to be noticed after she was gone.
And then there is the work itself. What made the crowds gasp when Fuller was onstage was never Fuller as a recognizable individual. They gasped, rather, at the conversion of her physical self into pure aesthetic form. In essence, Fuller made a career of staging her own immateriality, dissolving into light projections on fabric. While this lent a definite proto-cinematic quality to her stage work, and while she did make several films, even Fuller’s proximity to cinema did little to keep her fame alive. Like her stage work, Fuller’s films never emphasized her individual identity. They consisted mostly of Fuller — and later, sometimes troupes of young dancers she gathered — performing in much the same way she did on stage, with dissolving shapes and shifting shadows rendered even more effective through the magic of the camera. In the end, perhaps, it should not surprise us that an artist who took such pleasure in playing at disappearance should vanish so effectively after her death.
Rhonda Garelick is Dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons/The New School. She is the author of Electric Salome: Loie Fuller's Performance of Modernism (Princeton University Press, 2007), from which this essay has been adapted; Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History (Random House, 2014), and Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender and Performance in the Fin de Siecle (Princeton, 1999). Her column Reading the Signs" appears in New York Magazine's The Cut. She is a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities. Twitter: @rkgar
This essay is © Rhonda K. Garelick.
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