Watch the Serpentine Dance, Created by the Pioneering Dancer Loie Fuller, Performed in an 1897 Film by the Lumière Brothers

What­ev­er their views on copy­right, artists and inven­tors of all kinds can agree on one thing: all dread hav­ing their ideas stolen with­out so much as a foot­note of cred­it. Such thefts have led to tanked careers, life­long resent­ments, homi­ci­dal rival­ries, and law­suits to fill libraries. They have allowed many a thief to pros­per and many an injured par­ty to sur­ren­der.

But not leg­endary mod­ern dance pio­neer Loie Fuller.

“Short, plump, and thir­ty years old,” the dancer from Illi­nois arrived in Paris in 1892, fresh off the “mid-lev­el vaude­ville” cir­cuit, writes Rhon­da K. Gare­lick at Pub­lic Domain Review, and bent on prov­ing her­self to Édouard Marc­hand, direc­tor of the Folies-Bergère. She scored an inter­view with­in days of her arrival.

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.

The imposter, an Amer­i­can named May­belle Stew­art, had seen Fuller per­form in New York and had lift­ed her act and tak­en it to Paris. Rather than suc­cumb to rage or despair, Fuller sat through the mati­nee per­for­mance and was moved from a cold sweat to renewed con­fi­dence. “The longer she danced,” she wrote, “the calmer I became.” After Stew­art left the stage, Fuller ascend­ed in her ser­pen­tine cos­tume and audi­tioned for Marc­hand, who agreed to take her on and fire Stew­art.

The sto­ry gets stranger. The show had been pro­mot­ed with Stewart’s name, and so, to avoid bad pub­lic­i­ty, Fuller agreed to per­form the first two nights as Stew­art, “danc­ing her own imi­ta­tion of Stewart’s imi­ta­tion of the ser­pen­tine dance,” a “triple-lay­er sim­u­la­tion,” Gare­lick writes, “wor­thy of an essay by Jean Baudrillard”—and emblem­at­ic of a career in dance marked by “self-repli­ca­tion, mir­rored images, and iden­ti­ty play.”

Thus did the woman named Loie Fuller (born Mary-Louise Fuller), begin “what was to become an unbro­ken thir­ty-year reign as one of Europe’s most wild­ly cel­e­brat­ed dancers.” Fuller was “the only female enter­tain­er to have her own pavil­ion” at the 1900 Expo­si­tion Uni­verselle, writes Natal­ie Lemie at Art­sy. “Hen­ri de Toulouse-Lautrec fea­tured her in a num­ber of prints; Auguste Rodin com­mis­sioned a series of pho­tographs of the dancer with plans to sculpt her; and the Lumière broth­ers released a film about her in 1897.”

Fuller’s dance per­son­i­fied Art Nou­veau, express­ing its ele­gant, flow­ing lines in her bil­low­ing silk gowns, which she moved by means of bam­boo sewn into her sleeves. As she danced “col­ored lights were pro­ject­ed onto the flow­ing fab­ric, and as she twirled, she seemed to meta­mor­phose into ele­ments from the nat­ur­al world: a flower, a but­ter­fly, a tongue of flame.” Every­one came to see her. The Folies, which “typ­i­cal­ly attract­ed work­ing class patrons,” now had aris­to­crat­ic new­com­ers lin­ing up out­side.

See the ser­pen­tine dance that launched her career at the top in the Lumière Broth­ers’ 1897 film and below it in a col­orized excerpt, with the bewitch­ing music of Sig­ur Ros added for effect. Oth­er films and clips here from oth­er ear­ly cin­e­ma pio­neers show the medi­um’s embrace of Fuller’s chore­og­ra­phy. Iron­i­cal­ly, none of this footage, it seems, shows Fuller her­self, but only her imi­ta­tors. “Unfor­tu­nate­ly none of the sur­viv­ing films seem to con­tain a per­for­mance by the orig­i­nal dancer/choreographer,” notes cin­e­ma his­to­ry chan­nel Mag­i­cal Motion Muse­um, “despite some of them car­ry­ing her name in the title or oth­er­wise cred­it­ing her as the dancer.”

Her name car­ried a lot of weight. Fuller was not only a cel­e­brat­ed dancer, but also a man­ag­er, pro­duc­er, and light­ing design­er with “over a dozen patents relat­ed to her cos­tumes and inno­va­tions in stage light­ing.” (She was so inter­est­ed in the “lumi­nous prop­er­ties” of radi­um that she sought out and “befriend­ed its dis­cov­er­ers, Pierre and Marie Curie.”) By 1908, how­ev­er, she had left behind some of these elab­o­rate stage effects to focus on “nat­ur­al dancing’—dance inspired by nature, which was the fore­run­ner of mod­ern dance.”

And she had tak­en on a young dancer in her com­pa­ny named Isado­ra Dun­can, often referred to as the “Moth­er of Mod­ern Dance.” Fuller deserves cred­it, too, but she didn’t seem to care about this over­much. She was, notes Ober­lin Col­lege dance pro­fes­sor Ann Coop­er Albright, “way more inter­est­ed in mak­ing things hap­pen than cre­at­ing a name for her­self.” Fame came as a byprod­uct of her cre­ativ­i­ty rather than its sought-after reward. She was still renowned after she left the stage, and giv­en a ret­ro­spec­tive at The Lou­vre in 1924.

Fuller con­tin­ued to work behind the scenes after the Art Nou­veau move­ment gave way to new mod­ernisms and sup­port­ed and inspired younger artists until her death in 1928. Her work deserves a promi­nent place in the his­to­ry of mod­ern dance, but Fuller her­self “was—and remains—elusive,” Lemie writes, “some­thing of a phan­tom.” Oth­ers might have stolen, bor­rowed, or imi­tat­ed the ser­pen­tine dance, but Lois Fuller became it, going beyond com­pe­ti­tion and into a realm of mag­ic.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch an Avant-Garde Bauhaus Bal­let in Bril­liant Col­or, the Tri­adic Bal­let, First Staged by Oskar Schlem­mer in 1922

The Grace­ful Move­ments of Kung Fu & Mod­ern Dance Revealed in Stun­ning Motion Visu­al­iza­tions

Expres­sion­ist Dance Cos­tumes from the 1920s, and the Trag­ic Sto­ry of Lavinia Schulz & Wal­ter Holdt

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.