Loïe Fuller

…the female dancer will eventually return to the cultural and even intellectual center stage with a vengeance. Described as a poet and metaphysician in her own right, she appears in nineteenth-century Paris as the true muse of poets and philosophers.

– Felicia McCarren (1)

In this paper I pursue the idea, introduced briefly in the opening chapters of Gilles Deleuze’s cinema books, that turn-of-the-century dance shares with cinema the role of manifesting a new understanding of motion particular to the 20th century. In his book, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Deleuze employs the theories of Henri Bergson to arrive at a relationship between Bergson’s new philosophy of movement, modern dance and the emerging art form of the cinema. Of the various art forms developing at the same time as Bergson’s new ideas about movement, Deleuze cites “dance, ballet and mime” as particularly relevant fields of innovation, where dancers were “abandoning figures and poses to release values which were not posed, not measured, which related movements to any-instant-whatever” (2). An analysis of the emerging art form of modern dance in the light of Bergson’s theories reveals a corresponding conceptualisation of movement in the work of turn-of-the-century dancers such as Loïe Fuller.

As Sally Sommer puts it, Fuller “possessed the ability to coalesce certain theories, activities, and modes of performance already being practiced in a singular form” (3). For this reason, Fuller has been taken up by writers discussing various aspects of turn-of-the-century culture including the interface between technology and the human body, the impact of science and theories of evolution on performance, an emerging body consciousness, new psychiatric and medical practices, as well as Fuller’s connections with various aesthetic movements such as symbolism, art nouveau and futurism. Fuller has also been positioned as a pioneer of both multimedia and pedestrian or “natural” choreographic traditions within dance history.

Sally Sommer’s 1975 essay, “Loïe Fuller” (4), points to the lack of discourse on the performer up until the mid-’70s, provides an overview of Fuller’s career and focuses on her technological innovations. Sommer’s description of Fuller’s appearance on stage as a “moving image” and alignment of her techniques with protocinematic devices such as magic lantern shows (5) suggests a continuity between La Loïe and the cinema which is taken up in this essay. Felicia McCarren’s significant work on Fuller, including two articles and her book Dance Pathologies: Performance, Poetics, Medicine (6) places Fuller at the juncture between dance and medicine at the turn-of-the-century in relation to the body’s perceived potential for meaning production beyond language (7). In both the clinical and popular “theatres”, the moving body becomes a medium for the expression of the unconscious. McCarren focuses on Fuller’s use of “the clinician’s own tools: hypnosis and electricity” (8) as the basis for her description of La Loïe’s “fractured subjectivity” enacted through her serial metamorphoses. McCarren also draws on Jean-Martin Charcot’s clinical theatre of hysterics and the writings of Stéphane Mallarmé thus bringing together performance, medicine and literature. Although McCarren only connects Fuller to the cinematic apparatus in passing, her writing has particularly influenced my approach in this essay. McCarren presents Fuller’s early modern dance practice within the context of concurrent cultural, literary, social and medical practices without the intrusion of hindsight and resists reading succeeding artists and dance movements back into Fuller’s performances, a tendency found in some accounts of Fuller’s work in dance theory.

Loïe Fuller

Most recently, Elizabeth Coffman has discussed Fuller in relation to women, science, modernity and motion, citing the turn-of-the-century image of modernity as a woman in billowing fabric striding energetically forward and connecting this to Fuller’s technologically enhanced version of this image (9). And in her book on theories of evolution and fin de siecle performance, Jane Goodall takes up the interchange between art and science and the centrality of the female dancer, finding in Fuller’s mobility an electrically charged evolution of form that offered an antidote to the popular theme of degeneracy. Goodall describes Fuller as perfectly in step with her age; “scientist and inventor, a woman of the future, charged with the energies of an age about to dawn” (10).

In this essay the art of Loïe Fuller, together with contemporary shifts in philosophical thought, provide a framework for thinking through the fundamental compatibility of the two modern fields of cinematography and theatre dance. The compatibility of dance and film has been touted by many writers but this assumption has never been adequately challenged. This investigation of the origins of both cinema and 20th century theatre dance substantiates claims for an accord between dance and film previously proffered as “givens”. Taking up the philosophy of Henri Bergson via Deleuze’s passing comment and links made between cinema and Fuller in writings by McCarren and Sommer, I will thus bring dance into the field of activities – cultural, scientific, clinical and economic – that are considered central to the emergence of cinema and are represented here in the writings of Ben Singer and Tom Gunning.

Director of the Cinématèque de la Danse in Paris, Patrick Bensard writes “the relationship between dance and the animated image begins with the birth of cinema”:

It is no coincidence that as modern dance began, the cinematograph was invented and that as the first swirls of Loïe Fuller’s veils occurred, the Lumiére brothers cranked their camera for the first time. Mélies would surely not contradict me, he, who chose his actresses among the dancers of the Chatelet, and whose every situation, every movement of the characters is, as if by magic, naturally choreographed (11).

Bensard brings together here the figure of Loïe Fuller, the birth of modern dance, early filmmakers such as the Lumiére brothers and Georges Mélies, magic and the consistent use of dancers and dance-like actions in these pioneering films. Besides Mélies’ use of chorus dancers and the possible collaboration between Fuller and the Lumiére brothers in Paris (12), one could cite further examples to support the proposition of a fundamental collaboration between dance and film in cinema’s early years. There are the numerous short films featuring solo dancers, mainly from vaudeville and Burlesque, such as Flag Dance (Biograph Co., 1903) and Little Lillian Toe Dancer (American Mutoscope and Biograph Co., 1903), and examples from the earliest narrative feature films such as Ruth St. Denis’ work in Intolerance (D.W.Griffiths, 1916).

Around the turn-of-the-century the figure of the dancer, and particularly that of Loïe Fuller, can be found at the heart of an aesthetic revolution in Paris. Fuller appears in writings on this historical period as the figure who “embodied” the changing perception of human physicality, in particular its function regarding the production of meaning. Fuller is central to the historic context that produced dancefilm, linking the three major spheres of cultural activity involving new models of the human body; the literary revolution of the Symbolists, contemporaneous motion studies and associated philosophical developments in the form of Bergson’s theory of movement, and the newly focused attention on the body as a site of meaning production in the clinical practices of Europe. But Fuller was also a filmmaker. In her article, “They Film as They Dance” (13), Annie Bozzini describes Loïe Fuller as the first dance artist to abolish the distinction “between dance-makers and film-makers”, directing a 35mm film, Le Lys de la Vie, in 1921 and three or four other experimental films (14). The only surviving reel of her work is a segment from Le Lys de la Vie, and features a show within a show with classically-costumed figures dancing by the sea, a banquet, royal intrigue, and romance with René Clair featured as a prince on horseback. This odd snippet of silent film evokes a time when it was possible for choreographers working in the new field of modern theatre dance and filmmakers working with the new technology of the cinematograph to crossover with ease in collaborations and experiments.

But it is not Fuller’s appearances on film or her own screen work that I am focusing on here. Rather, I am interested in Fuller’s choreographic work as a realisation of Bergson’s model of “modern movement” on the European stage at the turn-of-the–century and how her technologically enhanced performance actually produced a type of “moving image”. In using the term “moving image”, I am referring to Fuller’s onstage appearance as a figure occurring in duration and undergoing continuous change and constant creation. Fuller can thus be singled out as an historic figure whose choreographic craft and openness to technological innovation place her at the interchange between stage and screen at the birth of cinema.

Henri Bergson’s Movement Theory and the New Dance Aesthetic

…art, ballet and mime became actions capable of responding to accidents of the environment; that is, to the distribution of the points in space, or of the moments of an event. All this served the same end as the cinema.

– Gilles Deleuze (15)

In a conversation on his cinematic model, Gilles Deleuze says, “it’s an interesting coincidence that cinema appeared at the very time philosophy was trying to think motion” (16). As I have said, in his book, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Deleuze employs the theories of Henri Bergson to arrive at a relationship between Bergson’s new philosophy of movement, modern dance and the emerging art form of the cinema. Deleuze begins Cinema 1 with the three theses of movement from Bergson’s Creative Evolution (17). Here I’ll just deal with the first two. Deleuze explains that the first thesis establishes movement as distinct from the space covered. That is, the space covered can be divided up infinitely into “immobile sections”, but you cannot reconstitute movement merely by reproducing the positions in space (immobile sections). You will only create false movement by adding “the abstract idea of succession, of a time which is mechanical, homogeneous, universal”. Thus, “immobile sections + abstract time” = “false movement” (18). In Creative Evolution, Bergson explains this idea in relation to human existence. What we recognise as mental states are actually part of the flow of experience, the “uninterrupted change” that our lives are made up of: “But it is expedient to disregard this uninterrupted change, and to notice it only when it becomes sufficient to impress a new attitude on the body, a new direction on the attention” (19).

These mental states that we recognise and isolate only when they sufficiently impress themselves upon us both psychically and physically, can be equated to the immobile sections of the above formula. Our “psychical life” becomes a series of discontinuous “separate steps”, new attitudes or directions cut out of the “endless flow” of life requiring “an artificial bond” (or “false movement”). Bergson compares this to a bead necklace, the mental states constituting the beads and the thread the “formless ego” onto which the states are threaded (20). Bergson concludes that, “never can these solids strung upon a solid make up that duration which flows”, and suggests that this reconstituted reality or “static equivalent” would “lend itself better to the requirements of logic and language” (21).

Deleuze explains how Bergson thus identifies “two very different illusions” of movement in his second thesis: the “ancient” and the “modern”. The ancient model is the embodiment of Forms or Ideas (the beads) which are “eternal and immobile”; an “ideal synthesis” that results in “the regulated transition from one form to another, that is, an order of poses or privileged instants, as in a dance” (22). The introduction here of the metaphor of a dance by Deleuze needs to be considered. What is being described is a movement through poses or privileged moments that, in Bergson’s words: “… express the quintessence, all the rest of this period being filled by the transition, of no interest in itself, from one form to another form” (23).

So what type of dancing would this be? The most obvious candidates are classical ballet and the court dances from which the form emerged. In her book, Choreography and Narrative: Ballet’s Staging of Story and Desire, Susan Leigh Foster traces the emergence of theatrical dance or ballet as an art form independent of the opera (24). The dances on which the ballet was originally based – the minuet, passe-pied, rigaudon, allemande and sarabande – consisted of small steps and beats of the feet with an emphasis on posture and pose, Foster describing them as “noble lines traced by the dancer’s body in space” (25). This period also marked the emergence of the genre of “the danced story”, a form whose influence on theatre dance Foster equates to the impact of the novel on literature. Foster explains how the narrative form shaped the choreographic content which contained pantomime, virtuosic display and elegant, “ideal forms”:

In order to accommodate the story ballet’s need to substitute gestures for words, choreographers drew from the rich vocabulary of pantomimed expressions of the hands and face… Considerable choreographic ingenuity was needed to soften the transitions between the didactic indications of thoughts and feelings and the elegant execution of ideal forms (26).

The type of dancing developed for the narrative ballet would dominate theatrical dance up to the late 19th century and exemplified the “traditional phrasing” described years later by Yvonne Rainer as consisting of “attack, suspension, and recovery” (27). Rainer argues that traditional dance phrasing creates units of movement that mimic the larger theatrical structure; they have a beginning, a climax or moment of “registration”, and an end (28). Carrie Lambert draws out Rainer’s comparison between this traditional phrasing and the operations of photography, a point that has clear significance here. These are dances with privileged instants, or as Rainer puts it, moments of “registration” (29), that take precedence over the transitional moments.

What is certain is that the dance Deleuze is referring to here is very different to the dancing that he compares with Bergson’s modern conception of movement when he writes that this concept “has consisted in relating movement not to privileged instants, but to any-instant-whatever” (30), taking into account the “endless flow” of life. Deleuze uses the example of Muybridge’s “equidistant snapshots”, a methodology he places within the prehistory of the cinema just prior to the transference of such images to the cinematic apparatus, to explain how all the images in the sequence of, for example, a horse’s gallop, “relate the whole of the canter to any-point-whatever” (31).

Isadora Duncan

So, via Bergson, we have at the turn-of-the-century a more developed understanding of the conditions of motion and a new kinaesthetic force exemplified by constant flux. Of the various art forms developing at the same time as this new idea of movement, Deleuze cites “dance, ballet and mime” as one of the most relevant fields of innovation, where dancers were “abandoning figures and poses to release values which were not posed, not measured, which related movements to any-instant-whatever” (32). Here he could be referring to the art of Isadora Duncan which was marked by its constant and consistent flow, and was revolutionary in its informality and softness of form. Or to the art of Loïe Fuller whose dancing was an exemplary model of transformation through flux and rhythmic continuity. Deleuze writes:

When one relates movement to any-moment-whatevers, one must be capable of thinking the production of the new, that is, of the remarkable and the singular, at any one of these moments: this is a complete conversion of philosophy… Can we deny that the arts must also go through this conversion…? (33)

That the arts were effected by Bergson’s ideas cannot be denied, and the relevance of this modern conception of motion can be traced through 20th century theatre dance right up to the present.

Of course Deleuze also applies his reading of Bergson’s movement theses to the emergence of the cinema as a new art form at the turn-of-the-century. Deleuze believes cinema is the “last descendent” of the scientific lineage traced by Bergson through modern astronomy, physics, geometry and calculus (34). And he explains that in the cinema we have, not immobile sections to which movement is mechanically added to produce “false movement” but:

…an intermediate image, to which movement is not appended or added; the movement on the contrary belongs to the intermediate image as immediate given… In short, cinema does not give us an image to which movement is added, it immediately gives us a movement-image (35).

Deleuze finds in the first chapter of Bergson’s Matter and Memory, which predates Creative Evolution, a model of movement consisting of “mobile sections (and) temporal planes [plans] which prefigure the future or the essence of the cinema” (36). What Bergson found in the wake of the modern scientific revolution at the end of the 19th century was that, in Deleuze’s words, “everywhere the mechanical succession of instants replaced the dialectical order of poses” (37). The compatibility of both turn-of-the-century dance and the cinema with Bergson’s theories provides the starting point for the following consideration of Loïe Fuller’s art.

Modern Movement and the Choreographic Innovations of Loïe Fuller

… a figure which is always in the process of being formed or dissolving through the movement of lines and points taken at any-instant-whatevers of their course… It does not give us the figure described in a unique moment, but the continuity of the movement which describes the figure.

– Gilles Deleuze (38)

Loïe Fuller, or “La Loïe” as she was known to her public, can be historically positioned at the beginning of a wave of female soloists who established a new theatrical context for dance, and whose work engaged with influential new ideas about the body and movement that were shaping contemporary literature, philosophy and new technologies for reproducing motion. Fuller’s dancing involved manipulating a circle of silk panels worn from the neck attached to rods which extended her arms to enable a dramatic flow and dance of fabric. She then added different coloured lighting effects to create what would have been a remarkable theatrical display. As seen in the films of Fuller and her imitators (39), the material extends and surrounds the dancer, creating a motile, fluid figure that obscures and dissolves the dancing body. The resulting spectacle is a figure in constant transformation; an unstable signifier sourced in, yet moving beyond, the efforts and intentions of the dancer.

Fuller’s dancing is an exemplary model of transformation through flux and rhythmic continuity. Following is a description of Fuller by her contemporary, Isadora Duncan, who travelled with Fuller to Berlin prior to her own successful tours to Europe (40):

Before our very eyes she turned to many-coloured shining orchids, to a wavering, flowing sea-flower, and at length to a spiral-like lily, all the magic of Merlin, the sorcery of light, colour, flowing form… She transformed herself into a thousand colourful images before the eyes of her audience. Unbelievable. Not to be repeated or described (41).

This was a dance of transformation through motion; flowing, spiralling, wavering, turning movements that fired audience’s imaginations and inspired multiple readings of the morphing shapes she created. Marked by instability as a signifier and a quality of constant flux, this art was “not to be repeated or described”, a dance of continual invention that bypassed poses and postures, emulating the ephemeral “flow of life”.

The very nature of Fuller’s art shared the characteristics of the modern conception of movement that Bergson describes. Fuller’s dance was all “in-betweeness”, a display of constant transformation and motion, the definition of modern motility; she “does not give us a figure described in a unique moment, but the continuity of the movement which describes the figure” (42). The emphasis on consistent motion in her performance (which was actually necessary to maintain the effect as a momentary lapse in impetus would cause the fabric to either drop or tangle) resulted in a display of the “uninterrupted change” of Bergson’s modern movement. The “any-instant-whatevers” were there in the “duration which flows”, and were almost impossible to fix in a still image, belonging entirely to that flow.

Loïe Fuller: Pre-Cinematic Performance

If cinema and modern dance have been going hand in hand from their birth, it is because they discover spaces which are freed from a unique perspective: orientation no longer precedes movement, distances become plastic… Women: Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, created this physical constellation from which the plasticity of modern dance was born.

– Bernard Rémy (43)

So far I have been discussing the compatibility of Fuller’s choreography with Bergson’s concept of modern movement. In Felicia McCarren’s essay, “The ‘Symptomatic Act’ Circa 1900: Hysteria, Hypnosis, Electricity, Dance”, she provides this line of thought with another dimension. McCarren places Fuller’s art at the end of the chronological development of motion study methodologies and directly prior to the revolutionary technology of the cinema, right amongst the technological developments which “realised” Bergson’s theories. In an aside to her central argument around the convergence of turn-of-the-century performance and pathology McCarren describes Fuller’s art as a pre-cinematic performance employing the new technology of electricity, along with elaborate costumes, to create an effect both pre-empting the possibilities of cinema, perhaps exceeding the effects of primitive cinema, and providing a perfect subject for some of the earliest records of dance on screen. McCarren writes:

Given the cinematic effect of Fuller’s sequential movement, it is not surprising that Fuller and her imitators were the subjects of early films by Edison and others and define as well as demonstrate the passage from sequential photography by Marey and Muybridge to the uninterrupted flow of movement on film (44).

McCarren thus summarises Fuller’s significance regarding the progression from the technological and aesthetic dominance of photography and the pose to the representation of sequential movement associated with the cinema.

Jody Sperling in her “Magic-Lantern Dance”. Photo by Julie Lemberger (http://www.timelapsedance.com/)

In her 1975 article, “Loïe Fuller”, Sally Sommer develops the notion that Fuller’s performance produced what amounted to a “moving image”. Sommer writes:

Coloured lights and projections playing on silk… were not new. The Panarama, Diarama, phantasmagoria, and magic lantern were popular entertainments in Paris and London in the late eighteen hundreds. Central to Fuller’s performance was a moving image made animate by the projection of coloured light and slides. But one is the inversion of the other. Those early motion picture performances moved the light or projected images on to a static screen. Instead, [Fuller] moved the huge screen, moulding it into fantastic shapes and forms (45).

In her performances, Fuller produced an abstracted, disembodied image by combining movement, light and colour, a mixture that prefigured both the invention of colour film and the experiments of the historic avant-garde. As Sommer states, rather than a moving image on a static screen, Fuller’s dancing body “animated” the lights and projections, implicating her moving form in the overall effect of technically contrived phantoms. Fuller herself became a “moving image”.

So it is through Fuller’s use of modern technologies that McCarren and Sommer establish Fuller’s onstage performance as yet another “bridging” use of technology along with the photographic movement studies of Etienne-Jules Marey and others, chronophotographies, contemporary popular entertainments such as the magic lantern, “the magic theatre” of George Méliès at Theatre Robert-Houdin, arcades and nickelodeons. These were all part of an entertainment industry catering for techno-savvy city-dwellers who were keen for the newest and most spectacular experiential thrill. The language used by Isadora Duncan to describe Fuller’s stage performance – the “suspension of disbelief” involved the description of Fuller as an “enchantress”, and Duncan’s use of terms such as “magic, “sorcery” and “unbelievable” – also point to the shared characteristics of Fuller’s performance and contemporary entertainment and theatre technologies.

Sommer also describes how Fuller’s dance departed from the skirt dances and nautch dances popular at the time which emphasised the display of the female form and the skill of the dancer in performing popular dance steps, turning fully to the deployment of technology:

First [Fuller] increased the size of the skirt until it became ‘draperies’. This allowed a radical shift in emphasis to take place and changed the performance matrix… the skirt itself became the central focus as the most important and the most essential mobile image… By carefully choosing and arranging twelve coloured lights of great intensity, she further abstracted and enlarged the image, creating a new dance (46).

The “new dance” that Fuller created was written through by the technologies she employed. Her transformation of the phenomenal body, reworking of the choreographic project to encompass the technical theatrical elements and genesis of a new dancing figure “prefigures” the project of dancefilm; the institution of filmic performance that choreographs filmic elements and figural presence into the production of a cine-dance.

Fuller’s creative process continued with increasingly complicated costume designs and lighting arrangements. Her lighting produced effects which had never been seen before; sideways from the wings where electricians were perched on step-ladders of varying heights, down from the flies and “shining upwards through glass plates in the boards” (an effect which she patented) (47). Fuller was also one of the first to utilise a “black-out” prior to the commencement of her performance, a theatrical device which of course became essential to the screening of the new “moving pictures”. She added further dimension to her costumes by using “wands” to extend the throw of the silk (a device she also patented) which now measured up to 500 yards in all and “could radiate ten feet from her body in every direction” (48). But her best kept secrets were the slides and coloured glasses that she used in conjunction with the lighting to produce kaleidoscopic coloured patterns (49). They must have been the Art Nouveau equivalent of the psychedelic lava lamp projections of the 1960s. Fuller also projected images onto herself (as in Le Firmament where she projected “stars, moon, and clouds”), and onto a transparent scrim at the front of the stage to create abstract landscapes (50).

In his essay, “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and Popular Sensationalism”, Ben Singer describes the technological revolution that was occurring during the same period on the melodramatic stage. This account places Fuller’s innovative stagecraft into an historical context of general experimentation and excess, showing how she adapted mainstream trends to produce performance of a completely different order. From an emphasis on “pathos and moralizing oratory” in melodrama, there was a shift to showcasing overblown “sensation scenes”, a shift that brought about a momentous transformation of the popular stage. Singer lists effects including burning buildings, explosions, shipwrecks, racing vehicles (including locomotives and speed boats), torture scenes, cyclones and exploding automobiles (51). Each of these spectacles must have demanded an equally impressive set of mechanical, pyrotechnic and electrical innovations.

Loïe Fuller at the Folies-Bergère, poster by by Jules Chéret

Fuller herself claims that she was best known to audiences as their “old favourite comedian” (52), performing from the age of 16 in numerous burlesque shows and stage spectaculars including a New York version of The Arabian Night, “a production that contained… the exotic visual effects of crystal caves, grottos, and ‘The Veil of Vapor, or Steam Curtain’” (53). Fuller’s serpentine dance itself began life as her interpretation of a hypnotised patient, “a floating spirit” (54), and it was the fantastic nature of the performance that impressed reviewers (55). So Fuller came from, and began her solo career within, the same techno-obsessed entertainment culture that presented the first cinematographs. In her autobiography she records performing the serpentine dance in a music hall in Berlin, a beer garden in Altona and a circus in Cologne where she danced “between an educated donkey and an elephant that played the organ”, before she debuted at the Folies-Bergère in Paris in 1892 where she appeared in mixed bills (56).

Various popular entertainments such as amusement parks, arcades and stage shows such as the production of The Arabian Night mentioned above, reproduced or “synthesised” the sensual experiences of everyday urban life in an intensified way, just as early cinema would. Tom Gunning has theorised this culture of sensational entertainment in terms of what he calls an “aesthetic of attractions”. In his essay, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator”, he explains his term “cinema of attractions” as “the climax of a period of intense development in visual entertainments” (57). The key characteristic of this aesthetic is the type of reception it provokes; a dramatic yet pleasurable oscillation “between belief and incredulity” (58). The case of early cinema, where the screenings began as still images which were then cranked into life (59), is a clear example where the proximity between artifice and illusion played a significant role. As Gunning writes:

…the shock of the film image comes from a sudden transformation while the hardly novel projected photograph… gives way to the astonishing moment of movement… an unbelievable visual transformation… parallel to the greatest wonders of the magic theatre (60).

The drastic transformation of the unassuming figure of Loïe Fuller into “La Loïe” is recorded again and again in her autobiography. In one of these stories, a young girl who Fuller “seemed to have hypnotised”, came backstage to meet La Loïe and was shattered by the appearance of an everyday figure announcing, “this one here is a fat lady, and it was a fairy I saw dancing” (61). “La Loïe” was also a vision held at a distance, encased within the proscenium space where the vision was brought to life, a distance that appeared to sustain the magic. Fuller herself describes the other-worldly impression she made on children:

From the unearthly appearance of my dances, caused by the light and mingling of colours… the being flitting about there before them among the shadows and flashes of light belongs to the unreal world (62).

Fuller’s performance involved a suspension of disbelief and an indulgence in a different reality that had to be drawn out of the darkness by the powers of perception and was all presence and no resolution. Like Méliès’ magic, Fuller created a visual spectacle whose “energy moves outward” to the incredulous spectator, rather than in upon an internal logic or narrative (63). To paraphrase Gunning, the purpose of Fuller’s art lies in the attention her performative act draws to itself (64).

Through this connection with Gunning’s “aesthetic of attractions”, Fuller’s significance regarding dancefilm can be considered in relation to the particular tradition/methodology within film practice theorised by Gunning as “the cinema of attractions”. This type of screen practice is associated primarily with the period preceding narrative film, from the first screenings up to 1906/7 (65), but its influence is felt beyond this. Gunning writes:

In fact the cinema of attractions does not disappear with the dominance of narrative, but rather goes underground, both into certain avant-garde practices and as a component of narrative films, more evident in some genres (eg. the musical) than others (66).

The association of the term with both popular and avant-garde practices also suits the broad parameters of dance screen, from the classic Hollywood musical to the experimental films of the avant-garde right across the 20th century, particularly regarding the issues of spectatorship, “magical” transformation and the illusionistic potential of dancefilm, and the emphasis on spectacle, display and “scopic pleasure”.

In this paper, I have established that it was in Fuller’s live performances that she utilised electricity to create movement effects that heralded the technologically propelled motion of the cinema. But perhaps there is another way of thinking about Fuller’s position within the techno-aesthetic genealogy dominated by the spectre of a fully developed cinematic apparatus and art form. In many ways, the art of Loïe Fuller exceeded the possibilities of early cinema, a nascent form that would take some decades to reach an advanced level of technological and aesthetic potential. Deleuze finds that the ideas of modern movement outlined in Bergson are not completely realised prior to a fully developed cinematic apparatus. As D.N. Rodowick explains:

…Deleuze argues that cinema’s potential for imaging time and movement… the shot’s capacity for presenting temporal rather than spatial figures, mobile rather than immobile sections – is conquered only through the use of montage, moving camera, and mobile point of view (67).

What Fuller achieved in performance, her realisation of a “moving image”, would have come closer to Bergson’s “duration that flows” than the “primitive” cinema. In pursuing this line, I am arguing for a re-positioning of Fuller to a more central position within the historical and technological matrix that produced the cinematic apparatus, a position that has obvious ramifications for the history of dance, film and dancefilm.

This essay has been refereed.


  1. Felicia McCarren, Dance Pathologies: Performance, Poetics, Medicine, Stanford University Press, California, 1998, p.2.
  2. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p.6
  3. Sally Sommer, “Loïe Fuller”, The Drama Review, Vol 19, No.1, March 1975, p.54
  4. Ibid, pp.53-67
  5. Ibid, p.54
  6. Felicia McCarren: “’The ‘Symptomatic Act’ Circa 1900: Hysteria, Hypnosis, Electricity, Dance”, Critical Inquiry, #21, Summer 1995, pp.748-774; “Stéphane Mallarmé, Loïe Fuller, and the Theater of Femininity”, Bodies of the Text, eds. Ellen W. Goellner and Jacqueline Shea Murphy, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1995, pp.217-230; McCarren 1998.
  7. McCarren 1998, p.17
  8. McCarren 1995, p.752
  9. Elizabeth Coffman, “Women in Motion: Loïe Fuller and the ‘Interpenetration’ of Art and Science”, Camera Obscura 49, Vol. 17, No.1, 2002, pp.73-105. Much of Coffman’s argument is based on her speculation regarding the authorship of a 1906 film Fire Dance. This film has not been categorically attributed to Fuller, however Coffman believes that Fuller was not only the performer but directed, produced and hand-tinted the film.
  10. Jane Goodall, Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: out of the natural order, Routledge, London and New York, 2002, p.217
  11. Impressions Danse Catalogue, Georges Pompidou Centre, 1988, p.10. This exhibition contained three programmes and involved Intermédia (Bureau de l’audiovisuel documentaire), Cinémateque de la Danse and Cinémateque francaise, pp.10-11
  12. Giovanni Lista who has researched the “imitation” films in France and produced Loïe Fuller et ses imitatrices (1994) with the Cinémathèque de la danse in Paris believes that to date, no films featuring Fuller in performance have been found. (Correspondence with Lista October 2002.)
  13. Annie Bozzini, “They Film as They Dance”, Ballet International, January 1991, pp.37-9
  14. Sally Sommer writes that Fuller made her first experimental film in 1904 and made “at least 3 more”, with only the excerpt from Le Lys de la Vie surviving. (Sommer 1975, p.53)
  15. Deleuze 1986, p.7
  16. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations: 1972-1990, Columbia University Press, New York, 1995, p.57
  17. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, Trans. Arthur Mitchell, Dover Publications, New York, 1998. First published in translation in 1911, Deleuze refers to a 1954 edition in Deleuze 1986.
  18. Deleuze 1986, p.1
  19. Bergson 1998, p.2
  20. Bergson 1998, p.3
  21. Bergson 1998, p.4
  22. Deleuze 1986, p.4
  23. Bergson quoted in Deleuze 1986, p.4
  24. Susan Leigh Foster, Choreography and Narrative: Ballet’s Staging of Story and Desire, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1996, p.7.
  25. Foster 1996, p.17
  26. Foster 1996, p.8
  27. Carrie Lambert, “Moving Still: Mediating Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A”, October, #89, Summer 1999, p.92. Lambert is referring to Rainer’s description of phrasing in “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A”. Rainer’s approach to dance phrasing in discussed in detail in Chapter 3.
  28. Yvonne Rainer, “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A”, What is Dance? ed. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983, p.328.
  29. Lambert 1999, p.93
  30. Deleuze 1986, p.4
  31. Deleuze 1986, p.5
  32. Deleuze 1986, p.6
  33. Deleuze 1986, p.7
  34. Deleuze 1986, p.4. While Deleuze uses Bergson’s movement theories to create his taxonomy of cinematic images in his two cinema books, he also critiques Bergson’s own application of those same theories to the cinematic apparatus. See the first chapter of Cinema 1 for Deleuze’s critique of Bergson on the cinema.
  35. Deleuze 1986, p.2
  36. Deleuze 1986, p.3
  37. Deleuze 1986, p.4
  38. Deleuze 1986, p.5. Here Deleuze is describing why animation belongs to the same order as cinema and, given such a context, this quote applies most accurately to the still images of Fuller that capture her swirling figure in a single moment. But the fact that Deleuze’s quote is so descriptive of Fuller’s performance signals another compatibility – between dance and animation – that calls for attention.
  39. Regarding the originality of Fuller’s performance, Sally Sommer points out that in London Fuller replaced Letty Lind, a Gaiety Girl famous for her “Skirt Dance” and “must have learned some version of her special dance” (Sommer 1975, p.56). Sommer also explains that this dance emphasised the dancer’s figure with the fabric providing a “flowing frame for the body” (p.56), a relationship that would be reversed in Fuller’s version where the fabric and lighting effects consume the body to become the primary subject of the dance.
  40. It should be noted that Fuller refers to Duncan as “my protégée” in her autobiography and was embarrassed by Duncan’s near nudity after organising a performance for her in Vienna. Fuller never mentions Duncan’s name in her account of their relations and falling out, but it could not be clearer who she is referring to (Loïe Fuller, Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life, Dance Horizons, New York, 1913).
  41. Isadora Duncan, My Life, Victor Gollanz, London, 1928, p.104
  42. Deleuze 1986, p.5
  43. Bernard Rémy, Impressions Danse, p.16
  44. McCarren 1995, p.757, footnote #18
  45. Sommer 1975, p.54
  46. Sommer 1975, p.58
  47. Sommer 1975, p.58. Sommer also notes that Fuller was made a member of the French Astronomical Society, “honoring her artistic contributions to investigations about light.” (p.63)
  48. Sommer 1975, p.61
  49. Sommer 1975, p.62. Sommer writes: “The gels and glasses could be used singly or in multiples and each piece could be of solid or variegated color. In addition to the revolving disks… she would have used a light with a magazine compartment for gels and slides, or simply relied more heavily on blended light”.
  50. Sommer 1975, pp.64/5. “With the help of the magic lantern and scrim silks, she turned the stage itself into a continually shifting and changing form… this was a theatre of pure motion, plastic and imagistic” (p.65).
  51. Ben Singer, “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Pop Sensationalism”, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, eds Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Shwartz, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, p.90
  52. Fuller 1913, p.39
  53. Sommer 1975, p.55
  54. Fuller 1913, pp.25-31. Fuller explains that, “hypnotism at that moment was very much to the fore in New York” and there seems to have been an odd mixture of parody as well as indulgence in the mystery surrounding this new practice in her own theatrical representation of it.
  55. Sommer quotes two reviews of these early performances which describe how “she floats around the stage” and is “unique, ethereal, delicious” (Sommer 1975, p.57).
  56. Fuller 1913, pp.47-50. In Gendering Bodies/Performing Art: Dance and Literature in Early Twentieth Century British Culture, (The University of Michigan Press, Michigan, 1995), Amy Koritz explains the situation within the London theatrical scene for the emerging form of theatre dance: “Not only was dance often intermingled with song and dramatic routines, but boundaries between different genres of dancing were often tenuous and frequently transgressed… the three most common types of theatrical dancing: (1) the music hall turn, (2) the semiautonomous ballet… (3) the dance element in spectacular productions” (p.16). She describes Maude Allen’s big break in London in 1907 in a mixed programme including film screenings: “Alfred Butt, manager of a major music hall, the Palace Theatre, arranged for her appearance as a turn in a programme of typical acts: jugglers, trained animals, comedians, and ‘The Bioscope’…” (p.34) Fuller puts the length of her “turn” at 45mins in her autobiography (Fuller 1913, p.257) and records performing at various expositions, at popular venues such as Folies-Bergère, the Hippodrome and the Athénée where she celebrated her 600th stage appearance.
  57. Tom Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator”, Art & Text, Spring 1989, pp.31-45, p.33
  58. Gunning 1989, pp.33/4
  59. Gunning draws on Kracauer’s essay, “Cult of Distraction: On Berlin’s Picture Palaces”, regarding the exhibition context of early cinema (Gunning 1989, pp. 41-2).
  60. Gunning 1989, p.35. Gunning also points out that many illusionists turned to film exhibition “as the most technologically advanced of visual entertainments”.
  61. Fuller 1913, pp.141/2
  62. Fuller 1913, p.137
  63. Tom Gunning, “Cinema of Attractions”, Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, eds Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker, BFI, London, 1990, p.57
  64. Tom Gunning, “The Whole Town’s Gawking: Early Cinema and the Visual Experience of Modernity”, Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol 7, No.2, 1994, p.190
  65. Gunning 1989, p.36
  66. Gunning 1990, p.55
  67. D. N. Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze Time Machine, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1997, pp.21-2. Rodowick adds in a footnote that Deleuze’s understanding of “primitive” cinema is over-simplified, so that to some degree he misses “its implications for his own theory” (Note #6, p.214). While I am attempting to re-position Fuller regarding what Gunning refers to as “biological or progress-laden” genealogies (“’Primitive’ Cinema: A Frame Up? Or the Trick’s on Us”, Cinema Journal, 28, No.2, Winter 1989, p.10), I do not want to oversimplify the character of early cinema. Gunning warns against the use of the term “primitive cinema” for the very same reasons I would like to reconsider Fuller’s “biological” status; a linear chronology of practices dominated by an ideal form eliminates the possibility for progressive or radical practices which are “ahead of their time”.

About The Author

Erin Brannigan is a PhD student at the University of New South Wales. Her area of research is dance and film, in particular, the points of contact between dance and film theory. She is also the curator of ReelDance: International Dance on Screen Festival and Body on Screen (Melbourne Festival 2003), and is on the RealTime editorial team.

Related Posts