Monday, 9 March 2015

Loie Fuller - The Butterfly Dance

American Loie Fuller (1862-1928), was a solo dancer who had no formal training, but is recognised as being an important element in the development of modern dance. I discovered her work during some research for another project, and was intrigued by these amazing images of her manipulating yards of fabric supported by bamboo to elongate her arms which gave the effect of transforming her into a human/butterfly and human/flower hybrid. I was lucky enough to see some original footage of her performing the butterfly Dance at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. She became famous for the choreography, costumes and lighting effects in her Butterfly and Serpentine dances.

Fuller's style of dance caused a sensation in France and I was also interested to see the responses her dramatic dances inspired in turn of the century artists and designers in Paris such as Toulouse Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha and Koloman Moser, many of which I will feature in my next post.

Fuller was a child actress who worked in pantomime and then moved into burlesque and was influenced by the special effects of the stage, in which magic lanterns and calcium lights were used to project images onto fabric, and also the long lengths of material adapted for use in the skirts of other dancers in burlesque and vaudeville.

These photographs of Fuller go some way to displaying the drama and spectacle of Fuller's costume and choreography. She creates dramatic shapes which are very reminiscent of a butterfly and a flower. She is literally engulfed in a column of fabric in the photographs below. The photographs are by Samuel Joshua Beckett and Frederick Glasier.

Fuller combined a mixture of these special effects and developed others of her own to create something unique to stage performance at that time. Her first major choreographic hit was the Serpentine Dance of 1891 which became popular. She got into dispute with the management of the theatre however, and was released from her contract as result. Another dancer was hired by the theatre to perform Fuller's Serpentine Dance and this led to a legal battle to copyright her work, which ended in failure. Fuller then left the United States for Paris where her dances such as Papillon (1892),and Dance of the Lily, caused a sensation and she found huge acclaim amongst artists and writers as well as the general public.

So popular did Fuller become that she was given her own theatre at the Exposition Universelle in Paris 1900. Here she was able to generously support other female dancers such as Isadora Duncan. Although Duncan is attributed as being the first pioneer of modern dance, we can now see the innovative work and techniques that Fuller created and performed throughout her career show her to be the actual original pioneer.    

Techniques and innovations that Fuller patented and employed in her performances verged on the cinematic and included using a complex set up of mirrors as a back-drop, dancing against a black floor and background which was lit by a wheel of projected coloured lights, dancing over a glass trap-door lit by red light to create the sensation of being engulfed by flame in the finale of her Fire Dance (1895). As well as designing all of her own silk costumes, Fuller experimented with glow-in-the-dark phosphorescent paints and other toxic chemicals which caused her to become ill, and would unfortunately lead to her demise. Fuller and her work continue to be an influence on contemporary dancers such as Jody Sperling and Ann Cooper Albright who draw on Fuller's dances and effects for their own choreography.

An example of Loie Fuller's choreography can be seen by clicking on the screen below. There seems to be much  dispute about the many video clips which make claims to be of Loie Fuller dancing, and of which dance she is actually performing. The woman in this clip resembles Fuller, and at the beginning of the clip the dancer is definitely performing a Butterfly dance, despite it being labelled the Serpentine Dance. If anybody reading knows better however, then please enlighten me.