Although she grew up in the United States, Loïe Fuller first won fame in fin-de-siècle Paris, at the Folies Bergère. With her hypnotic Serpentine Dance, she swirled huge swaths of silk around her to create beautiful shapes that melted seamlessly from one to the other. At the same time, she used invented innovative lighting techniques to draw attention to these shapes, to frame her silken alchemical sculptures. Artists, writers, scientists, and many others praised her work—placing her squarely within the circles of Art Nouveau and Symbolist movements.
Fuller began her performance career in burlesque. At this time, burlesque shows were “clean” and institutionalized, and Fuller played mainly britches roles. Soon, however, she came into her own act “accidentally” in a performance of Quack M.D. in 1891. The twirling skirt-dance-like routine that she would claim developed out of this performance would eventually become her signature Serpentine Dance in 1892. By the time she launched her solo career, burlesque had strayed quite far away from its original form of troupes of arch and outspoken women. Nevertheless, Fuller pulled from this lineage, revising and recreating the original spirit of burlesque with her work in Paris.
Scholars Rhonda Garelick, Julie Townsend, and others list the ways Fuller rejected the objectification of women in other performance genres—leg shows, cooch dances, etc.—around her and thus rejected those genres as a whole (Garelick, for example, refers to her as an “anti-showgirl” (169)). But they fail to consider the fact that her work—especially her early dances like Serpentine—maintained slender connections to the art form that helped her find a presence onstage at all. In a body that was at once erotic, lesbian, and defiant, Loïe Fuller embodied the agency of early burlesque performers, bringing women’s agency back into male-dominated, high art circles. We see this agency in a number of provocative sites, but in this paper I will explore her unambiguous individuality when dancing, in what I will call her “winking face.”
In the Serpentine Dance that made her famous, Fuller swung huge swaths of silk—enabled by bamboo extensions strapped to her arms—in undulating, intertwining, continually emerging and dissolving forms, such that her actual physical body seemed almost absent. This very near-absence, in fact, formed a crucial part of Fuller’s appeal: she was derided for having a distinctly “non-dancer’s body” that was short, plump, and awkward in her daily life (see Garelick 2-4, Current and Current 83, 203). Fuller’s “abnormal” body, thus, ostensibly gave her something to hide, providing a mysteriousness that she would use to great effect. This hidden body gave her act an erotic appeal that many others have written about. But few have suggested that the performance styles from her early career had any bearing on the success she found so shortly afterwards.
We can place Fuller in conversation with the lineage of early burlesque artists because they each had a disobeying body. Both figures represented an uncontainability, and they challenged normative ideals of the bourgeois woman (Current and Current 17). This “failure” of Fuller to be contained, to fully disappear is always on my mind when I watch her dances on film. Fortunately, she was interested in this medium and partnered with Louis Lumière to film “Danse Serpentine” in 1897 (available on YouTube).
As I watch Fuller propel the fabric around and around her, different colors of light passing over the huge lengths of silk, her hypnotic, flowing designs entrance me. But my hypnotism is constantly punctured: the whirling fabric cannot fully hide Fuller the person. Her face keeps peeking through, and while it is not the showgirl’s wide smile, it is the unmistakable “wink” of someone who does not want you to forget her presence, apart from or in addition to the beautiful shapes that she makes. I am thus continually reminded of the woman behind the fabric, despite the fact that her loose gown covers her body.
Sometimes, that gown will get wrapped up and show the outline of that body for just a second, before the fabric morphs into a different shape again. She will often turn to face her back to the audience and kneel, the better to whip the fabric before and behind her to create a shape like a butterfly’s wings, and I am keenly aware of her back arching to be able to do so. When I look down, I see her feet constantly moving in circles—unless she kneels, they are never completely hidden. Even in the moments where Fuller’s body and face completely disappear, I still have the reminder that she is right behind the fabric; the technician is still present. The various traces of Fuller the person when she does her famous Serpentine Dance makes her individuality crucial to her performance—her disappearance is never complete, and this is part of the effectiveness of her dance.
Queer theorists, psychoanalytic philosophers, and Fuller’s biographers have made much of the way she writes herself as absence, as disappearance. But I have been most interested in the moments in which Fuller’s disappearances “fail”: in which, despite the spectacularity of Fuller’s serpentining costumes, her winking face peeks through to remind us that she is not a blank page—she is a human, and this feat is accomplished by her very human labor. Her work created space for female agency onstage that theatrical conventions had previously submerged, and her Serpentine Dance brought the physical female body to the forefront of the fin-de-siècle stage.
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Current, Richard Nelson and Current, Marcia Ewing. Loie Fuller: Goddess of Light. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.
Garelick, Rhonda K. Electric Salome: Loie Fuller’s Performance of Modernism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
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“Loie Fuller, danse serpentine”. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <https://vimeo.com/16375482>.
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Townsend, Julie. “Alchemic visions and technological advances: sexual morphology in Loie Fuller’s dance’.” Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities on and off the Stage, edited by Jane C. Desmond (2001): 73-96.