Dance History: Loie Fuller

Loie Fuller dons one of her famous costumes. Photo courtesy of The Dance Collection, NY Public Library for the Performing Arts

Before there was Martha Graham or Isadora Duncan, there was Loie Fuller (1862–1928), the toast of Paris nicknamed “La Loïe." Poets like William Butler Yeats lauded her, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted her and sculptor Auguste Rodin allegedly captured her in marble. Although plump, plain-faced and untrained (not a tall and lovely sylph as she was often depicted), La Loïe, born Mary Louise Fuller, was so popular during her time that a disappointed spectator once pulled a gun when she failed to perform as scheduled. “She literally hypnotized a whole generation of audiences," says world-renowned Fuller expert Jody Sperling, artistic director of Time Lapse Dance. But despite having been a catalyst for modern dance and pioneering the use of theatrical special effects, Fuller is largely forgotten in her native America.

Fuller grew up outside of Chicago and eked out a living in musical theater, touring the country with entertainers like Buffalo Bill. At the time, there was little classical dance training in America, and music hall “ballet girls" were considered immoral. So Fuller tweaked the late 19th-century dance craze called skirt dancing with the development of her Serpentine Dance—America's first modern work. (It was originally a skirt dance for a failed play called Quack M.D., in which she'd been cast.) She created her own style of “natural dancing"—nontechnical movements that involved her body's spontaneous response to music—and abandoned the typical accordion-pleated costume for a voluminous silk skirt that she manipulated with bamboo wands and flooded with abstract patterns of light. (She may have gotten this idea while acting in New York City's Arabian Nights [1887], which boasted the most spectacular lighting.)

Fuller auditioned her routine at the Casino Theatre in NYC, making her career-cinching appearance in February 1892. While some considered it suggestive, it was her synthesis of the play of light on fabric with her formations of images—including breaking waves, a rose falling to pieces and a giant lily—that seized onlookers. There were more than 30 technicians in her crew, enhancing her effect with slide-projection magic lanterns and telescopic images of the moon. The New York Spirit of the Times likened her to a fairy, adding that the audience could scarcely believe “the lovely apparition" was human. One reviewer remarked on the audience's “breathless silence," followed by thunderous applause. Another pronounced it “infinitely more artistic than the toe-dancing of the greatest prima ballerina." The dance immediately spawned a raft of followers.

Captured in one of modern dance's most powerful photographs, Graham dramatically cantilevers forward, and, wrist to forehead, she kicks up her shimmering skirt into a vertical half-moon shape, à la La Loïe. And while Duncan is generally credited as the first modern dancer, Fuller not only invited Duncan into her Parisian company, Loie Fuller and Her Muses, but she also sponsored Duncan's first continental tour, before the two split due to artistic differences.

Loie Fuller. Photo courtesy of The Dance Collection, NY Public Library for the Performing Arts

Unfortunately, Fuller's run at the Casino was short-lived. She quit after never receiving a promised raise, and then sued the theater for hiring another dancer while continuing to use her posters. After losing the lawsuit, Fuller decided to take her act to Europe, in a Josephine Baker–like exodus. Suffering a rocky start in Berlin, Fuller left for Paris in October 1892, and successfully petitioned the Folies-Bergère manager for a chance to perform. The local paper called hers “an act all Paris will rush to see," which may have been responsible for the city's La Loïe mania, as well as the attendance of a number of Europe's prominent intellectuals and royalty at her debut.

Often characterized as the embodiment of the Art Nouveau movement, Fuller's mixed-media choreography set an important precedent. Her innovative use of colored lighting with music and movement profoundly altered the visual arts and theater of her day—and ours. One of the first artists to drape the stage in black, she also patented an arrangement of devices, including angled, lighted mirrors, a floor fixture allowing illumination from below and a glass-topped pedestal that “suspended" its occupant when lit from below.

Her personal life was equally colorful. Fuller was long separated from “husband" Col. William Hayes, a shyster who was prone to sporting diamonds and claimed to be the nephew of former President Rutherford B. Hayes. He had two other wives, which landed him in Sing Sing. According to Marcia Ewing Current, who wrote Loie Fuller: Goddess of Light with Richard Nelson Current, Hayes was “a husband in name only," and Fuller eventually took a younger woman, Gabrielle Bloch, a member of her company, as her lifelong companion. Fuller may also have had an affair with her close friend, the Queen of Romania. However, some of Fuller's personal facts remain a mystery, as she was known to tell tall tales to compensate for her modest upbringing.

An 1896 PAL poster of Loie Fuller at the Folies-Bergère. Photo courtesy of The Dance Collection, NY Public Library for the Performing Arts

Once one of the highest paid performers of her generation, Fuller consistently mismanaged her funds and had little when she died of breast cancer in 1928 at a friend's apartment at the Plaza Athenée in Paris. Her ashes, near those of Maria Callas, rest at the Père-Lachaise cemetery, home to famous denizens Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. But Fuller may finally be making a well-deserved comeback in her own country, says Sperling, who receives e-mails from around the world asking how to make a Loie Fuller costume. “Her legacy is ascending," Sperling believes. “Her work has relevance. We're at a point where we're experiencing tremendous changes because of technology, and I think there was a similar change at the end of the 19th century."

In addition to a surge in scholarship, there's renewed interest in La Loïe's work. When Sperling performs her Fuller-based work, the response is “universally positive," she says. “People love it." And the experience for Sperling? “When I don the silk, it becomes my other skin," she explains. “You become something other than yourself. Add the element of light and it's magical—like painting with color."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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