Department of Theatre and Film
Symbolism in the Serpentine: Exploring Loie Fuller’s Dance Through a Symbolist Aesthetic
Loie Fuller (1862 - 1928) performed throughout the United States and Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In her distinctive Serpentine Dance, Fuller swirled billowing costumes and fabric above her head. Underneath the surging fabric and colored lights her body was engaged in perpetual motion, which was sustained by movement that radiated from the core of her body. Fuller has not traditionally been considered a modern dancer, although recent research by Ann Cooper Albright and Rhonda K. Garelick demonstrate that Fuller’s use of the core as the center of her movement re-situates her as such. At the same time, though, elements of Fuller’s performances also align her both aesthetically and philosophically with the Symbolists. In her Serpentine Dance, Fuller exhibits an aesthetic that appears similar to that which the Symbolists strove to achieve in their theatre, and she employed the modern notion that movement should evolve from an internal impulse. In this essay, I explore the ways in which Fuller’s aesthetic manifested Symbolist theatrical ideals regarding light, color, space, the body, and the mind in order to argue that through the amalgamation of these elements, her performances created a synesthetic whole that abstracted her body from conventional ideas of time and space, constructed a performance that was uniquely Fuller, and is ultimately an expression of modern movement.
Fuller arrived in Paris in 1892, a time of great political, cultural, and aesthetic flux. Her career at the Folies Bergère coincided with the establishment of the Third Republic of France which was constituted after the collapse of the empire of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War (Holmes 30). In Paris, this era was designated the “Belle Époque” and was characterized by many avant-garde artistic movements including Realism, Naturalism, Decadence, Futurism, and Symbolism. Fluctuations in approaches to movement were also evident during this period. Hillel Schwartz asserts, “Between 1840 and 1930 the dance world in Europe and the United States had, by seduction and then concussion, suffered a shift in attitudes toward physical movement” (71). Schwartz attributes this fluctuation in movement to the discovery of torsion, the ability to twist the entire body in space, which was influential on many dancers of this era. As Schwartz notes, “Modern dancers insisted on effort, on weight and torque, and they consistently dissented from the balletic ‘delusion that the law of gravitation does not exist for them’” (75). This new form of dance acknowledged gravity and encouraged the dancer to play with the body’s relationship with it.
Modern dance defined itself in opposition to classical ballet in multiple ways, but for the purposes of this essay, I will be focusing on the reaction against the emphasis placed on exterior form. Ballet was composed of codified movements that were pieced together to form a dance. Modern dancers, alternatively, thought that movement should grow out of an inner impulse or desire; it should not merely be the combination of dance steps. While ballet dancers may depict emotion in their dance, the dance is not created from an emotion or desire, but by a combination of preordained movements. Modern dancers believed that dance was not merely an aesthetic expression of the exterior, but a manifestation of an inner impulse. Modern dancer Doris Humphrey designated this concept “moving from the inside out” (Cohen 122). Dance historian, Selma Jeanne Cohen unpacks Humphrey’s statement by remarking that modern dancers began not with traditional steps as ballet did, but with an emotional idea (122). Physical movement developed from an internal impulse. Cohen asserts that modern dance is concerned “with the body and its natural impulse to express its feelings in movement” (122). The concept of inner life (meaning emotion, spirit, desire, or impulse) was not the same for every modern dancer; each had their own interpretation of this idea. Regarding interior emotions, dancer Mary Wigman states, “Shock, ecstasy, joy, melancholy, grief, gaiety, the dance can express all of these emotions through movement. But the expression without the inner experience in the dance is valueless” (152). As I will discuss later, this philosophy of movement as an outward manifestation of an inner desire was a dominant component of Fuller’s work, and is clearly articulated in her writing.
At the same time that modern dance was emerging as a new form of dance, the Symbolists were exploring similar ideas in regard to physicalizing the internal in theatre, literature, and the visual arts. Symbolism originated in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, and was based on the tenets that the corporeal world was arcane and that truth could only be discovered by delving into the human psyche. In Theater of the Avant-Garde 1890 - 1950, Bert Cardullo and Robert Knopf describe the concepts that the Symbolists were exploring:
The world, which the realists and . . . the naturalists had attempted to know fully and depict accurately, was revealed by the Symbolists to be pure illusion—a veil of fleeting appearances behind which were hidden deeper truths. It was what lay buried within the psyche and concealed behind the mirror that this radical new poetics of drama proposed to explore. (6)
The Symbolists were not concerned with the materiality of the world, as were the naturalists or realists. Instead, they were interested in the ethereal, the hidden mysteries residing within the self and the universe.
Many Symbolist plays and productions were being produced in France while Fuller was employed at the Folies Bergère. In her performances, Fuller seems to exude many of the artistic principles that the Symbolists firmly upheld. Both Fuller and the Symbolists were interested in the external representation of the internal. In Symbolist plays and productions, acting, scenery, lighting and sound did not adhere to nineteenth century conceptions of realism and naturalism. Instead, the Symbolists strove to find ways to use technical elements such as lighting and scenery to portray the hidden mysteries of the human psyche (Drain 228). Fuller, meanwhile, endeavored to use light, color, costume, and movement to communicate her internal emotions and spirit. Fuller and the Symbolists also both exhibit a shared desire to use space as an avenue through which to explore internal ideas. While Fuller never identified herself or her work as Symbolist, examining her dance in light of Symbolist ideas regarding theatrical practices reveals that the two are congruent.
In Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loie Fuller, Ann Cooper Albright points out the importance that lighting, color, and space assumed in Fuller’s performances. Color and light were not an afterthought in Fuller’s work; they were vital components of the performance. Her use of specific lighting and color combinations illuminated her body and allowed her movement to be both revealed and concealed. Her performances have often been described as kaleidoscopic because of this fusion of light, color, and movement. Journalist Arsène Alexandre stated in his column in Le Théâtre, “Before . . . Fuller, there was lighting, but no one understood how to use it . . . She brought us this marvelous discovery: the art of modulation, the ability to shift across the spectrum of color tones” (qtd. in Albright 58). Fuller developed new techniques in lighting; she projected light through a filter in order to reduce glare, and is also credited with the development of under-stage lighting, in which she employed an electrician below stage to project light through a trap door to illuminate her skirt from underneath. Just as the Symbolists strove to use light as part of an all-embracing work of art, so did Fuller. She endeavored to combine color and light intensity, and weave them together with space, costume, and movement to create her own all-encompassing art.
Fuller’s lighting techniques evoke similarities with what the Symbolists expressed as their ideal for stage lighting. In Lighting in the Theatre, Gosta Bergman explains the importance of the use of light in the Symbolist theatre, stating, “It goes without saying that light was to play a central role in the Symbolist dreams of the all-embracing work of art: not the atmospheric illusionary light, but the light that, with all degrees of intensity and colors, can form inner, mental courses of events, can create rhythm” (qtd. in Albright 81). Bergman claims that the Symbolist’s interest in light extended beyond merely casting an otherworldly glow, and resided in the creation of visual patterns through the fusion of light and color. Though not directed at Fuller, this statement describes her well, as she used light and color variation to create a visual flow that was then incorporated with her movement.
Fuller also shared many of the same sentiments regarding art and the body as her contemporary theatrical practitioner and lighting designer, Adolphe Appia. In “From How to Reform Our Staging Practices,” Appia states, “Until now it has been believed that staging must achieve the highest possible degree of illusion; and it is this principle . . . which has barred our progress. I strive to show . . . that scenic art must be based on the one reality worthy of theatre: the human body” (Appia 16). Thus, for Appia all elements of scenic design should be constructed in conjunction with the human body. He goes on to assert that “the plasticity of scenery [is] necessary to the beauty of the actor’s attitudes and movements” (Appia 237). Appia insists that scenery should not simply be a backdrop that the actor performs against; instead, it should be malleable and able to move and adjust in accordance with the performer’s body. He states, “In the theatre, we are there to be present at a dramatic action: that action is due to the presence of the characters on stage; without the characters there is no action. Thus the actor is the essential factor in the staging of the scenes” (Appia 237, italics in original). Once again, Appia maintains that the human body is a vital component in the equation of onstage performance. All the scenic elements should work in harmony with the body and together they should create a cohesive piece of art. Fuller is an excellent example of Appia’s ideas regarding the fusion of scenic elements and the human body. For Fuller, lights, color, costume and space were equally as important as her choreography. Her dance was not merely performed in front of a backdrop; her movement, costumes, lights, and colors worked together to create a dynamic composition.
As Albright notes, rather than accepting the stage as a static frame, Fuller considered it an active space (63). She recognized the dynamic energy present in the performance space and used it in her dances. The wands attached to the sleeves of her costumes allowed her to reach beyond her personal space and interact with the space around her. For Albright, Fuller’s sense of engaging space begins in the way she initiates movement through her chest and body (3). Fuller’s movements radiated out of the central core of her body; activating her core enabled her to support and sustain not only her movement, but also her billowing costumes and fabric. Albright remarks, “Launching and guiding the fabric in a constant play with gravity, Fuller creates an ongoing spatial dialogue of extension and release” (65). The twisting and contracting of her torso enabled her to have the momentum to lift her long wands of fabric and to keep them extended while she danced, allowing her to interact with the lights, color, and space around her. Thus, as Albright asserts, because Fuller understood the importance of actively engaging her body in space, she was able to recharge the spatial and temporal energies of the stage (66). Fuller was a dynamic performer because she understood the importance of creating a cohesive whole; that light, color, space, and movement must be used in collaboration with one another. In the process, though, her performances also melded these elements together to create what Appia referred to as an “animated stage” (228), which becomes one more way in which her work aligns with Symbolist theatrical practices.
Likewise, in Fuller’s Serpentine Dance, her body appeared to be both present and absent while she danced. The visual fluctuation of her body seems similar to the Symbolist’s interest in the abstraction of the human form, specifically their intrigue with the marionette. Cardullo and Knopf comment on the Symbolist preoccupation with the marionette, “Because marionettes are abstractions of the human form, individual experience does not obtrude on our perception of them, as it inevitably does with a human performer when the actor’s personality comes into play” (7). When a human body is used in a performance it carries with it certain connotations; it can never be free from meaning. A puppet, on the other hand, supplies a solid form without the associations that might accompany a human body. The marionette also provides a body that transcends the boundary between the human/nonhuman form. In the Serpentine Dance, Fuller also obfuscated this boundary. Her combination of light, flowing costume, and spiraling movement made her body disappear and reappear in a manner that caused her human form to become virtually unrecognizable. The absence and presence of her body becomes an interesting template for thinking about the Symbolist idea of the abstraction of the body.
The performance of the Serpentine Dance filmed by the Lumière brothers in 1896 provides an excellent illustration of this simultaneous invocation of absence and presence in Fuller’s work. Fuller has historically been considered the dancer in this film, although some speculate that it may be one of her imitators. Nevertheless, examining this representation of the Serpentine Dance provides insights into important and unique elements regarding the presentation and performance of this dance. In this film, Fuller dances in her famous costume composed of billowing fabric with wands attached to the sleeves so that she is able to manipulate and extend the costume above her head and diagonally to the sides. Fuller dances and as her body becomes enveloped in fabric it eventually disappears, and as the fabric continues to move her body eventually reappears. The motion of the dance and the movement of the fabric along with the play of light and shadow cause Fuller’s body to be both visible and invisible, both absent and present. When her body is not present it appears as though there is a whirling colorful “other” on stage, not a body or a human, but an abstraction of the human form. Eventually, her body will briefly come into view again and thus remind the spectator there is indeed a human body performing onstage. However, the body will then evanesce and all the eye will perceive is the whoosh of colorful perpetual motion as the body disappears, reappears, and disappears.
Symbolist writer and critic Stéphane Mallarmé describes the phenomena of Fuller’s dance as “the personification of his dream of the ideal theater—without scenery, without words, where space and time had no importance, where reality would not intrude between the idea and the audience” (qtd. in Coffman 93). Mallarmé indicates that Fuller’s performances, executed without scenery or words, were not constrained by realistic ideas of space or time. For Symbolist plays and performances, events did not have to occur in a linear fashion, nor were they confined to three-dimensional space. Cardullo and Knopf note, “the Symbolists liberated playwriting from mechanistic notions of chronological time and Euclidean space; they enlarged the frame of drama to include worlds and beings other than those inhabiting the bourgeois theater” (7). Time could move at a hyper speed or it could stand still, and movement in space could take place outside the rational, three-dimensional world.
Fuller’s Serpentine dance did not follow a typical dance progression, which would have consisted of beginning in a pose, ending each phrase with a pose, and ending the performance in a pose. Albright notes that in many nineteenth century dances, “the endings of musical phrases were often punctuated by individual or group poses that visually consolidated the line” (68). Dancers posing at the end of musical phrases was a convention that informed the audience where to direct their gaze. Fuller did not use poses to inform the audience where to focus; instead, she performed continuous movement throughout the entire performance. Because of this perpetual motion, it is possible to surmise that it caused those observing to lose track of time and thus to be enraptured by the experience. The continual motion in this dance aligns her with the Symbolist tenet of resisting the realistic/naturalist constraints of chronological time. Her performance emancipates her body from the restraints of linear progression, and in this space where time seems to not exist she creates with her movement and costumes the appearance of a supernatural “other.” In the names of many of her dances, Fuller also evokes the idea of a supernatural other, such as the Serpentine, the Butterfly, and the Fire Dance. Each of these dance titles elicits images that distance Fuller’s dancing form from that of a human.
In the Serpentine Dance, Fuller’s body is abstract because the fabric of her costume and the dynamic interplay of light, dark, and color obscure it. But performed in a space where time seems absent and the continual motion of her movements and costumes make her body both visible and invisible, it seems that her body becomes abstracted to a second degree. The otherworldly qualities of her performance seem to abstract her completely from the idea of the human form. This quality of her performance once again aligns her with the Symbolist notion of abstraction. In the Serpentine Dance, Fuller takes a human body and abstracts it from its humanness by enveloping it in the motion of the costume, and then makes it even more abstracted by taking this form that is both visible and invisible and situating it in a realm where time does not exist. Therefore her human body becomes something that does not exist in the human perception of time or space. A human body cannot be both present and not present, nor can it make time stand still. Yet in Fuller’s performance her human body seems to succeed in achieving both of these tasks. Through the combination of movement, costume, and light, Fuller’s body appears abstracted and the visual images she creates evoke representations of non-human forms.
Mallarmé in “Les fonds dans le ballet” describes such an experience: “ . . . the performer . . . illustrates many spinning themes from which extends a distant fading warp, giant petal and butterfly, unfurling all in a clear and elemental way” (qtd. in Albright 45). Mallarmé watches Fuller’s body, clothed in fabric, light, and color disappear and then re-emerge in the non-human form of a flower and then a butterfly. Albright notes other representations that Fuller has been compared to, “Images of phantoms, wings, birds, gemstones, water, and flowers—these are the fundamental metaphors that are echoed throughout many of the early descriptions of Fuller’s performances in Paris” (38). The abstract images evoked through Fuller’s Serpentine Dance manifest the Symbolist desire to shake free from realist representations and to manipulate the audience’s apprehension of chronological time on stage.
In addition to emancipating onstage bodies from the rational ideas of form and chronological time, the Symbolists were also interested in probing the inner mysteries of the mind. They were concerned with investigating the internal aspects of the psyche and making these internal elements external in their plays and performances. Katherine E. Kelly notes that at this moment, writing was “shifting its representational center from the outside to the inside, from the natural/material realm to the individual/mental realm as the crucial site of awareness” (11). In her writing, Fuller discusses a similar idea regarding working from the inside. In “From Light and the Dance,” she states, “What is dance? It is motion. What is motion? The expression of sensation. What is sensation? The reaction in the human body produced by an impression or an idea perceived by the mind. A sensation is the reverberation that the body receives when an impression strikes the mind” (246). Fuller thereby makes the connection that dance is a physical manifestation of a mental impulse. The external expression of the dancing body is created by an internal stimulus. Fuller and the Symbolists clearly both shared a desire to probe the inner workings of the mind and to make them physically present on stage.
In her writing, Fuller also explains how she takes a mental impulse and makes it physical; she translates the image in her mind through her dance to the audience. She avers, “To impress an idea I endeavor, by my motions, to cause its birth in the spectator’s mind, to awaken his imagination, that it may be prepared to receive the image” (247). Through her dance, Fuller attempts to transcribe an image from her mind to the mind of the audience. Her goal in this process is to simultaneously get audiences to understand an image in her mind and moreover, to be an image in their minds. She is trying to get them interested in both her inner mental workings and her outer physical workings. If audiences understand the outer image of her dance they will also understand the inner image in her mind. When she states her desire “to cause its birth in the spectator’s mind,” Fuller indicates that she expects her audience to engage with her not only on an aesthetic level, but also on a mental level. She wants her audience to not only process her images visually, but also mentally, so that her physical actions act as a mode of communication between her brain and her spectator’s brains.
Regarding this form of communication Fuller states, “Thus we are able . . . to feel within ourselves as an impulse an indefinable and wavering force, which urges and dominates us” (247). Fuller indicates that using her dance as a physical form of inner communication between her and the audience creates a force between the two that is both tangible and intangible. It is palpable in the sense that she knows that it exists and that there is a transfer of something ineffable in the sense that it is not quantifiable. Fuller’s attempt to communicate her inner images through her exterior movement was not to assert that audiences were unable to construct their own experience, since spectators could choose which element or combination of elements on which to focus. However, I think that Fuller believed that the power of the inner impulse was so strong that it would be communicated through her performance no matter upon which visual element the audience chose to focus. Her desire to create an entire performance including lights, color, fabric, and movement all evolved from an internal idea, and that concept would be disseminated through every element of the performance.
Another place where Symbolist ideas and the performance of Loie Fuller converge is with their interest in mirrors. The Symbolist desire to explore the mysteries of the mind created new conventions in which consciousness and the psyche could be explored (Kelly 12). This fascination with exploring the unknowable elements of the world and peering into the innermost self manifested itself in the Symbolists’ captivation with the mirror; they were intrigued by the reflection that materialized when a person looked into one. Frazer Lively notes this fixation with mirrors commenting, “motifs that were common to symbolist writers [were] . . . the dangerous enchantment of mirrors” (271). The Symbolists were fascinated with mirrors because the mirror was a device that allowed a person to look into the glass and see beyond him or herself, to see a double, or their Other reflected back at them. Lively, explains that the preoccupation with the Other in the mirror alludes to the myth of Narcissus, the man who sees his own reflection in a pool of water and becomes enamored with it (271). The space of the mirror allows the self to acknowledge the existence of its reflected Other.
Fuller was also interested in playing with the reflection of the self in her performances and created a means by which she could dance and have her image reflected at the same time. In 1893 Fuller patented a devise that she called a “mirror room.” Garelick describes this invention as “an octagonal backdrop, open in the front, made up of continuously arranged mirrors illuminated by tiny electric lights installed in the interstices. This curving wall of lights and mirrors created multiple reflections of the dancer performing before it” (45). Fuller would dance and her image would be reflected all around her, thus producing multiple images of her form. Consequently, not one human body, but many were reflected and refracted in the performance space.
According to Garelick the audience had a difficult time determining which of the dancing bodies onstage was actually the flesh-and-blood Loie Fuller (45). From this account it seems that just as the Symbolists were interested in the merging of the self and the Other in the mirror, so too was Fuller. It appears that she was interested in what happened onstage when the physical dancing body converged with the reflections of the dancing body. Mrs. Griffith, a British writer who saw the Serpentine Dance performed in the mirror room described its effect on her. She explains, “By some mysterious arrangement, eight Loie Fullers appear to be dancing at the same time, and the whole stage is bathed in a flood of glorious tints, in which may be seen aerial forms, in cloudlike vestures, whirling and dancing . . .” (qtd. in Garelick 45). This audience member describes Fuller’s performance with her multiple reflections and combination of the lighting effects as something celestial or otherworldly. Garelick notes “The mirror room . . . both dissolved and reproduced Fuller’s image” (45). By dancing in a space with mirrors Fuller’s physical body dissolved because it became difficult to differentiate which body onstage was Fuller’s actual body. However her body was also reproduced, because the mirrors allowed not just one dancing body onstage, but multiple dancing bodies.
The idea of absence and presence once again manifests itself in the mirrored performance. Fuller’s body is visible because she is onstage performing. But it is also hidden, because at times during the performance it becomes hard to extricate Fuller’s physical body from the reflections. Her experimentation in the mirror room produced multiple images in the mirror that added to the ethereal sense of the performance. Instead of one body disappearing and reappearing, there were multiple bodies.
According to Albright, because the mirror room set was so large and breakable Fuller could not tour with it, so she began experimenting with other ways of using mirrors, “adapt[ing] the play of light and mirror by using large swaths of shiny, reflective fabric, or by sewing mirrors on [her] costumes,” (191). Even though she could not always use the large mirrors, the use of mirrors and the reflection of her image was something that she continued to experiment with and to implement in different ways throughout her career.
This mystical ambiance that Fuller created with her dancing and her use of mirrors further connects her with Symbolist ideals. According to Lively, “the symbolists wanted a theater of the soul, in which a mystical inner life would transcend the corporeal world” (269). The way that Fuller discusses her process indicates that perhaps this Symbolist idea was implemented in her work. She would have an impression or image in her mind that she would then “transcribe” to her body. She would perform this transcription, combining dancing, lights, and the mirrors (if they were used) to create a mystical, ethereal place where her inner self appeared to transcend her corporeal body, where her physical body became absent and present and time did not exist. The combination of her being both concealed and revealed as well as the effort to transcend linear time indicate that for Fuller’s audience, the performance seemed to exist somewhere between the real world and the supernatural world.
This liminal space between the real world and the imagined is also something with which the Symbolists were concerned. Lively explains, “Many [symbolist] plays showed . . . characters . . . who seem to exist partway between the real world and beyond” (269). Fuller’s performance fits this description; in the moment that it is occurring it appears to exceed the bounds of the natural world. Albright describes the phenomena by stating, “Beginning with dim lighting (often described as ‘eerie’), her movement typically became more and more expansive as the surrounding lights increased in intensity and color variation, creating a climatic (sometimes apocalyptic) vision that exploded back into darkness” (66). The description of Fuller’s performance as climatic or apocalyptic reinforces the idea that her dance created a space that existed somewhere between the real world and that which is beyond the real world.
The otherworldly visions constructed in her performances were not created by movement alone, but with the help of other scenic elements. It is the unique synesthetic combination of Fuller’s moving body enveloped in the elements of light, space, and color that create the whole effect. These components working together create a transcendent space where Fuller’s performance resides. She created her own lighting plots using original techniques and color palettes, which she also designed. She fashioned her own costumes, made of fabric that undulated as she danced. The wands connected to her costume allowed her to reach beyond her personal space and engage far beyond herself. When she danced in this costume her body was both revealed and obscured.
Analyzing Fuller’s aesthetics, performance, and methods of composition in context of
Symbolism reveals that both possessed a desire to use theatrical techniques to evoke representations of inner emotion and spirit. Fuller’s Serpentine Dance employed color, light, fabric, and movement in a manner that elicited Symbolist ideals of abstraction, otherworldly images, and an abdication of linear time. Examining Fuller through this lens affirms that her theories and implementation of space were modern in nature because she used the performance space to physicalize her internal emotions. The fusion of Symbolist ideals and Fuller’s own philosophies regarding lights, color, and space constructed a synesthetic whole that transcended conventional ideas of time and space and created a performance that was uniquely hers, and provides further evidence that Fuller should be acknowledged as a modern dancer.
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