Department of Theatre and Film
Loie Fuller from "la fée lumiére” to “la fée éléctricité: Cybernetic Logic, Embodiment and the Electrical Woman
Kari-Anne Innes is a second year doctoral student in the Department of Theatre Film, Bowling Green State University. Her research interests include the intersections of spirituality, performance, and feminism. She holds Master of Arts in Liberal Studies and post-MALS certificate in Theology, both from Valparaiso University.
In her signature technique, Serpentine and Salome dancer Loie Fuller disappeared into a giant flowing silk bathed in electric light. To this end, Rhonda Garelick describes the modern dance pioneer as “proto-cinematic”: the “conversion of her physical self into a pure aesthetic form…. dissolving…into light projections on fabric” (Electric Salome 8). For Garelick, Fuller’s disembodiment prefigures film and, it can be argued, women in cinema as well, for the individualized physical self dissolves into a “pure [idealized] aesthetic form” on the silken or silver screen. Garelick’s observation echoes French Symbolist Stephané Mallarmé’s idealization of the performer in general and Fuller specifically as a “disembodied ‘idea’” (Garelick Electric Salome 11). Their perspective positions Fuller as a technological or “electric” entity. In fact, Garelick writes, “so long as Fuller kept her somewhat graceless self out of sight, and centered her performance in her technological genius, she dazzled her crowds, succeeding as more of an Electric Salome than a biblical one” (Garelick Electric Salome 6). Yet the idea that Fuller had a “graceless self” is not self-evident but instead is best understood as a long standing critical emphasis on disembodiment that reflects the era’s fears and fantasies of the mechanized body and the subsequent projection of these fears on the “electrical” woman.
Anxiety over the electrical or “technologized body” has dominated scholarship to the extent that Garelick believes the “topic has received more than enough critical attention” (Electric Salome 139). This is not to say that Garelick ignores this theme in her work or her assessment of Fuller, but acknowledges its predominance.1 Taking a different approach, other scholars such as Ann Cooper Albright are now at work to recuperate Fuller’s bodiliness to consider her in association with other early modern dancers.2 A similar recuperation in regard to film might be to consider Fuller’s work through a “cybernetic” versus “electric” logic. Such logic serves neither to deny the technological aspects nor the embodiment of Fuller’s work, but accounts for both. In her article “The Cybernetic Logic of the Lumière Actualities, 1895-1897,” Cynthia Baron observes a counter response in early film to the fear of the machine’s dominance over the human body. In the Lumière actualities of everyday scenes, leisure activities and popular entertainments, human bodies interact with technology, but “remain unchanged and in control” (Baron 178). The films’ “cybernetic bodies” advance the logic that “even in the face of radical technological change, human life [will] remain the center of the experienced world, and ‘real’ human beings [will] not be displaced or threatened by mechanized images” (Baron 174). Fuller can be seen as one of Lumière’s cybernetic bodies in that they produced a Fuller-inspired “folioscope” of the Serpentine Dance in 1897(Albright 188). In the demonstration of Fuller’s dance, the performer remains at the center of the experience and in mastery of the technology. The mechanized image does not threaten the dancer’s body, and the dancer’s body controls the mechanized image.3 Given the centrality of the body in Fuller’s technique, it is curious that what critics like Garelick find most successful or choose to emphasize in her performances is that the dancer’s body is “displaced” or “kept out of sight.” Thus, I would join scholars like Albright in the argument that it is the criticism and not the technology of the Serpentine Dance that threatens the human body, suggesting that this view is due in large part to Fuller’s gender and society’s fear not only of the machine, but of female embodiment as well. In this essay, I will use “cybernetic logic” to explore tensions between embodiment and disembodiment in the critical reception of Fuller, as well as the construction of the Electrical Woman as a denial of female embodiment. This inquiry is useful, for insofar as Fuller is understood as the progenitor of cinema, that perspective colors how women have continued to be viewed on the screen.
Disembodiment and misogyny are closely related in cybernetic logic’s response to fin de siècle fears. Lee Quinby explains that “the desire of final freedom from bodily constraint is a gender-inflicted dream with a two thousand year history [and the] denial of embodiment has been a heterosexist obsession that defines itself oppositionally to women’s bodily excess and lesbian and gay sexuality” (qtd. in Baron 170). That denial can also be applied to Fuller’s work. By many critical accounts, the technological aspects of Fuller’s performances freed her from the “constraint” of a “graceless” body said to have been too “overweight,” “visibly sweating” (Garelick Electric Salome 5, 96) and lesbian for that of a dancer. Fuller’s reputation as “fat” extends from her often quoted memoirs in which she recounts her physical appearance as disappointing a young fan (Fuller 141-142) to Jean Cocteau’s equally cited 1900 World’s Fair recollection of her as “a fat, rather ugly American woman with glasses” who nonetheless should be “salute[d]” as a “phantom of an era” in the “maneuvering her veils” (qtd. in Electric Salome 78). Coincidentally, it is after the fair that Fuller’s moniker changed from “la fée lumiére” to “la fée éléctricité” (Garelick Electric Salome 79). Using the play on words, I argue that Fuller began to be seen not through the embodied cybernetic logic of the Lumière brothers, but through the disembodied “electric” logic of her fans and critics.
According to Albright it is the “fuller”-figured image from the dancer’s late career that has been exploited by scholars at the exclusion of Fuller’s “cute and ‘fetching’” build in her prime (121). Fuller’s presumably younger lighter and more graceful body is often denied while her older, plumper, “electric” body is “saluted” only when hidden from view. Furthermore, although Fuller’s lesbianism does not readily figure in the assessment of her dancing, I include it here as one of the “excesses” that Quinby asserts that “heterosexist obsession” tries to restrain. Albright notes that “the combination of typically masculine interest in electricity…and the typically feminized vocation of performing on public stages (especially as a dancer)….cancelled one another out to render [Fuller] neuter – or lesbian” (121). In criticism, if not in performance, the technical or “electrical” aspects of Fuller’s work, in which her body literally disappeared into silk, concealed these bodily “excesses” leaving only the disembodied idea(l) of a woman. Cybernetic logic, which allows for embodiment in relation to technology, therefore, might be a better way in which to view and discuss Fuller’s performances.
In order to understand Fuller through a cybernetic logic, it is useful to explore the embodied nature of her work as a modern dancer. Garelick observes that the conflicting views of Fuller as technological and embodied seldom meet in discussions on Fuller. As she explains, Fuller’s “‘elaborate production values,’ [have] always seemed somehow incommensurable with her role as a ‘modern dance pioneer’” (Garelick Rising Star 101). Albright, in turn, lays some of the responsibility on Garelick writing, “According to Garelick, ‘[Fuller] had turned herself into an illusion-producing machine, devoid of any apparently bodily characteristics’” (Garelick Rising Star qtd. in Albright 181). However, to be fair, in her later book Electric Salome, Garelick clarifies her opinion saying that “rather than reject[ing] bodily or physical movement outright, Fuller in fact created a fusion of ‘personal kinetics’ and elaborate production values’” (162). This last statement seems to approach Albright’s “kinesthetically expressive” descriptions of Fuller, as well as Baron’s cybernetic logic, which values the expressivity the human body through and with technology.
These views are useful because modern dancers, predominantly women, in the late nineteenth century were avidly engaged in the quest for embodiment. Vanessa Toulmin and Simon Popple argue that the body “suffered” a “crisis” upon the introduction of technology, primarily that “technologies…threatened to displace, replace, or even erase the human body whenever the vehicle of technology was made to substitute for the tenor of the body” (2). This statement is similar to Baron’s articulation of the teleological fear of “‘real’ human beings” being “displaced or threatened by mechanized images” (174). Like Baron, Toulmin posits a response from the artistic community, not through cybernetic logic but through S.S. Curry’s “theory of ‘expression’” and the “expressive culture movement.” According to Toulmin and Popple, this movement “held that these new technologies [film, phonograph,] alienated human beings from their natural condition, throwing the body’s rhythms out of alignment with the spiritual forces of the universe” (5). Embodiment, or “recalibrat[ing] their body’s natural rhythms” would “counter the alienating conditions of modern life” (5). It is significant that in formulating his theories, Curry borrows from Francois Delsarte who greatly influenced modern dance, including “pioneers” Ted Shawn, Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St. Denis (Schwartz 72).
Delsarte proposes an intricate system to realign the body and soul. In his address to the Philotechnic Society of Paris, published posthumously in 1887, he articulates what would become known as his “law of correspondence.” As he explains, “To each spiritual function responds a function of the body; to each grand function of the body corresponds a spiritual act” (Delsarte 71). Shawn, Duncan and St. Denis are largely credited with applying Delsarte’s physical/spiritual concepts to modern dance. Hillel Schwartz describes the result as a “new kinaesthetic” which expresses “the loving accommodation of the force of gravity, fluid movement flowing out of the body center, freedom of invention, and natural transitions through many fully expressive positions” (73). Within this new kinaesthetic mechanization of the body is not feared, but embraced. Schwartz describes the kinaesthetic’s defining movement of “torque” as inspired by the spiral of a Wilbur Wright plane. Embodying the torque of an aircraft, the dancer is “bound link by vertebral link to the earth as to the heavens” (Schwartz 75). Like the “cybernetic body,” this “new kinaesthetic” is a response to mechanization. Its embodiment is defined as full integration of the mechanical, corporeal, and spiritual with the human body at the center and in control.
Although there is no formal connection between Fuller and Delsarte, the language of the “new kinesthetic” is evident in Fuller’s works and writings.4 Albright describes Fuller as “prefigur[ing] Schwartz’s notion of a ‘new kinaesthetic.’… Certainly as the serpentine dance evolved from its premiere in 1892 to its more elaborate manifestations…Fuller had to use more and more torque to send her silks rising farther into the space around her” (31).5 Albright traces the vocabulary of torque to Fuller’s own description of her creative method in Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life. I have chosen an excerpt that I think best evokes Fuller’s physical and spiritual expression of torque:
Gently, almost religiously, I set the silk in motion…. Finally, I reached a point where each movement of the body was expressed in silk…. I obtained a spiral effect by holding my arms aloft while I kept whirling to right and then to left, and I continued this until the spiral design was established. Head, hands, and feet followed the evolutions of the body and the robe. (33-34)
In this passage, Fuller’s intent to integrate body, spirit and technique is made clear. She uses the silk as an extension of, versus a detachment from, her body. It can be seen that, in her own words, she perceived her work as consistent with what Schwartz observes as the “new kinesthetic.” Fuller’s writing comes very close to parroting, either consciously or unconsciously, Delsarte himself. In her own law of correspondence, she writes: “the body expresses the emotion it has received from the mind. The mind serves as a medium and causes these sensations to be caught up by the body….As a matter of fact, motion has been the starting point of all effort of self-expression and it’s faithful to nature” (Fuller 71-72).
This idea of natural self-expression stands in stark contrast to the Electrical Woman described in commentary on Loie Fuller. Although Fuller’s “Serpentine Dance” had Spiritualist roots, conventional interpretations have denied her the embodiment associated with Delsarte and the expressive culture movement and overlooked the fact that, according to critic Giovanni Lista, “Fuller was raised within a Spiritualist family and [that] mesmerism and mediumistic phenomena were a key inspiration for her art” (Gunning 40)6. Even Albright, in her comments regarding Lista’s praise of a pictorial representation of Fuller’s dance, calls his “spiritual overtones…over the top” (41). It is not unlikely, however, that Fuller’s original intent was embodiment and spiritual expression. This holds in keeping with Jean Lorraine’s 1893 assessment of her performance as “‘the beautiful girl who in her floating filmy draperies, swirls endlessly around in an ecstasy induced by divine revelations’” (qtd. in Huisman and Dortu 115). Lorraine’s opinion, however, would change as critical reception in male circles redefined the nature of her dance.
If the Serpentine was a dance of embodiment, and in particular spiritual and female embodiment, this idea was eventually lost. In “The Body in Motion,” Nancy Mowll Mathews describes Fuller’s reception among critics as a symbol of the “perfected modern woman,” which critic Eugen Wolff defined in 1888, although not in direct reference to Fuller, as “an experienced but pure woman, in rapid movement like the spirit of the age, with fluttering garments and streaming hair” (qtd. in Mathews 79). Then and now, associating Fuller with “fluttering garments and streaming hair” distances her performance from embodiment of self. Mathews, for instance, goes on to associate Fuller with the “electrical woman” popular in fin-de-siècle French literature. Such a character was featured in Auguste de Villiers De l’Isle-Adam, L’Eve Future (1884, 1886), in which a “supernatural being” animates an “electric woman.” Mathews suggests, “The resulting creature is not a woman ‘but an angel … more than reality, an ideal’” (82 quoting the novel). By association, Fuller, too, becomes disembodied, no longer a “real” corporeal and spiritual body, but a symbol of “an electric woman” falling somewhere between pure “angel” and the “experienced” modern ideal.
On this continuum, Fuller represents not only the L’Eve, but Salome whom she performed in 1895 at the Comédie Parisienne and in 1907 at Théatre de Arts (Albright 115). Salome was a key image within the Symbolist movement, from which Fuller was also drawing attention. Mallarmé, who would become enthralled by Fuller, described his idea of a danseuse as “always a symbol, never a person … not a girl, but rather a metaphor” (qtd. in Gunning 29).7 Ironically, it was Fuller’s breach of this principle that brought negative reviews of her Salome dance for which she is also most famous. In this dance, the now aging performer portrayed herself not as an abstract lily or butterfly, but the biblical character of Salome. Perhaps more than in previous performances, Fuller appeared as a bodied person rather than as a symbol. Garelick notes that Fuller’s performances drew criticism because, “Instead of disappearing into enormous floating lengths of fabric in every scene, as Salome, Fuller frequently permitted spectators to see her actual body dancing…. ‘Seen up close by the public,’ wrote one review, ‘in a specific setting with defined action, [Fuller] loses all charm and mystery’” (Garelick Electric Salome 94). Garelick goes on to suggest that reviews of the 1907 performance, in which Fuller “allowed a brief glimpse of herself naked,” were so caustic that she no longer allowed her body to be revealed in performance (Garelick Electric Salome 93).8 Although Albright provides equally positive reviews of Salome, including contemporary readings of the dance as an “unveiling” of Fuller’s femininity and lesbianism,9 it is clear from Garelick’s account that some critics were uncomfortable with the “excesses” of Fuller’s body and sexuality.
Changing opinions of Fuller reveal the extent of the denial of her embodiment. Gunning notes that the “beautiful girl” once said to be “induced by divine revelations,” subsequently became for Jean Lorraine “a Salome for Yankee drunkards” and for Mallarmé, although intended as a compliment, an “industrial art” (qtd. in Gunning 30). As Fuller’s technological presence became valued over her bodily presence, the teleological fear that “human bodies would be replaced by machines” (Baron 169) became a reality projected onto Fuller’s shimmering drapery, later to become the silver screen. Replicated and burlesqued by imitators and shown in turn-of-the century film houses, the electric woman was a mechanically reproduced embodiment of this fear. This is not to suggest that Fuller saw her dance as such. On the contrary, her intent may have been to create an accessible, meaningful, spiritual, and embodied if not also technological art form. I agree with Gunning when he quotes Fuller as describing her working class “delicatessen” audience as “feel[ing]” her meaning (emphasis his Gunning 31). He also references Camille Mauclair’s Symbolist novel Le soleil des morts, taking Fuller as its inspiration, in which the character states, “this art of lines and shapes is accessible from the first view, why shouldn’t I reveal myself through it?” (qtd. in Gunning 31). For Gunning, this presents “a truly utopian vision of a modern art form, highly technological, not only depending on the new energy of electricity, but seeming to visualize this invisible energy … evoking rather than portraying images and forms and making each manifestation or shape dissolve harmoniously into each other” (31). This vision is evocative of the “new kinaesthetic” of embodiment in modern dance: the integration of the spiritual, corporeal, and mechanical; the process of self-realization or revelation; and “natural transitions” of “fully expressive” movement (Schwartz 73-77). It is necessary to recognize, however, that these are Mauclair and Gunning’s words to describe Fuller. Gunning does not allow Fuller to fully speak for herself, qualifying her words by saying that she possessed “a somewhat simpler form of aesthetic idealism” and that “if Fuller’s own critical vocabulary was unsophisticated, this does not indicate that her effect on the (chiefly male) artists of the Parisian avant-garde was unwitting” (29). Gunning dismisses Fuller’s words as “unsophisticated,” perhaps because he does not recognize her cybernetic and embodied, versus electric, logic. Because Fuller was “witting” and willing to capitalize on the avant-garde perception of her does not mean that she was in full agreement or that her “simpler” idealism was somehow lesser than her critics’ aesthetics. Gunning’s summation of the performer is indicative of the larger issue at hand, Fuller is denied the embodiment of even her own words by having meaning “projected” onto them by critics from a “chiefly male” perspective.
Returning to Quinby, Mallarmé’s desire to “free” Fuller from “bodily constraint” can be viewed as a “denial of embodiment” and is symptomatic of a “heterosexist obsession.” Gunning offers that Fuller’s dance was an “encounter between the male gaze and the female body within a crisis of representation lodged midway between pornography and sublimation. The role of Fuller’s female body was multiple and…unstable” (32). The multiplicity and instability of Fuller’s female body, or what Quinby might classify as “women’s bodily excess,” provoked her disembodiment and subsequent projection by male critics. Gunning explains that it is this projection of “female body in cinema” that Annette Michelson claims is “the fantasmic ground of cinema itself” (qtd. in Gunning 32). Loie Fuller, as the electrical woman, represented a “gender-inflicted dream” and laid the groundwork for female representation on the screen.
As proto-cinematic, Loie Fuller became a mechanical representation and electric projection of male teleological fear. The question may still be asked how “electric” understandings of Fuller continue to reinscribe this image of woman on the screen. Certainly it is not difficult to find examples of how feminine “excesses” such as age, weight, and sexuality are kept, to borrow a phrase from Garelick, “under wraps.” Albright has her own opinion of how to deal with these excesses. Following the logic of Luce Irigaray’s jouissance and “exuberant excess,” she writes, “I am convinced that it is precisely in the midst of the abundance of shapes, the phantasmagoric excess of imaging in Fuller’s work that we can grasp the radical potential of her dancing body to disrupt both traditional representations of dancing women and the heterosexist norms embedded in watching those performances” (47). She continues that this disruption depends on creating performances and images that compel the audience to view the dancer as an “expressive subject” versus or in addition to an “erotic object” (49).10
Additionally, it may be asked how such a reconsideration of Fuller could lead to a different way of viewing, not only Fuller as a predecessor of film, but of women on the screen in general. I am not the first to consider such questions.11 For instance, both Albright and Garelick gesture toward Felicia McCarren’s Dancing Machines: Choreographies of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for a discussion on how dance and film have worked together to shape the representation of women in film, as well as the disciplines’ possibility of future “collaboration.” According to McCarren, “In spite of mainstream film’s tendency to fetishize the female figure, some collaborations between cinema and dance would create a dancing subject rather than a dancing object, a movement of image rather than a simple image of movement” (61). The key seems to lie in recovering woman as an expressive, even if this includes “excessive,” subject. With this essay, I hope to have illustrated how criticisms of Fuller have contributed to the image of the electric and cinematic woman as a disembodied object and how, in “collaboration” with scholars such as Baron, Schwartz, McCarren and Albright, a recuperation of the dancer as an embodied subject may, in turn, serve to recuperate the embodied and cybernetic logics of women on the screen.
1. For Garelick’s exploration of the “technologized body” in ballet and its resonance in Fuller’s technique, see Garelick Electric Salome 139-144.
2. See Albright 145-179.
3. See “Lumiére Brothers- The Serpentine Dance c. 1899” (date discrepancy) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkT54BetFBI
4. For more information about Delsarte’s influences in popular culture and dance, as well as the probable influence of Delsartean “physical culture” on Fuller, see Coffman.
5. Albright similarly discusses Schwartz and the “new kinesthetic” in relation to Fuller’s work, see 30-31. For a detailed analysis of Fuller’s use of torque in the Serpentine Dance, see Albright 1-49.
6. See Lista 44, 75.
7. This Mallarmé quote appears in most scholarship on Fuller. Albright points to an alternate reading posited by Julie Ann Townsend in which “In Mallarmé’s model, art would ideally include the material body and the metaphysical Idée” (qtd. in Albright 45). Albright contends, however, that because of interpretations to the contrary we are “left … a legacy of ignoring Fuller’s corporeality and the emotional ‘impressions’ she wished to convey” (39). See Townsend 78-79.
8. For reviews and more information, Garelick directs the reader to “‘Review for Salome,’ Fémina, 15 November 1907, Collection Rondel; Giovanni Lista, Danseuse, 458; Jules Clarétie, “La Tragédie de Salomé,” Le Temps, 8 Nov. 1907; also Harris, “Loie Fuller: The Myth, the Woman and the Artist,” 27; and unidentified press clippings NYPLPA, Robinson Locke Collection” (93).
9. See Albright 115-143.
10. The distinction between “expressive subject” and “erotic object” is borrowed from Susan Manning 163.
11. See Albright 181-205 and McCarren 43-63.
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