A Woman to Know: Loïe Fuller

Let us all hail this dancer who created the phantom of an era. — Jean Cocteau

Let us all hail this dancer who created the phantom of an era. — Jean Cocteau

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Loïe — then Marie Louise — first took the stage at age 4, touring with a variety of vaudeville and burlesque shows, including appearances on Buffalo Bill’s traveling Wild West Show. As she developed her own choreography throughout the 1880s, she also experimented with elaborate stage design and colorful lighting.

By 1891, she was privately crafting the dance that would make her famous, one inspired by the movement of silks and fabrics. In “Serpentine Dance,” the performer wore a voluminous dress with long sleeves, twirling the fabric as a system of flashing lights illuminated folds in the silk.

In 1892, Loïe, as she was then calling herself, decided to move to Paris to be closer to the thriving art noveau movement. She befriended artists like Auguste Rodin and Henri Toulouse-Latrec. The Lumière brothers even filmed an early performance of “Serpentine Dance.”

When a Vogue reporter later asked her to share the inspiration behind the famous Serpentine Dance, Loïe feigned insisted the choreography “came” to her, as if in a dream — 

Do you know, the night I appeared before the public, and created the ‘serpentine’ dance I did not know that I was doing it. How could I, for if I had known that I was to do it. it would not have been creating, would it?

But the Loïe’s growing popularity also hurt her success. She petitioned for the right to copyright her choreography, but United States copyright law forbade protection of abstract” dramatic works. Soon, copycats were performing “Serpentine Dance” everywhere, without crediting Loïe’s name and work. Thereafter, Loïe would only return to the United States to see performances by former students.

She remained in Paris until her death in 1928. Her long-time partner Gab Sorere, the famous French filmmaker, remained vigilant about exposing fraudulent dancers who claimed to have worked with or studied under Loïe. Before she died in 1951, she hosted several retrospectives of Loïe’s work.

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