At the end of the nineteenth century, there were two basic trends in Western art, realism and symbolism. Realism took as its subject the matters of this world—the families, the money, the waistcoats and petticoats—while symbolism did its best never again to be confronted with a waistcoat button. All it wanted to see was the “Image,” a vision that lay past reality—almost past language. For many, that exalted thing was embodied in the dancing of a pudgy girl from Illinois, Loie Fuller.

Born in 1862, Fuller, like almost all American early modern dancers, had a career in popular theatre—skirt dancing, pantomime, you name it—before anyone encouraged her to move beyond that and, as a first step, go to Europe. Why did she finally take the lure? For her, as for most of her American colleagues, Europe was something out of a magazine ad. But they eventually went after it, whereupon European producers went after them. At the Exposition Universelle, in Paris, in 1900, the Art Nouveau architect Henri Sauvage designed a whole Théâtre Loie Fuller, where Fuller presented her own work and that of additional “exotics.” Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, another two innocent Americans, saw Fuller there and went away, thinking.

Fuller performed for more than forty years and came up with many different experiments, but her biggest idea, or at least her most popular one, was her first: to present herself dancing alone, in darkness, in place, in a maelstrom of fabric, which she manipulated with bamboo poles, some as long as ten feet. But that was only half of it. The other sensation was the lighting. Fuller painted her silks with phosphorescent dyes, so that as the lights changed during the performance she could take different forms: a flower, a butterfly, “The Ride of the Valkyries,” or just some fantastic, unnameable thing, shimmering and whirling. Fuller lived into her sixties and toured widely. She made a movie. She assembled a company of girls, and they put on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” full of sprites and fairies. But what remained in people’s minds was just that one fairy, from Illinois, emerging out of the darkness and leading the audience into abstraction.

In 2016, the French director Stéphanie Di Giusto brought out “La Danseuse” (“The Dancer”), a film about Fuller’s early career, starring the French actress Soko, who, with her sweet, round face, actually looks a bit like Fuller. Di Giusto has written that she was not aiming for strict biographical accuracy. So there are a number of things in the movie that Fuller scholars might want to call her up about. (Did Fuller really wrestle cattle when she was a girl? Did her father die because somebody shot him in a bathtub?) Never mind. The point of the film is Loie the Dancer. The dances were reimagined, and taught to Soko, by the Fuller expert Jody Sperling. Watching them, I felt I understood for the first time why Fuller became famous.  

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