Corrections or additions?

This article by Barbara Figge Fox was prepared for the November


2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Skirts Dancing: A Tribute to ‘La Loie’

A child actress from Chicago performed as a skirt dancer in burlesque

shows, then went to Europe and transformed herself into the toast of

fin-de-siecle Paris. Employing voluminous costumes and unusual

lighting effects, she created swirls of light and color, dazzling the

crowds at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and the Folies Bergere. Her

name was Marie Louise Fuller. Symbolist poet Stephen Mallarme dubbed

her "La Loie," and Yeats and Toulouse Lautrec were among her adoring


A century later, dancer/historian Jody Sperling of Time Lapse Dance is

dedicating some of her choreographic energy to Loie Fuller

(1862-1928). Pressed into service on one occasion to represent

Fuller’s style for a seminar at the Library of Congress, she became

intrigued by the possibilities of Fuller-like manipulation of light

and fabric. Sperling’s repertory now has a handful of solos that,

though they do not exactly re-create how Fuller danced, are inspired

by her.

Central New Jersey will get its first good look at Sperling’s

Loie-evoking solos thanks to unusually astute programming by a museum.

To complement its enviable collection of Loie Fuller images, the Jane

Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick has scheduled "The Art

of Dance: Hommage of Loie Fuller," with dances by Sperling to music

played live by pianist Jeffrey Middleton, on Sunday, November 14, at 2

p.m. The performance is free with museum admission of $3; call


"We have a very representative selection of images both in sculpture,

pastel drawing, and posters, that document the performances of Lois

Fuller," says Alfredo Franco, the museum’s education director, noting

in particular the eight-foot poster that looms over the lobby of the

museum, an 1895 Charles Maurin pastel, and small bronze sculptures

(Francois Rupert Carobin, 1897-98) that picture the dancer in six

different movements.

Last season at the museum Sperling had performed for a weekday

lecture, part of the dance history curriculum at Rutgers’ Mason Gross

School. She astounded the small audience, Franco among them, just as

the real Loie had captivated her admirers, and Franco scheduled the

return engagement.

Raised in Manhattan, Sperling is the daughter of a cognitive scientist

at the University of California at Irvine and a psychologist at New

York University. She majored in dance and Italian at Wesleyan

University in Connecticut, Class of 1992, has a master’s degree in

performance studies from New York University. In addition to

choreographing and performing her own work she is a dance critic and

historian, internationally known for her lectures and lecture

demonstrations about Fuller. Her company has been seen at many New

York venues, including the Joyce Theater, and she recently came back

from performing at a dance festival in Russia. In her "other life" she

is a real estate broker for Fox Residential Group in Manhattan.

Historians admit that Fuller was a chubby actress with no dance

training, but she influenced the course of dance history. In her 20s

she worked in burlesque houses doing skirt dancing, which calls for

the dancer to tease the audience by manipulating a wide, full skirt

and showing her ankles. Her big break came in a show called "Quack

MD," when she used a veil to depict a woman doing a skirt dance while

under hypnosis. Encouraged by the reviews, she expanded the width of

the skirt.

At a time when theater lighting was changing from gas to electricity,

Fuller took out patents on such lighting effects as the first chemical

mixes for gels and slides. A good friend of scientist Marie Curie,

Fuller used luminescent salts for special effects. According to

historian Wolfgang Hagan, Fuller used another new invention,

photography, to spread her own fame; she had published a series of

postcards that captured her costume floating and unfurling in myriad


"Her act was perceived as ‘classy,’ and in Paris she had matinees at

the Folies Bergere especially for women," says Sperling. "It was the

kind of act that brought respectability to the venue."

A contemporary reviewer describes Fuller as "unique, ethereal,

delicious. . . she emerges from darkness, her airy evolutions now

tinted blue and purple and crimson, and again the audience . . .

insists upon seeing her pretty piquant face before they can believe

that the lovely apparition is really a woman."

As Fuller’s skirts and veils became more voluminous, her style became

known as "serpentine dancing." She had a legion of imitators and even

in some circus acts today, says Sperling, those that use big wings,

for instance, the Fuller influence is still evident.

Sperling also points to the influence that Fuller had on dance

pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan, who saw Fuller perform in

her own theater at the Paris Exposition. "Fuller was the only

performing artist to have her own theater. One of Ruth St. Denis’s

legacies is to use fabric in this incredible way," says Sperling, "and

Fuller sponsored Duncan’s first tour of Europe."

In 1908 Fuller started a school for "natural dancing," which she

described as "the conversation of the senses and the soul" and was

very different from Duncan’s prescribed movement. "Something in a bar

of music suggests something to our mind, and accordingly our bodies

shape themselves and move in sympathy with that idea," Fuller said in

a 1909 interview for "Musical America."

Fuller continued performing, often raising money for war relief, until

her death in 1928.

"One of Loie’s most famous dances was her Fire Dance," says Sperling.

"She was one of the few to use light from below, coming through a

glass plate. For her fire dance, lights created effects with the

fabric, and fire seemed to circle her feet and flames leapt up."

Of the three Loie Fuller solos on the program, the newest is set to

music by Debussy. Sperling’s costume, designed by Michele Ferrante,

has two long wands, so that her "wing span" is 15 feet and has 200

yards of the lightest and finest white silk. Even before the movement

was choreographed, Sperling and her crew (lighting designer David

Ferri and photographer Julie Lehberger) spent one week devising the

cues for six lighting instruments that use color scrollers and 44

different colors and angles to paint with color on fabric.

"Debussy’s Soiree," begins with Clair de Lune and has shifting images

of moonlight in lavender, pale blue, and gold, according to the

choreographer. For "Evening in Grenada" the golden afternoon sun

crossfades through the colors of the setting sky, with peaches and

magentas, becoming the turquoise of dusk. Then comes "Fireworks" with

its bursts of color.

In "La Nuit," set to modern music, Sperling wears a big black cape,

again designed by Michele Ferrante, that later reveals a dress with

sequins creating a glittering, starlike effect.

Interspersed between dances, pianist Middleton will perform.

Sperling’s third solo will be "Dance of the Elements." In the winter,

2004, issue of Dance Insider, Rita Felciano describes the choreography

of "Earth" as suggesting "swooping hills and shadowed valleys as she

advanced and receded with the cape an all encompassing cover. ‘Water’

had a surging, eddying quality which moved through three or four

differently rippling levels. ‘Fire’ started low on the ground and

moved from side to side, gradually expanding its reach. The skippy,

lightly trod ‘Ether’ ended with the dancer completely disappearing

inside a swirling calyx of fabric."

Felciano points out that Sperling’s movements consisted only of

walking, running, and skipping, and that her arms and her "wand

extensions" were inside the cape and thus invisible to the audience.

"So the constantly changing images came as surprises," writes

Felciano. "The fabric extended the body’s kinesphere in unexpected

ways so cause and effect relationships did not seem to apply despite

the fact that the laws of physics – gravity, energy transfer, decay –

were fully operational. Rarely does one see such a clear distinction

between the dance and the dancer."

Jody Sperling seems undaunted by the many challenges of the November

14 concert – dancing on the museum’s concrete floor, using a lighting

setup that she brings with her, playing to an audience sitting on

folding chairs. The lack of a proscenium stage is no problem, she

insists. What can be a serious problem, nevertheless, is the

waywardness of fabric. Working with 200 yards of silk is like being on

stage with a puppy – you never know what it will do. Says Sperling: "I

am afraid of air currents. It really is nerve wracking. You can’t

control fabric too much. You have to allow the fabric to have a mind

of its own."

– Barbara Figge Fox

The Art of Dance: Hommage of Loie Fuller, Zimmerli Art

Museum, George and Hamilton streets, New Brunswick, 732-932-7237. Two

new solos by dancer choreographer Jody Sperling, Time Lapse Dance, and

live piano by Jeffrey Middleton. Also, original posters, drawings, and

sculptures that depict Loie Fuller. Free. Sunday, November 14, 2 p.m.

Time Lapse Dance also performs in NYC on November 11 and 12 at 6:30

p.m. at City Center Studios, 130 West 56th Street, fourth floor.

Donation $10, no reservations. Also, June 23 to 26 at Abrams Art

Center in Manhattan (

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