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
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
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
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
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
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 (www.timelapsedance.com).
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