On 150th Birthday, Loïe Fuller Comes Back to Life

Written by Susan Reiter on . Posted in Arts & Film.


The images of Loïe Fuller—her swirls of fabric illuminated by multicolored lighting—have resonated for over a century. This independent, innovative, fiercely curious and self-educated woman first hit the stage as a child actress. But she developed her own unique—and powerfully influential—brand of dance, inventing something that fit no existing categories, at a time before “modern dance” per se even existed.

She created billowing, layered silk costumes, incorporating wands that greatly extended the reach of arms. Her dances were marked by spiraling, improvisational and distinctively personal movement.

Jody Sperling became captivated by Fuller’s work and legacy 15 years ago, almost in spite of herself. A dancer, researcher and writer, she was more at home with Contact Improvisation and release techniques than with the turn-of-the-century innovative routines that made Fuller such a star in Paris.

Invited to perform a re-creation of Fuller’s Butterfly Dance in a Library of Congress centennial event looking back on dance of 100 years earlier, Sperling was fascinated by both the woman and her creations.

“I was a modern dancer; I didn’t have any strong connection to that period,” Sperling said by phone last week. “The experience of putting on great big wings gave me an aesthetic thrill that I hadn’t yet experienced. It made me want to continue connecting into the space that way—expanding my reach, literally.”

Fuller was a multimedia artist well before such a concept existed. She developed her own innovative lighting techniques and held patents on chemical compounds used in her luminescent lamps. She was influential on the fields of lighting design and cinema. Paris welcomed and celebrated her; Toulouse-Lautrec painted her, and Marie and Pierre Curie were among her friends. She was a pivotal figure of the Parisian arts scene from the 1890s through the 1920s, and while she made frequent American tours, she left her native country behind.

Sperling has created a repertory—initially solos, then works for her company, Time Lapse Dance—inspired by Fuller’s innovations, paying homage to the originals but also exploring their possibilities in a present-day context.

“I’ve taken this genre and twisted it in my own direction, tried to apply contemporary choreographic techniques, and new music,” she said. “So we’re making work that is relevant today. But I think that part of what makes it exciting are the repercussions, or the memory, of the past.”

She has written and lectured extensively on Fuller, and her company has performed everywhere from Edinburgh to—just last month—Bahrain.

Time Lapse Dance’s program this week celebrates the 150th anniversary of Fuller’s birth. It ranges from Roman Sketches, the first group work Sperling created in Fuller’s style, to a new work incorporating portions of Fuller’s memoirs.

“Given the fact that it’s Loïe’s 150th, I was interested in doing something a little more personal in way of tribute, that might take some of her writings as a thesis,” Sperling said. “Was there a way that we could unpack something that’s behind the scenes, and expose the process a little bit for the audience? It envisions scenes from her memoirs—in particular her process of discovery of the dance and the costume. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time—to go in a more theatrical and narrative direction.”

Also on the program is Turbulence, set to a propulsive percussion commissioned score by Quentin Chiappetta and receiving its first fully illuminated New York performances. Here, Sperling pushes Fuller’s genre into a more contemporary context, incorporating “a few things that have really been interesting me for a long time. One is to explore rhythm, and use some of the sharper and edgier movement within the genre—to have accents and punctuation and a wider range of dynamics and movements than in some of the more lyrical or period-influenced pieces. I’m interested in exposing energetic forces that are around us at all times, that we’re not always tuned into. When we work with and without the capes, what you can see is the residue of the energy, and not just the shape of the fabric.”

Moving with the extended wands and expansive silk costumes creates specific demands and limitations. “It’s very important to mobilize from the spine and to emanate outwards from there—so that the movement isn’t just the arms waving around, but it’s actually a very full three-dimensional spiral coming from the inside,” Sperling said. “Also, you need to have a deep connection to the floor, and a deep plié, so that you can have the full range, the fluidity up and down, the moving through space.

“Fuller didn’t have the benefit of having studied a dance technique; she just made it up, and improvised a vocabulary. I don’t shy away from taking the genre she created, and basically trying to underlay it with an expanded movement vocabulary, and try to really get it to dance, in a big and active way—in a way that she, or anybody at that time, would not have been capable of. I haven’t gotten bored yet. I feel like there are an incredible number of possibilities for the style, and things you can do with it.”

 

Loïe Fuller Celebration Season

May 10-13, Joyce SoHo, 155 Mercer St. (betw. Houston & Prince Sts.), www.joyce.org; times vary, $20. Further details: www.timelapsedance.com/Loie_Fuller_Celebration

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