La Loïe Fuller – The Serpentine Dance

20 August 2011

This 1896 Lumière Brothers film captures a performance of Loïe Fuller’s “Serpentine Dance.” No, there was no LSD in the 1890’s, but yes, there were colorized films. In the technique used above, each frame was individually hand-tinted using stencils and colored dyes. It was a laborious, manual process, and it was first employed to recreate Loïe Fuller’s stage magic; acclaimed for its early use of chromatic theatrical lights that illuminated the dancer’s flowing white silk.
On a visit to Notre Dame, Fuller became enthralled by the kaleidoscopic light that shone through the cathedral’s stained glass windows. She lost herself in a bedazzled reverie, catching the colors upon a white handkerchief that she waved through the air…and was promptly taken for crazy and escorted out of the building. For Fuller, color possessed a natural harmony that could be honed into new art form, in the same way that sound had been transformed sound into music. “Colour,” she wrote, “so pervades everything that the whole universe is busy producing it, everywhere and in everything…The day will come when man will know how to employ them so delightfully that it will be hard to conceive how he could have lived so long in the darkness in which he dwells to-day.” 
To this end, she developed new compounds and techniques for stage lighting for which she held numerous patents. She was a member of the French Astronomical Society, and a friend to Marie Curie, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and countless other French artists, scientists and intellectuals. Some of the most well-respected members of the French creative class featured her in their work, and through her performances she became a prominent figure in the Art Nouveau movement. 

Portrait of Loïe Fuller, by Frederick Glasier, 1902.

Portrait of Loïe Fuller, by Frederick Glasier, 1902.

Loie Fuller Featured at the Folies Bergère

Loïe Fuller Featured at the Folies Bergère.

Born Marie Louise Fuller, “La Loïe,” as French audiences knew her, was born in suburban Chicago and began her career as a child actress. She first performed the Serpentine Dance for a hypnotism scene in a play called “Dr. Quack”—the audience applauded enthusiastically and encored the scene again, and again, crying “It’s a butterfly!” and “It’s an orchid!” The play was not well-received in New York, however, and she ultimately found her act better-received in Europe.
There was still an niche for Fuller’s dances in America, however, and it was most famously filled by Annabelle Moore, whose 1865 performance of the Serpentine Dance was captured and hand-tinted by Edison Films. It is included this 4:44 minute montage of Moore’s dances from the 1890’s, which begins in black and white, then bursts into ever more spectacular color: 

While these early hand-tinted films are impressive in their own right, they do not give us a very good sense of what such an act would look like under realistic stage lighting. Fortunately, modern performers like Jody Sperling and her NYC-based Time Lapse Dance company are still exploring Loïe Fuller’s ideas: 

Further Reading 

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2 Comments to “La Loïe Fuller – The Serpentine Dance”

  1. I don’t know where to begin. 🙂

    That dance is so beautiful, and the way they were able to capture it on film…

    I was also touched by the fact that Loie was so enthralled by the colors that she had to be escorted out of the building. Those are rare, magical moments when something enthralls you so much that you forget the world around you. And, then inspires you to create something else from it.

    • I got pretty excited about it myself. No matter how much I learn, the Victorian period never ceases to surprise me.

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