Fuller, Loïe (1862–1928)

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Fuller, Loïe (1862–1928)

American-born music-hall performer whose innovations with shadows and light brought drama and mystery to the stage and elicited a strong following among French intellectuals. Name variations: Lois,

Loie, La Loïe. Pronunciation: LO-ee. Born Mary Louise Fuller, probably on January 22, 1862, in Fullersburg, Illinois; died in Paris, France, of pneumonia on January 1, 1928; daughter of Reuben (a well-known fiddler and tavern owner) and Delilah Fuller (a singer); self-taught; married Colonel William Hayes, in May 1889 (divorced 1892); lived with Gabrielle Bloch; no children.

Raised from childhood in vaudeville, stock companies, and burlesque shows; made Paris debut at Folies Bergère (1892); using innovative lighting techniques which became her trademark, created "Fire Dance" (1895); had her own theater at International Exposition in Paris (1900); recorded on film (1904); toured U.S. (1909–10); made honorary member of French Astronomical Society for her artistic uses of light.

Theatrical works:

"Serpentine" (1891); "Butterfly" (1892); "Fire Dance" (1895); "Radium Dance" (1904); "La Tragédie de Salomé" (1907); "Danse Macabre" (1911); "La Feu d'Artifice" (1914); "Le Lys de la Vie" (1920); "La Mer" (1925).

When Loïe Fuller learned about the newly discovered element that gave off a magical light, she wrote directly to its discoverers, the scientists Pierre and Marie Curie , to ask about the possibility of using radium in her theatrical performances. As a performer known in France as the "Fairy of Light," the dancer saw an opportunity in using the radioactive material to add to the effectiveness of her production numbers. When the Curies made it clear that radium was too expensive and impractical for use onstage, Fuller instead created her "Radium Dance" (1904) and arranged a performance for the Curies in their home. While modern understanding of the dangers of radioactivity might make Fuller's idea seem especially foolhardy, her original approach was typical of what made Fuller famous: her endless quest for technological and scientific innovations to enhance her theatrical ideas; her eagerness to use spectacle for artistic ends; and her hardworking but practical approach to creating the mysterious and shimmery vision she projected on stage.

Born Mary Louise Fuller on or around January 22, 1862, Loïe Fuller spent virtually all of her life onstage. Her parents, Reuben and Delilah, were vaudeville entertainers. Her father was a famous fiddler who later owned a tavern near Chicago, and her mother was an aspiring opera singer who eventually turned to singing in less-esteemed venues. Forever creating a legend to surround herself, Fuller recalled in her autobiography that she first went onstage at age two-and-a-half because there was no babysitter in the dance hall.

Around age 13, Loïe appeared briefly as a child temperance lecturer. Keen about the effectiveness of dramatic techniques even then, she would call the town drunkard to come up on-stage and then supplement his actions with colored charts of the liver to depict the evils of alcohol and its physical effects. In the last part of the 19th century, temperance lecturing drew large crowds as a popular nightly entertainment offering, and Frances Willard , then president of the largest temperance organization, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, was a hero of Loïe's. The lecturers gave Fuller valuable lessons on how to capture and hold an audience's attention by forcing her to dramatize, and make visually interesting, a repetitive, moralizing tract.

From temperance lecturing, Fuller went on to perform in vaudeville, stock companies (which supplied the regional base of performers to appear with traveling stars), and even burlesque shows, gaining the experience she would turn to her own use in inventing a new kind of theatrical spectacle that was neither dance exactly, nor theater. By 1886, she had moved from the Midwest to New York, where she appeared in various theatrical productions, none of which yet distinguished her from many other performers. In 1889, she reached London, where a stint at the Gaiety Theater introduced her to the work of the popular dancer Kate Vaughan , famous as the "Gaiety Girl" for her variation on the "Skirt Dances" then being performed in dance halls throughout England. The dances used a voluminous costume to enhance and exaggerate the movements of the dancer's body, while also leaving some parts of flesh exposed, if only briefly.

Back in the United States, Fuller experimented with her own version of the "Skirt Dance," introduced in 1891 in a production number called "Quack, M.D." There are as many as seven different versions of how she obtained her first silk dress and "discovered" its theatrical effect. In her autobiography, she claimed that she was looking for a costume for a dance about hypnotism, when she came across an old gift of Indian silk. Onstage, lit in pale green, she heard murmurs from the audience, saying, "It's a butterfly," from which she took her inspiration to create non-human visions through large, flowing costumes. While this version ignores the 18 months she spent at London's Gaiety Theater, there is no question that American audiences reacted well to a theatrical vision they took as completely new.

Soon after "Quack, M.D.," Fuller was hired as a specialty dancer in "Uncle Celestin," where she performed the "Serpentine Dances" that made her a soloist of some repute. To dramatize her version of the skirt dances, she also began to add more and more cloth, until the skirt became draperies around a small body. For "Le Lys du Nile," introduced in 1895, her costume contained 500 yards of fine silk and the hem measured close to 100 yards. In performance, the costume could become a 10-foot halo around her body, or be thrown 20 feet upward. Over the years, she created a system of wands sewn into the costumes to help her control the massive amounts of fabric. Still, the enormous strength and practice it took to manipulate them would leave her so weary that she would have to be carried home after a day of rehearsal and a night of performance.

Fuller also learned to utilize light and color for varying effects on the swirling material. The incandescent lamp invented by Thomas Edison in 1879 soon began to replace the gaslights that had illuminated theaters, and Fuller was one of the first to manipulate color onstage by placing a colored glass plate in front of the light projector. Each of her three dances in "Uncle Celestin" was illuminated by a single color, first blue, then red and yellow. Later on, she spent a great deal of time mixing chemicals to come up with the different gelatin covers to create various shades of color onstage.

Vaughan, Kate (c. 1852–1903)

English actress and dancer. Born Catherine Candellon around 1852; died in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1903.

Born Catherine Candellon around 1852, Kate Vaughan made her debut as a dancer in 1870. From 1876 to 1883, she was a headliner in burlesques at the Gaiety Theater in London. For two years, she worked with her own company, the Vaughan-Conway Comedy troupe, and inaugurated the modern school of skirt dancing, before performing on stage in the roles of Lady Teazle and Lydia Languish. In 1902, she sailed to Johannesburg, South Africa, in hopes of improving her declining health. She died there one year later.

As a shrewd businesswoman. Fuller knew how quickly and how often imitators sprang up. She made numerous attempts to patent her costumes, lighting ideas, and even her dances. While her dances were often denied copyright in court as mechanical movements, she would not

use some of her ideas until they were protected. Her plan to replace part of a stage floor with glass and light under the stage so that it would shine through the costume from below was patented in 1893, but not used until her "Fire Dance," first presented in 1895. Fear of imitation may not have been the only reason for the delay; the technique required making a hole in the stage, a measure few theater owners were willing to undertake, even for the "Fairy of Light." The "Fire Dance" also required 14 electricians to handle color changes.

At age 30, Fuller decided to build on her success by planning a tour of Europe. Accompanied as always by her mother, she set off with Paris as her goal, but first had to travel to Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne, performing in various venues, even a circus. In late 1892, she finally reached the French capital, where she convinced Monsieur Marchand, head of the famous Folies Bergère music hall, to let her replace the serpentine dancer then performing the ubiquitous skirt dance. Fuller's debut appearance, on November 5, was received with reviews more glowing than the stage upon which she had appeared. In Consideration on the Art of Loïe Fuller, the writer Stéphane Mallarmé wrote:

Her performance, sui generis, is at once an artistic intoxication and an industrial achievement. In that terrible bath of materials swoons the radiant, cold dancer, illustrating countless themes of gyration. From her proceeds an expanding web—giant butterflies and petals, unfoldings—everything of a pure and elemental order. She blends with the rapidly changing colours which vary their limelit phantasmagoria of twilight and grotto, their rapid emotional changes—delight, mourning, anger; and to set these off, prismatic, either violent or dilute as they are, there must be the dizziness of soul made visible by an artifice.

Mallarmé stood at the forefront of the Symbolist movement, which soon made Loïe Fuller an emblematic embodiment of its ideas. Symbolists revolted against the materialism and rationalism of Positivist thought, in which the rules of science and evolution governed morality and philosophy. Eschewing the machination of a world of ideas based on what can be empirically known, Symbolists sought to revivify the mysterious and the unprovable, heralding art "for art's sake," not as a purpose for something else; and they recognized a transcendence beyond literalness and what can be articulated. In Loïe Fuller, they identified the clear manifestation of what it meant to be a symbol: to represent something in its essence—fire, a butterfly, the sea—but not be the thing itself.

Fuller reveled in her Paris reception. Steeping herself in the scientific and mechanical techniques of the mysterious image, she maintained the theatrical illusions she created with a great deal of practicality. She set up a laboratory in Paris and eventually was made a member of the French Astronomical Society, which honored her for her artistic use of light. More often she was known from Symbolist and Art Nouveau depictions of her by contemporary artists and writers. Jules Cheret drew a famous poster of her, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec made a lithograph; La Loïe, as she became known, numbered among her admirers some of the most famous French artists and intellectuals of her day, including August Rodin, the Goncourt Brothers, Jean Lorrain, and Anatole France.

The peak of her success may have been the International Exposition held in Paris in 1900. Fuller by then had her own theater, designed by the Art Nouveau architect Henri Sauvage, which included a statue of herself. Here she gave her mystical performances and also hosted the Japanese actress Sada Yacco and her husband, Otojiro Kawakami, propelling them to international acclaim. The American dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis were inspired by her performances. In 1902, Fuller helped Duncan to tour Europe, sponsoring her appearances in Berlin and Vienna. In 1924, St. Denis choreographed "Valse à la Loie" to memorialize Fuller's performance at the International Exposition.

I suppose I am the only person who is known as a dancer but who has a personal preference for Science.

—Loïe Fuller

Fuller spent most of the rest of her life in Paris. "Well, I was born in America," she is said to have remarked, "but I was made in Paris." Around 1908, she formed a school and a company of 30 women, and in 1909–10 she took the company on a triumphant tour of the United States. The Metropolitan Opera House and the New Boston Opera House were among the places where "Loïe Fuller and Her Muses" appeared. Her forays into science also led her to experiment with motion pictures, a nascent technology at the beginning of the 20th century, and film clips recorded around 1904 still survive. Filmmaking was a logical outgrowth of Fuller's interest in lighting, and after World War I she began to produce her own films.

Fuller's career overshadowed her personal life. In 1889, she married Colonel William Hayes, a nephew of President Rutherford B. Hayes, but the couple never lived together. Since Hayes lent money to Fuller, she may have agreed to marry him in return. Three years later, in 1892, Fuller sued her husband for bigamy and was awarded $10,000. Fuller's lifelong companions, outside this marriage of convenience, were her mother (who died in Paris in 1908) and Gabrielle Bloch . In her autobiography, Fuller described her relationship with Bloch: "For eight years Gab and I have lived together on terms of the greatest intimacy, like two sisters. Gab is much younger than I and regards me with deep affection." Theirs was probably a sexual relationship as well as a significant friendship; certainly Fuller was surrounded with women, with no men in her home, school, or company.

Fuller's innovations in lighting, set, and costume designs shaped both theater and dance history. Neither a dancer of much skill (she took fewer than six dance lessons in her life) nor an actress of wide emotional range (her interest lay in displaying visual effects), she has often been overlooked, but her influence on artists and dancers has in fact been greater than that of some performers who immediately followed her. Alwin Nikolais, well-known for his work combining theater and dance in the 1960s, took off on Fuller's experimentation with gel slides, lighting plans, and sound. The theater of the future that Fuller dreamed of, calling it "The Temple of Light," was eventually created by Nikolais and others.

Fuller also initiated a creative migration to France made by many other artists and intellectuals from America. The warm reception French audiences gave to modern dance, particularly Isadora Duncan, was an offshoot of the affection and respect generated by "La Loïe." In her fusion of France and America, science and art, Fuller raised the level of music-hall entertainment while also popularizing the abstract notions of art of the Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements. Over the years, however, she grew increasingly obese and moved about with more and more difficulty, until the woman who had been described as "music of the eyes" by Anatole France, died penniless in Paris, of pneumonia, on January 1, 1928.


de Morinni, Clare. "Loïe Fuller: The Fairy of Light," in Dance Index. Vol. 1, no. 3. March 1942, pp. 40–51.

Fuller, Loïe. Fifteen Years of a Dancer's Life. Boston, MA: Small, Maynard, 1913.

Harris, Margaret Haile. Loïe Fuller: Magician of Light. A loan exhibition at the Virginia Museum. Richmond: The Virginia Museum, 1979.

Sommer, Sally. "Loïe Fuller," in The Drama Review. Vol. 19. March 1975, pp. 53–67.

suggested reading:

Current, Marcia Ewing, and Richard Nelson Current. Loie Fuller: Goddess of Light. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Jowitt, Deborah. Time and the Dancing Image. NY: William Morrow, 1988.

Kendall, Elizabeth. Where She Danced. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.


Correspondence, reviews, film clips, and photographs located in the Dance Collection, Performing Arts Library, New York Public Library.

Julia L. Foulkes , former Rockefeller Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago, Illinois, and author of numerous articles