Dancing In the Light(from Things that Happen when Reading Rilke)
When Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers enwound
A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,
It seemed that a dragon of air
Had fallen amongst the dancers.
WB Yeats, ‘Nineteen Hundred And Nineteen’.
Loie Fuller (1861 – 1928) was a Chicago-born child star in vaudeville. Her free dancing wasn’t appreciated as art in America, and to get away from working in circuses, she moved to Paris. In the Gay Nineties she became the darling of the Folies Bergéres and Art Nouveau (Mallarmé was one of her biggest fans). The stage-lighting she used was devised by the Lumiére brothers. ‘A chiaroscuro dervish’ said Degas. She inspired drawings and paintings. Her psychedelic flits between light and shade gave Isadora Duncan ideas, and she took them into ballet. It was all downmarket for Loie after that. The first lady of modern dance disappeared into the bars.
In the winter of 1901, Jules Renard, the playwright, finds himself face to face with her in a tram. He notices she is thickly made up ‘like a theatre-mad shop girl pretending to be an actress. Her hands are surprisingly podgy, the fingers only distinguished from one another by a rosary of rings. She has a fixed smile for the passengers as though they are her public, but the eyes are ill-focused, as though she should be wearing her glasses’. He notes ‘the impossibly high-heels shoes she sported so daringly on stage’, and thinks ‘how difficult they must be to walk with in real life’. She hasn’t the money to pay the fare, and is obliged to get off at the next stop. He last sees her tippie-toeing into a wine shop. Jules Renard had so wanted to intervene with the conductor, and say to Loie, ‘Mademoiselle, I know and admire you. Here’s six sous’. ‘But it would have missed the point’, he thought. ‘Her exit was as lightly tragic as one could have wished.’
Renard exaggerated Loie’s fall from grace. At that time she was modelling for no less than Rodin and Toulouse-Lautrec. Eight years later her memoirs Fifteen Years a-Dancing appeared with a preface by Anatole France, and her career revived. No longer a star but the light from it still lingered, slightly dimmed. She made guest appearances at private functions. On one such, a soirée hosted by Queen Marie of Bohemia, Rilke was present. He had just published The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and the second volume of ‘Thing-poems’. Her subsequent friendship with Queen Marie led Loie to return to America during the Great War to raise funds for Romania.
Isadora Duncan died* the year before Loie Fuller, fifteen years her junior.
But it was Loie that inspired a Rilke poem (‘Portrait’):
And she expresses pure invention in whose guise
fate totters, willed or otherwise, her own,
and from the sense and heart that she supplies
this fate bursts out, a marvellous unknown
like screaming from a stone.
In 1911, Nijinksy was compared by Auguste Rodin in a ghosted article on L’Apris midi d’un faun by the Ballets Russes to Loie (not Isadora). Odilion Redon sent a letter to Diaghiliv regretting Mallarmė wasn’t alive to see ‘this wonderful Rėalisation** of a thought’. Loie is believed to have been the muse for Rilke’s best known ‘Thing-poem’, ‘The Panther’, which describes an animal on the point of having an idea.
Jacques Ranciére, the French philosopher of the moment, studied Loie Fuller’s dance as an exemplar of high Modernism, finding in her the aesthetic and mundane at work together, ‘the exact gestures of the popular mime transform themselves into the pure plasticity of form deployed on the backdrop screen’. Interestingly, he sees the same artistic endeavour in ‘Rodin’s sculpture as understood by Rilke, the reconnecting of art and life, that is the origins of the ‘avant garde’, the aesthetic dialectic between modernist purity and down-to-earth worldliness that disappeared into Dada and Surrealism’.
This autumn La Danseuse, a French film based on her art and life – inseparable, she never married - is due to be released.
*Hermine David (1888-1970), the French artist, painted Isadora Duncan’s death in a lonely bed-sit rather than the fancy sports-car, and with a furry animal strangling her and not the trademark flowing scarf. Hermine took to heart Gertrude Stein remark that Duncan’s demise showed ‘an sartorial affectation can be dangerous’.
**La Rėalisation : ‘the ultimate requitement’ Cėvanne wanted his art to achieve. He found it in the Venetians at the Louvre (the Bellinis, Titian, Guardia and Tiepolo). His paintings were votive offerings to them. He saw La Rėalisation too in ‘Chardin’s demystification of blue, and incarnation of the world as a thing carrying conviction. The transformation of things, whose reality has been experienced, and is exalted until it becomes imperishable’.