What would Loïe Fuller have thought had she been in the audience at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 when the biopic about her life,La Danseuse, premiered? The film, which claims to be “based on a true story” about the trailblazing choreographer, is full of scenes and situations that are just plain made-up, but perhaps a new account of her history would have amused her, considering that she enjoyed embellishing the truth herself. What’s fairly certain is that the advances in filmmaking since her lifetime would have fascinated her, as Fuller’s pioneering experimentation, not limited solely to dance and theatrical effects, stretched into the cinema of the early 20th century where her influence, although brief, was great.
Née Marie Louise in 1862 in Fullersburg, a small town southwest of Chicago named after her founding ancestors, Fuller had a mediocre career as an ingénue on the American vaudeville circuit. She was 30 years old when she arrived in Paris and became a star. However, by 1921, Fuller’s dancing days were behind her. The fanfare surrounding the overnight success of her Serpentine Dance on the stage of the music hall, Les Folies Bergères, in 1892 was past. Since her Paris premier, she had become an icon of the Belle Époque. In her hey-day as a soloist, her swirling yards of flowing silk, concealing and transforming her body, colored by the play of newly invented electric lighting, had inspired artists, poets, and scientists alike. Her school, run by her same-sex companion, Gab Bloch, had become an institution where young women learned to dance “naturally” and performed ever more spectacular productions choreographed by Fuller. After more than three decades of mesmerizing audiences around the globe, she turned her restless imagination to the emerging art form of cinema.
Le Lys de la Vie (The Lily of Life), Fuller’s first of three films–originally seen on stage and made in 1921–in both its stage and screen versions, was the creation of an unusual ménage-à-trois between Fuller, Gab Bloch, and Queen Marie of Romania. This trifecta of semi-closeted lesbians produced a groundbreaking film that encapsulated many of Fuller’s experimental notions from her work on the stage, had a subversive and gender-challenging narrative, and introduced filmic techniques that would influence directors for years afterward.
Prior to her pioneering efforts in film, Fuller made work that, as the dance historian Ann Cooper Albright says, was “…a precursor to film, a way of placing lights on a moving screen rather than moving images on a still screen.” Standing alone, often on a platform raised 6 to 7 feet above the stage floor, spinning and waving wands that extended her arms another 3 to 4 feet, covered in a tent of silk, Fuller was enveloped in artificial luminescence, a recipient of light. As her school and company grew and developed, her performances transitioned from the stage to larger outdoor arenas, such as the steps of the Grand Palais in Paris, where she created La Mer with 75 dancers and 4,000 square meters of fabric lit by powerful beams of electric light that invoked the movement of the sea. Works of this type were indicative of her interest in film.
Le Lys de la Vie began as a fairytale written by Fuller’s intimate friend, Queen Marie of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. The two women met at the end of a financially disastrous European tour in 1902, when Fuller was obliged to disband her company. She was stranded in Bucharest without the funds to go on to her next engagement when Marie requested a private performance at her palace. Subsequently, the then princess and the dancer became fast friends and possibly, as some historians speculate, lovers. Fuller demonstrated her devotion when during World War I she tirelessly campaigned for funds from the U.S and England to aid Romania and its refugees. While Fuller was in London in 1918, looking for patrons to help the Romanian cause, Marie gave her permission to produce Le Lys de la Vie on stage and on film in order to use the proceeds for refugee relief.
The story is of two sisters, the princesses Mora and Corona, who fall in love with the same prince. In a gender role about-face, rather than one of the women being in need of rescue, (as is always the case in this type of tale), it is the prince who falls under a fatal spell, à la Sleeping Beauty. He requires a remedy, the Lily of Life, which can be found only at the end of a treacherous voyage. Princess Corona undertakes the journey and sets out across forests peopled with fairies and witches while encountering all sorts of other supernatural challenges. She finally returns with the magic flower and awakens her beloved who, the ungrateful cad, falls immediately for her sister. Queen Marie had most certainly seen her fair share of romantic ballets, for the final scene in which Corona, who has perished from heartbreak and is borne off by fairies to a happier world, much resembles the fate of Giselle with the Wilis, but with one important difference. Unlike the Wilis, who are vengeful man-haters, Corona’s unearthly rescuers can’t be bothered with punishing the prince. Instead, they reward her bravery and sacrifice with the promise of an all-female afterlife rather than dwelling on a mortal, heterosexual, and unrequited love.
Rehearsals for the live production of Le Lys de la Vie began in April of 1920, and were held in Gab Bloch’s living room. Fuller and Bloch, who went by the name of Sorère professionally, lived their relationship relatively openly, as did many American expatriate women who traveled to France in search of a more tolerant attitude than the puritanism of the era in the U.S. Bloch was also Fuller’s business partner in the Loïe Fuller Enterprises production company, which staged the first and last performance of Le Lys de la Vie on July 1, 1920 at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra. Fuller had dreamed of performing there when she first arrived in Paris, but had ended up in a music hall instead. Audience members were especially impressed by the scenic effect of shadow play that Fuller used on stage, and which she carried over into the film version. Made possible by lighting a large scrim from behind, the dancers’ shadows would grow or shrink as they approached or distanced themselves from the light source. This was the first time that humans were used to this effect, which until then had been a technique seen only in Chinese lantern shows with puppets. Although the spectacle’s artistic success was not reflected at the box office, Fuller’s plans to bring Le Lys to the screen were not to be deterred.
She rarely went to the cinema because the flickering light hurt her sensitive eyes, damaged by years of dancing under the glare of powerful projectors, but she had collaborated on films of her dances with the Lumière brothers, who are generally credited as the inventors of moving pictures, and she knew Léon Gaumont, an early film producer and distributor. Having convinced Gaumont to let her use his sound stage, personnel, and material, Fuller then went about ignoring all of his and his cameramen’s advice and made the unprecedented work, Le Lys de la Vie.
Surprisingly, there was little dancing in this early silent picture, apart from a scene, as Princess Corona begins her trek in search of the Lily, of some frolicking fairies. What interested Fuller most were the possibilities of the camera and the editing process. Rhonda Garelick, a Fuller expert, states that she “…sought to acknowledge her medium, rendering palpable the camera’s presence.” The movie opens with the classic fairytale phrase, “Once upon a time…” written across the screen and ends with the same image, leaving the viewer to imagine the “happily ever after” of Corona’s life among the fairies.
In between these bookends of children’s literature Fuller used the “iris shot” to end each scene. This technique consists of closing the aperture of the camera lens so that the image becomes smaller and finally disappears as if into a dark tunnel, then reopening it to reveal the following scene, like the raising of a curtain in the theater. Fuller’s enchantment with this new medium is also evident in her treatment of the material of the film, itself. When she realized that the dark background of the negative made the silhouettes of the actors appear as ghostly outlines, she decided to splice in sections, adding to the menacing atmosphere of a scene where the heroine is in peril. Having no training in filmmaking left her free to play with all of the elements at her disposal.
It is in Le Lys de la Vie that slow motion appears possibly for the first time on film. In spite of the technicians’ doubts and protests, Fuller instructed the dancers, representing the witches who interfere in Corona’s quest, to move as slowly as possible while the cameraman turned the film as quickly as he could. The result was an eerie effect of bodies floating across the screen. Jean Cocteau would later claim to have invented this technique, and he used it in his film La Belle et la Bête. Cocteau was not the only director to take credit for Fuller’s innovations. René Clair, who, as a young actor, played the prince in Le Lys, went on to become the well-known creator of the surrealist film Entr’acte in which he used Fuller’s technique of splitting the screen. Fuller scholar, Julie Townsend writes that Clair’s work, “explores movement and rhythm as the originating principles established by modern dance aesthetics… which pre-date Clair’s film by some forty years.” As was often the case at the time, however, Fuller, a female artist, went unrecognized for her innovations.
Filming outdoors in the backcountry of the Côte d’Azur, Fuller, who had chronic bronchitis, was often ill and Bloch stepped in to follow through with the experimental ideas of the director. After Fuller’s death in 1928 she continued to run the company, and to film their dances. In Le Féerie des Ballets fantastiques de Loïe Fuller, made in 1934 with George Busby, she worked with a hand-held camera, yet another revolutionary method.
All that remains today of Le Lys de la Vie is half of the original film, guarded preciously in Paris, in fragile condition, at the French National Library. It took half a century for scholars to acknowledge the importance of Fuller’s legacy in dance and her contributions to cinematic history are still largely ignored or credited to male counterparts. In the meantime, her labor of love, her Lily of Life, waits patiently to be revived and given its due.