By Natalie Lemle
Fifty million people flocked to the Exposition Universelle in 1900, crowding into massive temporary pavilions constructed throughout Paris to marvel at such cutting-edge innovations as the escalator, talking pictures, and the diesel engine.
Among these spectacles was Loïe Fuller, an American dancer from Illinois and the only female entertainer to have her own pavilion. “I have only one vibrant image from the Exposition Universelle…Mme Loïe Fuller,” French writer Jean Cocteau recalled. “Let us all hail this dancer who created the phantom of an era.”
The Exposition Universelle of 1900 marked the height of Art Nouveau and its flowing, feminine subjects inspired by nature. Fuller herself personified the movement, with performances that incorporated swirling yards of silk attached to bamboo wands sewn into her sleeves. Colored lights were projected onto the flowing fabric, and as she twirled, she seemed to metamorphose into elements from the natural world: a flower, a butterfly, a tongue of flame.
Portrait of Loïe Fuller. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
These displays were works of art unto themselves, and by the turn of the century, Fuller had directly inspired many of the great artists of her time. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec featured her in a number of prints; Auguste Rodin commissioned a series of photographs of the dancer with plans to sculpt her; and the Lumière brothers released a film about her in 1897. “Miss Fuller’s impression upon the world will not have been a transient one,” wrote Architectural Record in March 1903. “She has contributed towards the creation of a new style; she has come upon the scene at the right moment.”
Today, however, very little remains to recall Fuller’s memory—with the exception of the art that she inspired. “I can ask someone about Loïe Fuller and they won’t know who she is, but I can show them a poster of her from the 1890s and it’s familiar,” says Ann Cooper Albright, author of the 2007 book Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loie Fuller and professor and chair of Oberlin College’s department of dance.
Born Marie Louise Fuller in 1862 in what is now Hinsdale, Illinois, Fuller first pursued acting as a teenager in Chicago. Eventually, she moved to New York City and found initial success with the Serpentine Dance, an act she developed from her role as a skirt dancer. In these initial performances, she appeared to be hypnotized, as if under the influence of a snake charmer, while she waved a gauze robe onto which colored lights were projected……………