Creative Explosions, or Loïe in the Laboratory



The story of early twentieth century dancer Loie Fuller tells us the thinkering with creative results is not just for scientists and engineers.

In case you were wondering, tinkering and thinkering are not just for scientists and engineers.  Imagine a dancer who puttered with chemicals and with light, who took out patents for costumes and mechanical devices, who initiated in the process a revolution in stagecraft and modern dance. Think Loïe Fuller.

Over one hundred years ago, in a small laboratory in Paris, an American vaudeville dancer known as La Loïe, took up the strange hobby of tinkering with phosphorescent salts. One day, quite unexpectedly, they exploded in her face. “t made a great sensation in the neighborhood,” Fuller wrote. “People called me a witch…My hair will not all grow back again, but I do not care.” Indeed, she didn’t.

Given the very recent discovery of radium by another woman, the French scientist Marie Curie, there was a certain cachet about working with these particular – and sometimes dangerous – materials. In fact, Fuller had sought Curie’s advice, though the dancer’s purposes were other than scientific. What was the loss of a bit of hair, when she might discover a means of making iridescent cloth! For Loïe Fuller was a dancer on the make and iridescent cloth was just what she needed to take her act – and her art – to a whole other level.

In her earliest years in vaudeville, Fuller discovered that gauzy, twirling skirts captured light in interesting ways. She capitalized on this by privileging the movement of her costume over the movement of her body – and by inventing and patenting a variety of tools to maximize the play of light on cloth.  By the time she brought her act to France and the Parisian music hall known as the Folies-Bergère, she was manipulating yards and yards of silk with long hand-held wands made of bamboo or aluminum. While she herself remained fairly stationary, the cloth whirled around her in shimmering representations of butterflies, flowers and other organic forms. Meanwhile, dozens of electricians handled the incandescent lights – a brand-new technology at the time – and worked the glass panels colored with Fuller’s own secret chemical dyes. In her famous ‘Fire Dance’, she transfigured herself into a leaping “agony of flame” as she stood swirling her silks on a glass floor of her own invention that was lit from below with iridescent lights of rose and vermillion.

As befits any innovator, Fuller had the habit from the very start of her dance career of improvising with her materials, discovering bit by bit the ways she might use cloth, colored light and movement to create the effects she had in mind. The act of thinkering, “collecting a thought” as one manually adjusts or experiments with something, is evident in this description of her working process while designing a new costume:

“I draped the silk on her [a dance model]. Then I cut it and put it together, tried it on and experimented with it, saw where something wanted to be taken out here and something put in there… I told her [the model] just what to do, and she did it, while I watched and studied the dress from every point of view…I studied the result, thought, developed and altered the movements to satisfy my imagination. Day after day I lived with that big dress, studying it, becoming familiar with its form, learning all its possibilities, until, when I put in on myself, I knew exactly what I could do with it.”

Tinkering with cloth, with colored lights, with chemical dyes and iridescent salts, Fuller collected ideas about what might be possible in a skirt dance – and made some of those ideas happen.  She took out patents on many of these tools: costume design, fabric wands, glass floors and stage mirrors. She relied on secrecy for others, including the dyes for the colored glass panels that cast so many gorgeous hues on her white silk costumes.  Alas, her idea for a radium infused glow-in-the-dark costume of butterfly wings proved economically (not to mention radioactively) impractical. But by braving all sorts of explosions, chemical and creative, she blended science, technology and art into a sensational career.

Fuller also had impact on modern stage lighting and modern dance well beyond her life span. This impact had little to do with her exploration of body movement (which was relatively uninspired) and everything to do with her use of cloth and its iridescent lighting (which most definitely was). In other words, we think it safe to say, it had everything to do with thinkering. In the dance lab as well as the chem lab, Fuller was a thinkerer.   

See here for an original film clip of Loïe Fuller dancing:

© Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein 2012


Loïe Fuller: Magician of Light. Exhibition organized by Margaret Haile Harris. Richmond, The Virginia Museum, 1979.

Tags: creative breakthrough, fire dance, folies-bergere, loie fuller, marie currie, phosphorescent salts, thinkering, vaudeville

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