Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Material Girl In A Material World: Dancing Like Loie Fuller

By Elaine Meinel Supkis

This is a publicity photo from one of my dance performances. The fine fabric has storm clouds and rainbows printed all over it and it would drift through the air wonderfully, catching every breeze and onstage, I could whirl it into a vast, billowing cloud about me, it being over 50 yards in width. Manipulating material and reality: dances inspired by Loie Fuller, the first American modern dancer.

Loie Fuller, in Wikipedia The very first American modern dancer was a stout young lady from Illinois. She not only took Europe by storm, she revolutionized the art of dance, sponsored Isadora Duncan and inspired many future dancers. She and her brother invented stage lighting that used gels and changed rapidly like the color wheel, for example. Yet less than 50 years after she died in the twenties, she was nearly totally forgotten.

I was visiting MOMA in Manhattan in 1969 when I ran into this amazing statue showing a delighted lady flipping a mountain of material around her body, estatic.

"Impossible," I said. "Probably just made up." I read the dancer's name on the base and decided to figure out how she danced. This took more than a year to do. Once I figured out from various pictures how she made her fabulous costumes and the bamboo rods she used as the flexible supports to extend her arms to tremendous degree, I began to reproduce her dances, one by one.

This is the great lady dancing in her most difficult costume. I reproduced this one in particular for the Lily dance, for example.

It was over 100 yards in size and moving all that fine material at such an extention was very hard work. Since I do construction work too, I am very muscular with powerful legs. When I demonstrated this dance at the Julliard School of Dance, one ballet student told me, it was simple to do a Loie Fuller dance so I dressed her in this costume and told her to give it a whirl. Within minutes, she was tangled in the masses of material to the snickers of the other dancers.

I enjoyed doing these dances because they were very meditative, I didn't pay attention to my feet or arms but instead, my mind would dwell upon the far edges of the cloth which was moving sometimes at lightning speed far from my body. In the Fire Dance, I would be moving the cloth so ferociously, the sound of it moving around me in an ever rising pillar was a loud roar but the audience couldn't hear it over the sound of the Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner.

I would go to the studio and stand in front of banks of mirrors, peering around the billows of material as I would perfect the movement of my arms to draw the cloth into various shapes and designs. I got so good, I could do it in my sleep and indeed, today, can reproduce any of my dances with no rehearsals, it is ingrained so deeply.

The only time I could see myself was through photographers because the material, especially when lit up, can't be seen from within.

Instantly, when I set off in Manhattan to show this dancing, other dancers ran off in imitated me. It is amusing to see all the offspring of my efforts even until today. But precious few understood the core of her dances, aside from myself. They simply wave the material around. They don't make it into anything except surface razzel-dazzle.

When I danced the Rose dance, for example, the cloth would fold and roll until it was a bud, then blossoming into full flower and then disintigrating lavishingly. The Fire dance starts as bluish ripples with my fingers tweeking the far edges of the cloth, then rippling higher and higher until I became a pillar of literally roaring fire with the cloth cascading over my head and rolling to my ankles only to shoot even higher! It would reach over 15' high.

Then there was my favorite, a dance I made myself. Using photos of Voyager, I took everyone through the solar system, ending with the earth, to "Au Claire De la Lune" by Debussy. Utterly dark stage with light absorbing black velvet backdrop. As the music plays, I silently glide onstage and only when the cloth intersects the stars projected from the booth can anyone see anything.

As the planets get nearer, Saturn's rings suddenly appear, rippling and rolling across the material which flies out in graceful whirls. I move faster and faster until the Earth appears.

Then I slow down to near immobility, the sheer cloth trembling, slithering across the stage, at this point, invariably, silence falls and I could hear sobs from the audience. Head back, I pull back into myself, pulling the cloth with me until I dissappear.

This dance was beautiful because it was infused with my intense feelings about our planet, Mother Nature and the Universe. Dances done without heart are meaningless.

Anyone can dance, but to find the Heart of the Matter is what escasy is all about. To step into another world, to become something more than a mere mortal, the nectar of the Gods is what Creation is all about, to gain this, even death won't stop, for it is beyond death and suffering.

It is Heaven. (And yes, I was the first to revive her dances)
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