One of the most spellbinding color illusionists of the last century left her spectators dazzled to near-mystical proportions. Loïe Fuller (1862-1928) was pioneer of choreography and an innovator of theatrical lighting, holding patents for creating color gels and using chemical salts for luminescence. When she took to the stage dressed in flowing silk costumes specially lit according to her own schemes, she transformed into a full-fledged magician. When modern dance founder Isadora Duncan first witnessed Fuller's shape-shifting wizardry, she was bewitched by an alchemy of color and movement that left the impression of a once-in-a-lifetime miracle. Employing only voluminous colored silks illuminated by beams of light, Fuller performed what amounted to a shamanic ritual, convincing her spectators that a sacred metamorphosis was unfolding. Fuller evoked the primal power of the bonfire, depicted the wonder of new life, and enacted the elevation of the soul into boundless essence. Though the experience left Duncan in a state of wordless awe, she couldn't help attempting to account for the sheer magnitude of what she beheld:
Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère
"Before our very eyes she turned to many-coloured, shiny orchids, to a wavering, flowering sea-flower, and at length to a spiral-like lily, all the magic of Merlin, the sorcery of light, colour, flowing form. What an extraordinary genius! No imitator of Loïe Fuller has ever been able even to hint at her genius! I was entranced, but I realized that this was a sudden ebullition of nature which could never be repeated. She transformed herself into a thousand colourful images before the eyes of her audience. Unbelievable. Not to be repeated or described. Loïe Fuller originated all the changing colours and floating Liberty scarves. She was one of the first original inspirations of light and changing colour. I returned to the hotel dazzled and carried away by this marvelous artist. . . . I was more and more enthusiastic about her marvellous ephemeral art. That wonderful creature—she became fluid; she became light; she became every colour and flame, and finally she resolved into miraculous spirals of flames wafted toward the Infinite." (My Life, pp. 71-72)
The significance of Loïe Fuller's performance can hardly be exaggerated. She embodied the Goddess of Light and the Rainbow, whether under the guise of the Greek Artemis or Iris, the Hindu Uma, the Mayan Ix Chel, the Celtic Brigid, or the Roman Diana. Biographers Richard and Marcia Current called Fuller a "magician of light." Befitting a goddess, Fuller had a paradoxical nature, and she created her own mythology. Her biographers explain:
Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère
"A tall and lovely sylph in posters and sculptures, she was in reality a rather chubby woman with a fairly plain face. A dance innovator, she possessed no formal training in choreography. Eventually a cofounder of art museums, she had never even seen an art exhibit before going to Paris at the age of thirty. A close and respected associate of some of the most learned men and women in the world, she could claim no institutional education beyond that offered by the common schools of Illinois in the 1860s and 1870s. What she did have, in addition to her winning ways, was a dauntless will to get ahead, together with enough intelligence, resourcefulness, and ingenuity to give effect to that will. . . . She rose to extraordinary heights from a quite modest background. Her accomplishments were such that she might well have been satisfied with an unadorned account of her beginnings. She was not. Once she had achieved celebrity, she knocked several years off her age and made up fantastic tales about what was left of her early years. She created her own myth." (Loïe Fuller: Goddess of Light, 1997.)
What can we learn from Fuller's color magic?
- Physicality is a limitation only if we allow it to be. Fuller used her earth-mother physique to communicate a sylph-like spirit of the air. Her secrets? Natural, freeform movement and the power of intention.
- Personal history is a limitation only if we allow it to be. One is only as interesting as one makes oneself, so Fuller invented her own legend. Her secret? Reframing the truth to reveal the fascination.
- Formal training is less important than resourcefulness and ingenuity. Fuller's secrets? Banishing doubts and asking "What if?"
- A single silk and a beam of light can unfold a miracle. Fuller created something from nothing. Her secrets? Focusing on simplicity and following her inner guidance.
Before succumbing to breast cancer in 1928, Fuller found herself immortalized on canvas by Toulouse-Lautrec, in verse by Yeats, and on film by Lumiére. Not bad for a girl from a Chicago suburb who marched to her own drummer and followed her own spotlight.
Some colors reminiscent of Loïe Fuller's wizardry:
Cover by Toulouse Lautrec, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
About the Guest Author, Craig Conley
Craig is an independent scholar and author of dozens of strange and unusual books, including a unicorn field guide and a dictionary of magic words. He also loves color: Prof. Oddfellow