“To impress an idea I endeavor, by my emotions, to cause its birth in the spectator’s mind, to awaken his imagination, that it may be prepared to receive the image.” — Loïe Fuller
What is fascinating about this quote, written by Loïe Fuller in her autobiography, Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life, is the phrase “to awaken his imagination”. The conflation of spectator with man points to the frame through which stage performances were viewed at the time of Fuller’s career. Spectatorship was, and arguably still is, made for and viewed through the male gaze. As Laura Mulvey wrote in her seminal work, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema:
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.
Mulvey extrapolates Freud’s psychoanalytical theory of scopophilia and applies it to her theory of a gendered division embedded in spectatorship. Scopophilia is the theory that looking at another elicits a certain source of pleasure, and reflexively, there is pleasure in being looked at. Mulvey explains that traditional theater (filmed or live) presents the perfect environment for spectators to objectify and be voyeurs without consequence. Dark theaters isolate audience members from other spectators, allowing them to indulge in the pleasure of projecting phantasy onto performer, viewing them as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The female spectacle signifies male desire, and in this, the passive, objected performer and active, objectifying onlooker become self-reflexive. She is only allowed to exist on stage because of the enactment of his gaze, rendering her image revealed and on display before him. If we view performances through this lens, we can see that Loïe Fuller’s choreographic and performative use of fabric, light, and refusal of fixity of static image was extremely radical in its ability to queer the male gaze; wherein she created a new form spectacle that transcended this gendered division in spectatorship. I echo Ann Cooper Albright’s claim that Fuller was consciously choreographing her own representation.
I will provide a framework for the conditions of possibility surrounding Fuller’s career, looking at the dominant vaudeville and burlesque aesthetics, which her own choreographic approach challenged. I will then look at the historical and cultural occupation with female hysteria in the second half of the 19th century Paris, which I argue enabled the success of Fuller’s new hypnotic spectacle to be received. In an extension of Peggy Phelan’s theory of privileging the resistive potentiality of that which remains hidden, which she proposes in her book Unmarked, I argue that Fuller’s obscuring of her body as a fixed female subject. Through Fuller’s choreographic use of fabric, light, and color, she was able to obscure her own representation, thus subverting hetero-patriarchial notions of how female marked bodies were viewed on stage. In this, I argue that Loie Fuller was able to successfully queer the male gaze and transcend the fixity of the gender binary all together.
A Queer Interruption
In talking about queerness, I am not referring to identity politics or an aesthetic, but rather queering as a transgression of and from hegemonic discourses. I am talking about queering as a resistive potentiality against dominant cultural norms. Queerness as an opening up and a refusal to remain fixed. For the purposes of this paper, I will employ Martha Ackelsberg’s notion of queer as: “what is at odds with the normal and lines up with the category of “abnormal.” Since the normal can change, so can the abnormal, the queer. This is why queer is called a positionality—what is deemed queer is not fixed, it is contextual and related to what is called normal.” In looking at Fuller’s choreography, I am privileging the slippage between object and subject, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, seen and unseen. This, is what I argue Fuller was able to do in her obstruction of body as on display; moving in this blurry space between human body and other than human. Fuller is able to render the viewership of her body within this in-between space, and thus complicates the ability for a fixed male gaze to be projected onto her body. The audience’s [His] pleasure cannot be satiated through the fantasy of looking because her body is not still or static enough to allow for the process which Mulvey speaks about to happen. I argue for Loie Fuller’s work being read as being queer, not just because she was a lesbian who’s partner exclusively wore mens suits in the nineteenth century, but because of her introduction of a new way of viewing a female body on stage that challenged the inherent “to-be-looked-at-ness” which dominated the aesthetics of ballet and vaudeville dancing at the time of her career.
In Peggy Phelan’s book, Unmarked, she introduces a new theoretical framework for privileging the the radical potentiality of remaining unseen. In looking back at Fuller’s choreographic use of light, fabric, and color in occulting her physical body, I read her obstructing of her bodily image as enacting this sense of unmarkedness. Phelan writes, “by locating a subject in what cannot be reproduced within the ideology of the visible, I am attempting to revalue a belief in subjectivity and identity which is not visibly representable. This is not the same thing as calling for greater visibility of the hitherto unseen.” As Judith Butler points out in Force and Fantasy, the real is positioned both before and after its representation; and representation becomes a moment of the reproduction and consolidation of the real. I ask for Fuller’s work to be read through this lens whereby image is always fantasy—a representation of the real which is processed through the viewer’s lens of memory and distortion. Felicia McCerren posits that Fuller’s subjectivity is dependent on this sense of phantasmic projection, as she produces a series of constantly changing images, making it possible for the viewer to indulge in their imagination.
Second wave French Feminists such as Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Hélène Cixous argued for greater representation of women in their own right, and against representation in relation to man, as other. In The Newly Born Woman Catherine Clément and Cixous point to the patriarchal construction of language and call for the employment of ecriture feminine, a feminine writing. This feminist discourse claimed that women were not equally involved in the production of culture and language, and were forced to operate inside a patriarchal framework, which they had no hand in creating. In response to this, they called for a distinctly feminine way of writing and behaving in society which would allow them to be equal to men, and not in relation to them.
While this discourse provided an important shift toward identity politics, it remained enmeshed in the rigid categorization upheld by the notion of a natural gender binary. Seeing the limitations in this paradigm, queer theorists such as Butler, Sedgewick, and De Lauretis paved the way for a new way of understanding the performativity and fluidity of sex and gender in the late eighties and early nineties for our understanding. They called for a dismantling of these fixed binaries all together. Phelan extends the work of these foregrounding queer theorists into the realm of performance studies. She distances herself from the second wave feminist occupation with identity and visibility politics; warning us of the dangers that can come from the conflation of visibility with liberation. She argues that there is great power in remaining unmarked as a way of subverting and complicating binary viewing. She explains, “visibility is a trap; it summons surveillance and the law; it provokes voyeurism, fetishism, the colonialist/imperial appetite for possession”. In looking at Fuller’s work through the theoretical framework provided by Phelan, I am extending it beyond a solely feminist framework, and calling for it to be read in reference to queer theory.
Rather than calling for greater visibility in her proposal of unmarkedness, Phelan calls for the re-evaluation and privileging of remaining unseen as a way to maintain political power. Unmarked proposes the re-evaluation of subjectivity and identity beyond what is able to be visibly represented. Drawing on Lacanian and Derridean deconstruction of the self and other Phelan notes, “the male is marked with value; the female is unmarked, lacking measured value and meaning. Within this psycho-philosophical frame, cultural reproduction takes she who is unmarked and re-marks her, while he who is marked with value is left unremarked… he is the norm and therefore unremarkable; as the Other, it is she whom he marks. In my own queer complication of temporality and linearity, I apply Phelan’s theory onto Fuller’s body over a hundred years after her career. In doing so, I hope to interject this reading of the political power of unmarkedness employed by Fuller into the traditional canonical understanding of her work.
“I had seen her only as she had been seen by multitudes from every corner of the globe, on the stage, waving her draperies in the first light, or transferred into a great resplendent lily, revealing to us a new and dignified type of beauty.” —Anatole France
Somehow, despite being continuously noted in dance history as being chubby and lacking any technical virtuosity, Loie Fuller is known today is traditional Eurocentric dance history, as one of the pioneering founders of American modern dance alongside Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. Fuller is known for her innovative use of technology; experimenting with the relationship between light, color, and fabric in her performances, which had not been done before in the traditional Vaudeville dances. It is worth noting, in order to contextualize the conditions of possibility surrounding her rise to fame, that although she was American, she rose to prominence while living and performing in Europe at the end of the 1800s.
Loie Fuller was born in 1862 in Fullersburg, Illinois, where she grew up as a child actress, and later became a skirt dancer in the vaudeville and cabaret scene. Fuller was destined for the stage, and had been since she was a young child. The opening entry of her autobiography recounts her stage debut, where she climbed up onto a dance hall stage at just six weeks old. She goes on to explain that her first real appearance on stage happened when she was two and a half, when she recited poetry [a prayer] at the Chicago Progressive Lyceum. In nothing less than the dramatic theatrics Fuller was known for creating on stage, she writes in her autobiography, “ After the day of my debut at the Chicago Progressive Lyceum I continued my dramatic career. The incidents of my performances would suffice to fill several volumes.” Fuller moved to New York in 1878 with her mother, and began performing as a vaudeville performer, where she remained between the 1870s and 1880s. During the year between 1889 and 1890, Fuller travelled to Europe, where she toured as a skirt dancer, primarily performing at the Gaity Theater in London.
This is arguably a reductive reading, but for the purposes of this paper I will say that at this time in Western [Europe and North America] performance spheres, the options for being a dancer were either to be a ballerina or a vaudeville performer. The former, required a technical virtuosity and a specific lean physique, which Fuller lacked on both accounts. While the latter, was contingent on teasing the audience with just enough of explicit sexuality, which Fuller seemed uninterested in. Both of these performance forms were specifically enmeshed in the objectification of the female body— with the female performer being placed on stage in order to be looked at and tease the audience with their technical virtuosity or sexual provocation.
Skirt dancing was a performance form popular in the latter half of the 1800s in which female performers would wear long skirts and then slowly raise them up to reveal and tease the audiences with their what was underneath. Cooper Albright explains that “as it evolved, skirt dancing became increasingly associated with the burlesque, an excuse to flaunt what was hidden underneath the skirt.” This form of spectacle centered around the female body being offered up to be looked at and the naughtiness it elicited in allowing the audience to look at the female body through the male gaze. Both ballet, and skirt dancing placed the performer in a highly objective role, wherein the subject-hood of the body rather than the person on stage was centered and highlighted. These performances were all about the female body on stage, serving as the site onto which male desire and fantasy could be enacted. Because of the positionally of performer on stage to fulfill the role, the audience members, regardless of gender, were viewing through this patriarchal gaze.
Although Fuller was performing as a skirt dancer in London at this time, through my own projection and reading of her autobiography, I argue that she was eager to make a new space for herself on stage, one which would allow her to complicate the fixed role of the female performer as site of projected male desire. Fuller wrote of the conditions of possibility and her desire to push the boundaries of what dance could be: “At present dancing signifies the arms and legs. It means a conventional motion, at first with one arm and one leg, then a repetition of the same figure with another arm and the other leg…To lead us to grasp the real and most extensive connotation of the word dance, let us try to forget what is implied by the choreographic art of our day.” I read this as her attempt to challenge the discourse of what dance was seen as at the time, and how she was hungry to extend new modes of a female body being in a performance role.
A New Spectacle: Fabric, Light, and Color
Swathed in a vast costume of billowing white Chinese silk that left only her face and hands visible, Fuller began her performance. Using rods sewn inside her sleeves, she shaped the fabric into gigantic, swirling sculptures that floated over her head. As she turned onstage, her arms lifted and molded the silk into silken images a variety of deep jewel tones. The audience saw not a woman, but a giant violet, a butterfly, a slithering snake, and a white ocean wave. Each shape rose weightlessly into the air, spun gently in its pool of changing, rainbow lights, hovered, and then wilted away to be replaced by a new form. After forty-five minutes, the last shape melted to the floorboards, Fuller sank for a few seconds. When the lights went back on, Fuller reappeared to the thunderous applause that signaled the beginning of her triumphant new career.
It is important to note, for the trajectory of how her career took shape, that Loie was not seen as traditionally beautiful, and was constantly reminded of this by male managers she met with. She ends the first chapter of her opening entry in her autobiography by saying that once she realized she was destined for the stage, she never once bothered with her personal appearance. For context, Jean Cocteau wrote of Fuller’s performance at the 1900 World’ Fair:
I retain only one vibrant image from the Exposition Universelle…MMe Love Fuller…a fat, ugly American woman with glasses atop a pedestal maneuvering great waves of sup ple silk…creating innumerable orchids of light and fabric unfurling, rising, disappearing, turning, floating…”
I believe her physical appearance not fitting in within the normative beauty standards at the time, had a large impact on her subsequent career of obstructing the view of her bodily figure. What was this starlet, who climbed on stage at 6 weeks old, so desperate to perform for audiences to do? She had to make a new path for herself, one that would allow her to perform and be seen on her own terms.
After her stint in London, Fuller was summoned back to America in 1891 to play the widowed hypnotized patient in the play, Quack M.D. This performance, and her experimentation with performing with fabric and being hypnotized, was a determining moment in her subsequent career. In Felicia Mcarren’s book Dance Pathologies, she explains that “Quack, M.D- a play about hypnosis and unconscious behavior- offered Fuller the perfect setting for “discovering” her power over an audience”. She realized the potentiality of performing in a hypnotized state, one that elicited the image of the popular hysteric woman of the time. Fuller’s own recounting of the performance is as follows:
The stage scenery, representing a garden, was flooded with pale green light. Dr. Quack made a mysterious entrance and hen began his work of suggestion. The orchestra played a melancholy air very softly, and I endeavored to make myself as light as possible, in order to give the impression of a fluttering figure obedient to the doctor’s orders. He raised his arms. I raised mine. Under the influence of suggestion, entranced—so, at least it looked— with my gaze held by his, I followed his every motion. My robe was so long that I was continually stepping upon it, and mechanically I held it up with both hands and raised my arms aloft, all the while that I continued to flit around the stage like a winged spirit. There was a sudden exclamation from the house: “Its a butterfly! A butterfly!” I turned on my steps, running from one end of the stage to the other, and a second exclamation followed: “It’s an orchid!” To my great astonishment sustained applause burst forth.
She saw so clearly the potentiality of altering the audience’s perception, moving seamlessly between object and subject. This performance created a new spectacle for audiences, one that departed from the display of the virtuosity or sex appeal of the female body, but one that was equally entertaining. Following this performance, Fuller wanted to find new ways of cultivating this hypnotic experience, setting out to make her own, new form of spectacle. Fuller went on to invent what she would call, the Serpentine Dance, through experiments with fabric and light.
For her role in Quack M.D. Fuller was told to make her own costume, so she began experimenting with Chinese silks she had been gifted from a friend. After having discovered the fabric she writes,“gently, almost religiously, I set the silk in motion, and I saw that I had obtained undulations of a character heretofore unknown. I had created a new dance”. She created a new fantasy, one in which she became an etherial being, which commanded the space, demanding to be seen as beautiful in its own right.
Once she had discovered the fabric, the elements of light and color quickly followed. She writes of her first emotional discovery of light on the fabric, “Golden reflections played in the folds of the sparkling silk and in this light my body was vaguely revealed in shadowy contour. This was a moment of intense emotion”. This new use of light enabled Fuller’s body to come in and out of sight, putting the audiences focus on her arms or face, to such extremes, that they would become disoriented with who or what they were even watching on stage.
Color was another discovery for the artist, who speaks about being astounded when seeing the relations that form and color could have. Already obscuring her image with fabric and light, she realized color was another element which could coalesce with these other two elements in her performance to further dazzle audiences with something other than her body. She writes of her experiments with color, “I stand before them like a miner who has discovered a vein of gold, and how completely forgets himself as he contemplates the wealth of the world before him.” For a child actress, turned vaudeville dancer, Fuller was extremely advanced in her understanding of the affects color and light could have in theatrical spaces. She writes of color, that it is disintegrated light which can be altered to manipulate perceptions, “The rays of light, disintegrated by vibrations, touch one object and another, and this disintegration, photographed in the retina, is always chemically the result of changes in matter and in beams of light. Each one of these effects is designated under the name of colour.” It was this careful and methodical coalescence of fabric, light, color, and Fuller’s own moving body that enabled this new dance form to take shape.
Ann Cooper Albright, who researched Fuller’s choreography on her own body, writes of the laboriousness and precision required to perform the serpentine dance:
Pressing my feet deep into the ground, I begin to twist my upper body from side to side, catching a bit of air under the fabric. After a few passes back and forth, I bend my knees and lean forward to trace a slight under-curve with the ends in my hands before swooping to one side to launch the fabric high in the air. If i initiate the movement with the right amount of percussive twist in my torso, I can create a loft in the fabric and sustain the ser pentine swirl for quite some time, continuing the spiraling image long enough for it to crys tallize in the audience’s mind.”
The spectacle of the fabric in conjunction with the lights and color made it so that her face and body seem insignificant, or at least on the same level of materiality as the fabric.
What made the crowds gasp when Fuller was onstage was never Fuller as a recognizable individual. They gasped, rather, at the conversion of her physical self into pure aesthetic form. In essence, Fuller made a career of staging her own immateriality, dissolving into light projections on fabric. She produces a series of constantly changing images not because she pretends to be them but because her stage image makes it possible for the viewer to imagine them.
Through Fuller’s use of fabric, light, and color, she was able to de-center her body and re-center the materiality of the fabric and light, thus occulting the fixity of her own body on stage. Fuller was already onto the next spiral or shape as soon as audiences thought they were sure of what they were seeing.
Conditions of Possibility: Women and Hysteria
In order to understand the conditions of possibility that enabled the success of Fuller’s newly proposed spectacle, I will provide you with a brief context of psychoanalysis, hysteria, and the use of hypnotism at the time of Fuller’s rise to fame. By the end of the 1800s hysteria as a diagnosis had become extremely common for middle to upper class white women in Europe. At this time it was said that one in four middle to upper class women were diagnosed with hysteria. People were fascinated with these female bodies in full-fledged symptomatic states, and this became a new form of theatrical spectacle in its own right, thanks in large part to French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. In 1882 Charcot established a school at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where he began hosted weekly lectures on hysteria. During these lectures he would invite his female patients in the hospital diagnosed with hysteria be hypnotized by him and then have them perform their symptoms to a room full of [male] doctors. This was the same decade Fuller arrived in Europe. These patients became known as somewhat celebrities for their awe-inducing performances of fully enacted bodily symptoms. In 1895 Freud and Breuer published Studies in Hysteria, which became the bedrock for the field of psychoanalysis. Rhonda Garelick reads of Fuller’s choreography in light of hysteria and psychoanalysis, demonstrating the connection between Fuller’s use of hypnotism and the specific hysterical moment in European history:
Reading Fuller’s work in light of psychoanalytic inquiry makes sense. Her performances problematized the desiring female body, recreating it aesthetically and questioning the objectifying gaze of the spectator. And, as McCarren also mentions, Fuller was aware of her own proximity to hypnosis, and remarked often on the hypnotic effect of her dancing.
Fuller’s work responds to the medical and cultural linking of dance and hysteria by using the clinician’s tools: hypnosis and electricity.
Fuller arrived in Europe at a cultural moment when hysteria was commonplace and almost fashionable; providing the perfect framework for her hypnotic serpentine dances to be well received. In using hypnosis on her own body rather than under the direction of a male doctor, Fuller was able to re-appropriate the hysterical body, by playing out in an acceptable theatrical space that which was showcased by Charcot. I include this here, not because I am reading Fuller’s work through the lens of hysteria, but because I think it’s important to note that her re-appropriation of hypnotism supports my argument that Fuller was queering the male gaze. Hypnotism was a cure used to elicit female hysterical symptoms—a cure which was enmeshed in the pathologizing of non-normative female behavior, Fuller was able to take that which had been used to oppress women at the time and reclaim it on her own terms. In creating her own self directed spectacle, Her hypnotizing image can be read as a reclaiming of the hysteric body from patriarchal pathologies.
Not only was Fuller obstructing the view of her body in space, but she was challenging audiences to view dance in a new and different way that challenged fixed time. Returning to queering as a verb, I want to re-iterate that I am using queering as in opposition to the dominant hegemonic dominant norms and codes. When I use the word queer, I refer to its ability to destabilize the norm, and challenge fixity, in a state of constant un-becoming. I am using queer as a destabilizing force, specifically in this case the dominant linearity of time and narrative. This notion of complicating image making, and static modes of meaning making, privileging the never-ending movements in between, allows Fuller’s work to be seen as radical, not only in the context of her time period, but today. Jose Estéban Muñoz posits that queerness is in a state of cruising utopia, that we are on a never-ending moving sidewalk of seeking a futurity that has yet to exist. Muñoz rejects the fixity of the here and now, privileging the potentiality of another way of viewing time and space, one that circumvents the concreteness of this moment. Fuller’s performances complicate our understanding of fixed temporality and static image making in her never ending hypnotic spirals; taking the audience on a trip in which their perception of what and how they are seeing is brought into question. Fuller’s performances live in this blurry space, between past and future, flourishing in this liminal space. By performing in a state of continuous evolving, she challenged audiences to continue adjusting their perception of what and how they see.
One aspect of the development of Fuller’s work, then, is the way her dancing sponsored a parallel development of a new way of perceiving dance. For the first time, audiences were asked to attend not to poses at the end of a musical phrase, but rather to the motion between phrases, not to the decorative arrangement of arms and legs, but to the sequence of movement from center to periphery and back again.
Fuller’s work begs to be read as radical, both for its employment of Phelan’s theory of unmarkedness, and for its complication of the straightness of time and fixity, which Muñoz speaks of. Rather than working within an essentialist framework, whereby the body was the ultimate source of all truth, in the way Duncan’s choreography is talked about, Fuller was opening up a space for audiences to engage in multiple truths and meanings.
Queering The Gaze
Where vaudeville and ballet were concerned with the revealing of the female form through corsets and the raising of skirts, Fuller was cloaking her body underneath swarths of fabric, refusing to be seen.
The vivid contrast of light and dark allows her torso to blend into the light background and her hair to merge with the dark butterfly figures, leaving only her face and arms to stand out. Eventually, these parts of her body would become obscured by her increasingly voluminous costume.
In reading this through Phelan’s theory, I view Fuller’s refusal of visibilizing her body as a way of queering how her body was being looked at. Julie Townsend writes: “[Fuller’s] experience and representation of her body as transformative could instead be read as a strategy with lesbian implications. By constructing herself as Other (insect, serpent, butterfly, etc.), Fuller removed herself from the realm of gender altogether”. Townsend posits that in Fuller’s ability to shift her physical form between human and object, often operating in the liminal space in between, was simultaneously explicitly lesbian and genderless. In Fuller’s presentation of her body as other than human, she was able to create a performance in which her body was able to transcend its gendered constraints.
I see Fuller as subverting the notion of spectacle enmeshed in the objectification of the female body by introducing a new form of spectacle, in which her body remained invisible. She created a new way of viewing the female form on stage, one in which audiences were dazzled by fabric, light, and colors, rather than the female marked body being revealed before them. Fuller was able to de-stabilize her own personhood, by performing in the slippage between subjectivity and objectivity. As she swirls the mounds of fabric above her head with her wooden poles, serving as extensions of her arms, she shifts from female marked performer, to a body covered in fabric, to a butterfly, to fire, to a serpent, and back to performer again. She was able to find a new way of representing the female body, one that did not align with the dominant aesthetics of beauty. As I watch archival videos of her performances, specifically the Serpentine Dance, I too become transfixed—mesmerized—unable to keep up with how quickly she transforms from subject to object and back to a new subject.
In the closing off of her body, and highlighting the materiality surrounding her body, she challenged the audience to see a female marked body in a new unmarked way: “Routinely hidden by hundreds of yards of silk, Fuller manipulated her voluminous robes into swirling shapes above her head, transforming herself by turns into lilies, butterflies, raging fires, even the surface of the moon.” I argue that in the constant un-doing of an image and re-doing of a new image, she creates a performance that refuses fixity, continuing to evolve and bleed into the next, in the ultimate performing of queerness.
Fuller’s use of light, space, and color allowed her to re-assert her aesthetic agency and reclaim the terms of her own representation. Fuller was able to craft this new spectacle, one in which her body was able to be read as other than [woman] human, through realizing the potentiality light, color, and fabric had to obscure or reveal her body; allowing her to move between the visible and invisible. Garelick writes:“When she stepped onstage, this overweight, ungraceful American woman vanished, replaced by her sequences of ephemeral sculptures.” Viewing these performances through the theory of unmarkedness, I can synthesize that by masking the view of her overweight queer body with fabric, light, and color she refused the offering up of her body to be viewed through the male gaze, ultimately retaining her political power. Fuller chooses to remain invisible, protected by the fabric, as a way of disallowing the fetishization of herself as other.
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