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Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loïe Fuller

by Ann Cooper Albright
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, USA, 2007
229 pp., illus. 32 b/w, 28 col. Trade, $75, paper, $27.95
ISBN: 0-8195-6843-0; ISBN: 0-8195-6842-2.

Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth


Ann Cooper Albright, herself a dancer, and professor of dance, gender and women’s studies, offers an unusual approach in this book in that she combines both her academic expertise and her practice as dancer in an in depth study of the famous modern dancer Loïe Fuller. In this practice-led and theory-oriented study she not only straddles two often rather separate strands, that of her own dance practice as research tool and guide and the theoretical examination of the subject area, but also succeeds in interweaving her experience of re-examining Fuller’s dance in practice, the literature review and original archival research in great detail on Fuller’s work, as well as her own interpretation of the significance of Fuller’s intervention. Albright’s exercise of her kinaesthetic imagination is highlighted through a perspective informed by her specialism in gender and women’s studies and constitutes one of the main objectives of this book: to liberate Fuller from her marginalisation in modern dance history particularly in the dominant discourse around technology (lighting) and stage mise-en-scène with the established emphasis on the visual spectacle, aesthetics and techniques. The importance for Albright lies in a reconstitution of Fuller’s innovative novel style of movement and kinaesthesia, and most importantly to include a recognition of her womanhood and highly feminized, performative sexuality in the often abstracted discussion of her work.

Albright shifts the focus on Fuller’s application of light as technique and technological sophistication and puts an emphasis on the spiritual role of light in Fuller’s work as a catalyst for euphoria and drama, source of emotional tension and spectacular effects such as ultra-violet light through chemicals applied to her costumes, and light as dancing partner. She cites Fuller’s own notes and interview passages that give a sense of her lively and pronounced presence, one which is so evident in the images of her dancing, but also one that despite a strong grounding in physicality and technological know-how, does not seem to elude a rather immaterial and poetic dimension. For example, Fuller described her discovery of the effects of the fabric of silk in motion as: ‘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’ (p. 24). In an interview she replied to the question of her understanding of light: ‘Light: it is the deployment of the soul around a human being, it is a language just as music is a language. There are living lights and dead lights. My art derives from a sense of joy, and here I mean that it has the capacity to instant oblivion, soaring it into another world’ (p. 141).

One significant strand of this ‘otherworldly’ approach was thematised at the time through the invention of the ‘unconscious’ and it may be serendipity that Fuller discovered the audience’s response to her movements in a wide Indian robe during her performance of the Pygmalion scene of a theatre piece called Quack M.D. Fuller describes this moment when her character was hypnotised by a doctor and her long robe forced her into movements with her arms raised like a ‘winged spirit’, a pose which evoked astonishment and sensational responses in the audiences (p. 17). In this regard Albright draws in the literature on the nervous female body and Fuller’s psychological theatrical form of expression in relation to the 19th century womanhood in the context of science and art, and her intercultural personality as both an American and Parisian. This sets the ground for Albright to claim that Fuller constantly negotiated her heterogeneous subject positions as artist, scientist, choreographer and dancer, commodity and muse (p. 110).

With several references to Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy, such as the concepts of ‘becoming’, the ‘in between’ or his notion of the Nietzschean term of ‘the fold’, Albright invigorates the presence of flow in Fuller’s work. This seems particularly useful in her treatment of the ambiguous relationship between dance and image, and between figure and body, since it evokes the very experience of movement, which, it could be said, lies beyond space in an intrinsic acknowledgement of the internalised quality of time. Her references to Deleuze appear all the more significant since his approach was greatly influenced by the philosopher Henri Bergson, who was contemporary with Fuller and in his treatment of the issues of time as experience, movement in space, duration and flow, seems to have captured some of the core intellectual concerns of the period (Bergson, 1991, 2001). Perhaps he is the dog that doesn’t bark in this book, notwithstanding Albright’s sophisticated treatment of an interdisciplinary network of interests and mutual influences that surrounded the reception and impacted on Fuller’s work seen from out the archival materials of her momentum.

Most notable seems Albright’s acknowledgement of the discursive gap between her own body and the historical treatment of Fuller’s presence: most especially the relationship of her own body with history, which provides an interface for an encounter. This constitutes an ‘in between’ that is rarely given its own voice in a theoretical discourse except perhaps in new historicist approaches on whose practice Albright builds her own method. Her descriptions of her own physical and emotional experiences while practising Fuller’s Serpentine Dance for example, provide the reader with insights into a dimension of Fuller’s work that she identifies as one of the missing links that has led to the predominantly abstracted discourses that surround her work. The intersection of absence and presence of both Fuller’s and Albright’s body in images and descriptions, as it is also reflected in the title of the book, constitutes a most unique approach and reflects an understanding of art as epistemology that the author was able to translate from her own practice into her theoretical discussion. This seems all the more pertinent when reading Fuller’s own comments of her work whose use of language seems to draw images full of colour and energy, just as her dancing is reported to have conveyed.

Albright’s approach, as she explicitly emphasises in her introduction, invites the reader to take her research as a starting point for further studies of Fuller’s work. As a consequence, one may understand certain references to it in other interdisciplinary contexts as much more than obvious metaphors or analogies: for example in Philippe-Alain Michaud’s book Aby Warburg and The Image in Motion (2004) in relation to the early Dickson films in Edison’s studio the Black Maria. Michaud’s cross-referencing to Fuller through Anabella’s imitation of the Serpentine Dance (one of the many variations, while Fuller herself danced for the Lumières) from the perspective of Warburg’s interest in motion seems especially appropriate, particularly due to the direct link with the Pueblo Kachina dance and Serpent Ritual, which to him revealed a dynamism beyond the actual representations, a motion in between the inscription of figures in space.

Apart from the main locus of this book in reconstituting the significance of Fuller’s work in the body of modern dance literature, with references especially to the work of Isadora Duncan, Colette and Eva Palmer, Albright’s approach additionally has opened a platform to weave Fuller’s practice into a wider interdisciplinary context of philosophical issues around movement, embodiment and ‘presence’ with intrinsic connections to other art and entertainment forms such as the emerging cinema. It may not be an accident that both Fuller and the Cinématographe share some of their historical traces of exhibition and popularity with the Music Hall, the Variété. Like Fuller, these popular entertainment forms incorporated both the expression of a prevailing Zeitgeist — more than in the fascination with movement perhaps the representability of time as flux and duration — and an emerging new aesthetic in an art-form that was intrinsically linked with a bottom-up response and reception of a workers’ class entertainment form. In this sense, both the human, or as Albright would emphasise, the woman, and the case of the technology of the emerging cinema seem to converge in the physical appearance of an underlying impulse; it reminds us again of Warburg’s concerns and what Michaud described as the illuminated performer in the Black Maria as a ‘body in search of its own modifications whose contortionistic performance represented the purest expression’. (2004, p. 57)

Taking up Albright’s invitation, this excursion here is not misplaced, since the discourse on Fuller’s work at the intersection of body, image, and technology, straddling art and machine, is well established, as she reminds us. She discusses this in respect of Fuller’s use of machines to ‘connect with and energize her physical expressivity’, as an interconnectedness between experience and mediation. Albright focuses particularly on Fuller’s cinematographic vision in her later career and her forays into film (p. 181f) and emphasises the significance of her innovative application of light and motion for experiments in avant-garde film making and film and video experiments in contemporary dance. At the foreground stands a treatment of dancing techniques as technologies of mediation and epistemologies in a Heideggerian sense of being-in-the-world or presence; which Albright describes through her own dancing research into Fuller’s choreographies as a physicality and palpability of the mechanics (lighting techniques, stage set-ups, etc.) that produced ‘a highly sensate body’. (p. 190) In a piece called Dancing with Light for example Albright dances on glass with coloured light projections from underneath and describes her experience of Fuller’s conception of the physical expressivity of colour as follows: ‘… the visual sensation of looking down (…) was truly bizarre. I lost all sense of weight and gravity and felt as if I were floating in space. (…) I was struck by how the ambers and red tones felt as if they were reaching up to surround me, as if the light were swallowing me up. The kinaesthetic impact on me has a direct parallel, for this was exactly how many critics described similar movements of Fuller’s "Fire Dance". In contrast, the cool blues and greens drew me to them, down under the floor…’ (p. 190)

What the cinema and Fuller’s novel dance innovations seem to have in common is closely related to the intellectual context of the time in search for methods to inscribe movement and time. This could also be related to Etienne-Jules Marey’s graphing methods, in particular his study of the movement of an insect’s wing (1895, p. 243) which seems to provide a direct link to Fuller’s application of the figure eight in her Serpentine Dance movements (p. 30). Albright, however, extends Fuller’s concerns with the issue of inscription as evident in her experimentation with projection techniques as well as what Mallarmé called her ‘corporeal writing’ in her autograph book entitled The Ghosts of My Friends (p. 41-46), to a discussion of absence and presence of the body through an emphasis on the significance of the audience’s participation in the process of creation and perception. Albright identifies the implication of the viewer’s body in the process of seeing in order to replace visual traces with the act of tracing (p. 204), which in Fuller’s case has produced a changing engagement with the mode of perception, as was her intention. It reiterates what lies at the core of what Auguste Rodin must have recognised in the way he thanked Fuller in a program inscription for ‘opening the pathway for an art of the future.’ (p. 193)

In a true convergence of science, art and technology, Albright has succeeded in this fascinating piece of practise- and theory-led writing to bring Loïe Fuller to life as a pioneering woman who is too often neglected in the numerous accounts of interdisciplinary research at the turn of the century beyond the discipline of dance. Traces of Light also stands as exemplary of a series of recent new historicist approaches in demonstrating that by proceeding from a conscious present to revisit history through a profound and sophisticated engagement with the past, produces experiences and insights of new knowledge that touch the present through an actualisation of past traces, almost in a Bergsonian sense.

One can only congratulate Albright for this achievement, which also seems to indicate that the discipline of dance along with a critical engagement with its theory has a lot to offer to interdisciplinary research, in particular through bridging the acknowledged lack of methodologies. To conclude in the spirit of Fuller it could be suggested that modern approaches in the light of post-modernism may, to use Rodin’s words, open pathways for art-science collaborations of the future.

Cited works:

All stand-alone page numbers refer to Traces of Light.

Bergson, Henri. [1896] 1991. Matter and Memory, trans. N.M Paul and W.S. Palmer. New York: Zone Books. [French original: Matière et Mémoire, 1896]. [1889] 2001. Time and Free Will. An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F.L. Pogson. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications. [French original: Essai Sur les Données Immédiates de la Conscience, 1889].

Marey, Étienne-Jules. [1894] 1895. Movement. The Results and Possibilities of Photography. Trans. Eric Pritchard. London: William Heinemann. [French original: Le Movement].

Michaud, Philippe-Alain. 2004. Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion. Trans. Sophie Hawkes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.



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