Rhonda Garelick: Loie Fuller, An Electric Salome

Salome and Loie Fuller enjoyed a curious, long-term relationship.  The nubile princess of biblical times served as a kind of alter-ego for the dowdy, middle-aged American queen of dance and technology, virtually from the moment Fuller emigrated to Paris in 1892 to her death in 1928.  Of course, Fuller was far from the first artist to turn her attention to the mythic veil dancer.  By 1892, “Salomania” had already firmly established its grip on European culture—one of many ‘Oriental’ fantasies fueled by rapidly expanding imperialism of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

But Fuller figured among the first to ‘dance’ the Salome story (preceding, for example, Maud Allen’s scandal-causing performance in 1906 London), and her interpretation offers a uniquely rich perspective on the cultural politics of her era, especially Franco-American relations.

Although she produced two full-length versions of Salome, Fuller earned her reputation as a ‘modern,’ or ‘electric’ Salome more for her general association with ‘veil dancing’ on the vastest, most technologically advanced scale imaginable. Routinely swathing her body in Chinese silks of up to 500 yards in length, she sculpted those veils into enormous three-dimensional designs, lofting them as high as ten feet into the air with the help of the arm-extending bamboo and aluminum wands she would sew into the fabric. Audiences gasped to see the woman onstage dissolve into an ever-changing series of Art Nouveau-inflected visions—butterflies, lilies, flickering flames—each rising gently into the air, spinning briefly in its pool of ever-changing rainbow light (projected by Fuller’s own patented stage machinery), and then sinking back to earth again. She would enhance these effects via her many other, equally ingenious (and patented) stagecraft inventions involving mirrored backdrops, glass pedestals (which lent her the appearance of dancing in mid-air), and sophisticated play with light and shadow. Essentially, Fuller turned herself into a living film screen (an avenue she explored further when she began experimenting in cinema, becoming one of the first women filmmakers in the world).

Audiences could barely espy Fuller at all. Usually, only her face and hands remained visible, while the rest of her disappeared entirely into the enormous costumes, ceding the human female body to the magical, ephemeral veil creations.  With this, she transferred all the eros implicit in the usual ‘veil dance’—the promise of a woman’s body unveiled, into the realm of aesthetics and technology. It was, as it turned out, a uniquely American thing to do. 

Oddly, neither Fuller’s 1895 full-length version of Salome, nor her later 1907 foray into the myth displayed the kind of crowd-pleasing sleekness and breath-taking beauty of her other work. While these two productions proved anomalous in the context of her aesthetic, the relationship between them and the rest of her career is revealing.

Fuller’s first Salome, staged at the Comédie Parisienne, with music by Gabriel Pierné and sets by Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse, changed the legend significantly.  Far from the schemer (or daughter of a schemer) who dances to have John the Baptist beheaded, in this inverted version, Salome is blameless and chaste—“practically a child” according to the program—and sacrifices her own life to save the Baptist from Herod’s wrath.  Dressed in an all-white costume bedecked with white roses (the flower of the Virgin Mary) rather than the traditional lotus flower associated with Salome, Fuller insisted on her character’s innocence.  As one reviewer observed, “[Fuller’s] dancing Judean girl is not the dark-faced passionate creature the medieval painters have made her, but a radiant blond …[who loves] a dreamy-eyed apostle, who was destined to die because of that love.” Fuller’s first Salome is an asexual martyr.

Critics were brutal.  In presenting this PG Salome, Fuller had hewn to her usual family-friendly approach to entertainment, but neglected to remain mysterious or technological.  Instead, she allowed audiences a clear view of her body and her dancing, giving the lie to any notion that this Salome was either ethereal or a virginal child. At 33, Fuller was already noticeably overweight and apparently perspired heavily with the effort of her performance. “Seen up close,” wrote one critic, “[Fuller] loses all charm.”

The 1907 version, La Tragédie de Salome, met with even worse reviews. Attempting to undo all her earlier mistakes, Fuller made this Salome a vampy temptress in an over-the-top camp extravaganza, which required 15 projectors, 650 lamps, and 4,500 colored feathers.  Her own costume featured long strings of pearls that coiled around her body while she writhed embarrassingly, clutching a six-foot-long artificial green snake. She even allowed a brief glimpse of her naked body silhouetted behind a screen. But plumper than ever at 45, Fuller proved as unconvincing a seductress as she had been a saintly girl-child.

Ultimately though, Fuller’s Salome persona defined itself against both of these interpretations. Fuller, that is, attained worldwide success as a modern Salome specifically by paring away the ornamental narrative and bodily display typically associated with this legend, and even with her own two productions.  One of her first and greatest accomplishments onstage, in fact, came about when she simply excerpted an individual veil dance, La Danse du Feu, from her 1895 Salome and performed it on its own: the career-making Fire Dance wowed crowds at the Paris World’s Fair of 1900. In this production, Fuller re-veiled her body, and offered a high-modernist Salome persona, stripped of all overt biblical references, other characters, and certainly of any overt, corporeal sexuality. Instead, she melted into vast flames of silk, dyed red by her special lighting gels. This was Fuller’s revolutionized Salome—a dematerialized vision of shifting, weightless forms; a technological marvel that telegraphed not the languor of Middle Eastern seraglios, but the mechanical wonders of the coming American century. This would be the path she’d follow for years.

By 1900, when Fuller was the sensation of the Fair– the only performing artist granted an entire pavilion just for herself–America was developing its reputation as a uniquely technological power, having recently acquired new territories in the wake of the Spanish-American war. The US was, therefore, treading into what had been the exclusively European domain of imperialism. But the American version of empire differed significantly from that of the Old World. America had no interest in a ‘civilizing mission,’ no interest in imposing its imagined cultural refinements on the Third World.  “Americans, wrote French ambassador to the US Jules Cambon, “[are] ignorant, brutal, and quite capable of carelessly destroying the complicated European structure [of imperialism.]” In the eyes of France, the United States was a money- and machine-driven nation hell-bent on aggressive acquisition of territories without regard for the ‘spiritual’ or Christian uplift of the natives. As historian Henry Blumenthal writes, “The speed and determination with which Americans imposed their will on modern civilization did not seem to hold out much promise for moral and human values.”

Fuller’s success as an American in Paris enacted precisely this transition from one kind of imperialism to another. Rather than perform as yet another veiled sexpot from a faraway, conquered land—a land of presumedly relaxed morality (to be opposed to a higher-minded imperial country), she created a post-Orientalist heroine. Her Salome eschewed all erotic and decorative excess, evoking the more impersonal methods of economic rather than cultural imperialism. Fuller used her veils not to tempt with flesh but to thrill with technical virtuosity. And in so doing, she also attenuated the vulgarity associated with America’s might. She was an American, but one whose persona took on a classic topos of dangerous female sexuality and rendered it chaste enough for women and children. (The Folies Bergères featured Fuller in its first-ever afternoon performances for families.) Yes, she was a veil dancer, but known offstage as a stout, bespectacled lady who lived discreetly with her female lover. She hailed from the menacing behemoth of America, but lived her life in France, speaking charmingly mangled French all her life.  She amassed a troupe of darling little girls who danced with her.  Fuller was nearly a cartoon character in some ways, a Mother Goose of modern dance.  But beating just beneath this anodyne surface, just beneath this metaphoric set of veils, was always a virtuoso not only of performance, but of stagecraft, lighting, design, and filmmaking—a scientist, an inventor, a pioneer—all signaling a recognizably American ingenuity.  France lauded her as its own adopted heroine, its own modern Salome, but Loie Fuller’s version of the story was always more complicated than that.

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