Loïe, electric fairy, an agony of flame. Mistress of light, soul of Art Nouveau.
She was Marie, plain Marie, in the morning, standing five feet two. She was Louise in slacks. She was Fuller on the dotted line.
Born to a family of vaudeville entertainers in Illinois in 1862, Marie Louise Fuller spent her childhood and young adulthood as a skirt dancer in burlesque and circus shows. In her late twenties, she began to experiment lighting effects on her long silk skirt, choreographing “natural” moving techniques and developing a performance aesthetic. She moved to Paris in 1892 and performed her innovative act; Serpentine Dance on the Parisian music hall, triumphing with the fruits of her intellectual and physical labour and becoming an overnight sensation as Loïe.
Behind the stage identity of Loïe, there was Marie; a one-woman multimedia enterprise who broke the mould of traditional choreography, stagecraft and design in an era where women still considered objects of artistic ardor rather than subjects of the arts.
A sensational career blendid with science, technology and art
Fuller manipulated her robe of white silk fabric with self-designed long handheld sticks of bamboo or aluminum. While remaining almost stationary, she prioritized the movement of her liquid dancing machinery over the movement of her body under colored lights on a darkened stage. This unusual technique which is not accompanied by any known dance attributes of that time, paved the way for the development of modern dance.
During her performance, Fuller projected dynamic lights produced by colored glass panels on white silk, transforming it into an undulating canvas which could make painters envy. She built her own laboratory and experimented with light-producing phosphorescent salts to paint her canvases. As a result of experimentation, various chemical methods for producing colored lighting gels were developed. These gels are still considered as the first chemical mixes for glass panels. As a lighting pioneer, she was also the first to use of luminescent salts to create glow-in-the-dark effects. Alas, these chemical formulas and methods remained as trade secrets and never subjected to public disclosure even when she had retired.
Property rights over the abstraction of body
This secrecy on her chemical trades suggests that the white silk fabric was not the only thing that this extraordinary person has manipulated in her entire career. Her multidisciplinary art; abstract, complex and free from the constraints of her contemporaries, made her stage persona Loïe hailed as an icon of ideal Woman according to the precepts of Art Nouveau. Whit remarkable speed, fictitious nature of male gaze reinterpreted Loïe in forms varied from literature to sculpture. Visual images and verbal impressions of the dancer produced in considerable amount between 1893 and 1900. Unlike as some scholars suggest that her entrance on the Parisian stage in November of 1892 was a fortuitous occasion in propitious time, it was not just a happy accident that made Loïe the personification of Art Nouveau. She was an artist with great intention and was well aware of her creation of biomorphic forms in butterflies, flowers and flames would fit for Art Nouveau demands of a return to organic forms with reliance on color.
While being the object of the artistic scene clinched her success, the unchecked circulation of Loïe in commodity form was not something that Fuller can tolerate. Fuller sought a way to differentiate Loïe from being circulated as a salable sexualized object in the art marketplace. Since she couldn’t establish her status as the subject of property in the abstraction of her body, she tried to gain control of her image by commissioning specific artists to represent her in their works.
Motion against free riders
The success of Fuller’s Serpentine Dance also triggered the alarms of intellectual property rights as terpsichore copycats spawned on both sides of Atlantic. Consequently, Fuller came to the realiziation that she must also control the circulation of her choreography to protect her subject status. Despite the fact that choreography -an ephimeral art, didn’t recognized as a copyrightable category at the time, Fuller was determined that her expressive output was an intellectual property. On May of 1892, Marie Louise Fuller requested for an injunction in US on the ground of copyright infringment against Minnie Renwood Bemis in an attempt to prevent Bemis from performing a version of Serpentine Dance (Fuller v. Bemis , Albany Law Journal, v. 46, 1892, p.165–166).
Unlike other performing arts, dances don’t exist independently of the manner in which they’re performed. There is no score or script. In this sense, Fuller also was a pioneer in her attempt to “fix“ dance in a tangible form to merit copyright protection. She recorded and submitted a textual description of her choreography for copyright registration. A summary of this description as follows (Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance, Oxford Scholarship Online: Anthea Kraut, November 2015, p.14):
Fuller’s version of the solo dance was comprised of three (p.56) tableaus, each commencing with a dark stage, building to a “graceful climax,” and ending with the dancer executing an eye-catching pose. In between, the dancer moved (at times with waltz-like steps) up- and downstage and performed a series of turns, all the while manipulating the ample material of her dress, such that, when combined with the effects of colored lighting, her body seemed to appear and disappear as images of flowers, butterflies, and waves materialized and faded away. For example, in Tableau 1, the soloist “dances down center to footlights, followed by several whirls or turns which bring dancer back to center. (All this time the dress is held up above the head.... ) She makes two turns, dropping dress, which the two whirls or turns bring into place. She takes dress up at each side, turns body from side to side, swinging dress from one side low in front to high at back, forming a half-umbrella shape over the head.” Later, the dancer “gives a rounding, swerving movement that causes dress to assume the shape of a large flower, the petals being the dress in motion.”
In Fuller v. Bemis, Fuller claimed Serpentine Dance was a dramatic composition and therefore the copyright registration of it was valid. Nevertheless, the judge for the U.S. Circuit Court denied Fuller’s request for an injunction on the grounds that Serpentine Dance can not be considered as a “dramatic” or “dramaticomusical composition”, therefore not eligible for copyright protection.
Eighty years after Fuller v. Bemis case, US Federal Copyright Law finally extended protection to choreographic works. Fuller had choreographed a total of 128 dances but her work fell into an undeserved obscurity after her death because her time lacked legal recognition of dance as copyright. It might have not been possible to preserve the ethos that went into her creation, but copyright registerations of her choreographs could have been a great archival source for the history of modern dance.
Inventor of the mechanical and optical domains
In January 1893, -despite her failure to safeguard her choreography, Fuller publicly declared that she will take legal action against anyone who imitates her work. Six months after the U.S. Circuit Court denied her claim on copyright infringment, Fuller switched strategy and pursued industrial property rights in her technical and design work.
In January, 1894, she received a U.S. patent for “Mechanism for the Production of Stage Effects” (US 513102) (which was also patented in England and France and designed for her famous Fire Dance), particularly of an illusionary character. Figure 1 of US 513102 is a perspective view of a theatrical stage setting, partially in section to show the illuminating foyer comprising of an ordinary flooring (A) and a false flooring (B) below the stage [pg. 1 lines 12–22]. The lights of electric and calcium were to be installed below the false flooring (B) of glass or wood and glass, in which latter case transparent glasses or lenses may be embbed on wooden flooring [pg. 1 lines 23–27]. The false floor (B) of the invention projects upwards, so that the dancer would appear suspended. With this invention Fuller transfigured Loïe into a leaping “agony of flame” as she stood swirling her garment with iridescent lights of scarlet and cinnabar.
Also in April of the same year, Fuller patented “Garment for Dancers” (US 518347) which was specifically designed for Serpentine Dance. She also was granted a patent for the same invention in France (1BB227107 -1893) and England. The patent specified a dancing garment consisting of a skirt, the upper edge of which is attached to a crown-piece. Said skirt with two wand one end of each of which is attached to the skirt near its lower inner edge, adjesent to the sides of the dancer, the opposite ends of the wands being loose and adapted to be grasped by the hands of the wearer for the purpose of manipulating the garment (Claim 1).
In 1895, Fuller patented “Theatrical Stage Mechanism” ( US 533167 ). The design consisted of mirrors on stage in a darkened auditorium to give the illusion of multiple dancers performing. In the patent application Fuller wrote, when the mirror flooring (B) and the inclined mirror ceiling (D) are utilized in connection with the vertical reflecting surfaces (AA), and all in combination with the rows of light, the reflections of the dancer will be increased many fold [pg. 1 lines 78–84]. Specification was clearly disclosing the technology behind her Mirror Dance.
Apart from her patented inventions, Fuller also protected her performance costume “ Dancing Dress” by granting a US design patent (US D 21526) in 1892. The circular dress-skirt (A) provided in proximity to its periphery with a series of ornaments (B) in the form of conventional representations of pansies [pg.1 lines 19–23].
The paradoxes of intellectual property; the act of protecting the work is also a vehicle for disclosing and making knowledge. Since Fuller’s legacy still remains of interest to scholars of dance history, gender studies and early multimedia studies, these intellectual property documents — as their key function is the transition from industrial to informational economy, provide great research material to those of interest.
Paradox of 20th Century, Posthuman of 21th
As paradox is the very act of protecting intellectual property, this remarkable American was also considered a paradox in her time. An inventor and an invention, a creator and a creation, a subject and an object, Fuller imagined and staged Loie as a cyborg-like body that expanded the limits of the human form with the use of prosthetics, light, and replication (“The inanimate becomes animate”: Loie Fuller, speculative feminist aesthetics, and posthuman embodiment, Nineteenth-Century Contexts An Interdisciplinary Journal: Lara Karpenko, 27 Sep 2019).
Above all these, what she had taught was a feminine stamina together with intelligence, ingenuity and independent spirit. She was an obstinate autodidact who cannot be controlled or dominated by anyone. The strength of these traits enabled her to be existed outside of the barriers usually placed on women of her time and to keep going in the face of repeated difficulties.