Monday, July 29, 2013

Ida (Pinckney) Fuller, Belle Époque "Interpretive" Dancer

In Ida Fuller, née Pinckney (October 1, 1867-August 5, 1922), the well known Belle Époque "interpretive" dancer, we have a very clear example of the competitive twists and turns that sometimes occurred between performers of la Belle Époque.

RESERVED Ida Fuller, Skirt Dancer of La Belle Époque, circa 1905


Ida Fuller became widely known for her "skirt" dancing, also known as "butterfly" or "serpentine" dancing. This was a variety of dance which was, as far as we can determine, developed by the famous dancer, choreographer, and inventor, Loïe Fuller (January 15, 1862-January 2, 1928), a remarkable woman whose name became, in many ways, synonymous with Art Nouveau and the Belle Époque. Only one of the ways in which this is remarkable is the fact that Loïe Fuller (born Marie Louise Fuller) was a somewhat short, chubby girl from Illinois, not known for being a great beauty, who after gaining a middling reputation as an actress and singer in the States, made her way to Paris, opened at the Folies Bergeres, and became an almost instant success.  Although she did return, now and then, to the U.S., and maintained her citizenship here, she basically adopted France as her home, and France, most certainly, adopted her.

Portrait of Loïe Fuller, via Wikipedia

Loïe Fuller also founded a number of dance schools in the United States and Europe for students interested in following the path of this iconic dancer. A group of students at one such school, L'École de Loïe Fuller, can be seen in the following image:


SOLD Students of Belle Époque Dancer Loïe Fuller, circa 1905

Called her "muses," or "Fullerettes" Miss Fuller is said to have doted on her students (one of whom was, for a short time, Isadora Duncan), and in the choreography and production end of performances with these girls, her work was almost as highly regarded as was she herself for her own interpretive dance routines.

A pioneer of modern dance, Loïe Fuller was also the developer of the "serpentine," or "skirt" dance. Part of the magic of this style, which involved the manipulation of sometimes hundreds of yards of silk, creating flowing patterns around and above the dancer, was the effect of colored lights shone up through a glass floor upon which the dancer performed. Miss Fuller was one of the earliest developers of colored gels for theatrical lighting, as well as a number of chemical formulas for use in lighting effects. Though not born into high society, or highly educated, she counted among her closest friends, top ranking scientists and inventors, members of European royalty, and artists of all mediums.

Portrait of Loïe Fuller, by Frederick Glasier, 1902, via Wikipedia

Volumes could be (and have been), written about Loïe Fuller, dubbed "La Loie" by Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme and often affectionately called Lo-Lo by her admiring fans. The style of dance she introduced to the world was much copied and imitated. Her work was even parodied. In his book, The Victorian Visitors: Culture Shock in Nineteenth Century Britain, Rupert Christiansen tells of one amusing example: "the music hall star Little Tich, who parodied her [Loïe Fuller's "serpentine" dancing], as Miss Turpentine, swanning around the stage in yards of rapturous muslin and then breaking the sublime illusion by stopping to scratch her leg."

Scores of women claimed a close relationship to Loïe Fuller. Some even claimed to be her sister, going so far as to use the last name of Fuller, most of them illegitimately. But at least one could legitimately claim a familial relationship and the use of the Fuller name, and that one was Ida Fuller.

Less information can be found regarding Ida Fuller than Loïe. Born Ida Pinckney, in Forest City Iowa, in 1867, in biographical articles concerning Loïe, Ida is often dismissed as a mere imitator, a pretender to Loïe's own unique art form, the serpentine dance.  That Ida was a latecomer, who made use of Loïe's already developed style to work out her own routines, is almost certain. To dismiss her, however, as a mere imitator, is probably not entirely fair.

It has been suggested that Ida's "claims" that she was a relation of Loïe's, were untrue. Our research suggests otherwise. Ida Pinckney married Frank Rodney Fuller, Loïe's elder brother, making the two women sisters-in-law. Frank was an electrician with extensive knowledge of Loïe's lighting effects, reputed to have been involved in her earliest successes with her dance routines, and it is likely that he used his skills to help his wife in her own dance routines.

The Lake Mills Graphic, a newspaper published in Lake Mills, Iowa, made note of Ida Fuller as she passed through town. The following snippets were shared on a genealogical forum by one of Ida Fuller's relatives:

Lake Mills Graphic, Iowa, 17 Oct 1894: 

Lake Mills Graphic, Iowa 6 July 1898:

We also found a copy of an emergency passport application filled out by Ida in 1898, in Vienna. Witnessing this application is Frank R. Fuller, who, as mentioned above, was Loïe Fuller's older brother.

U.S. Passport Application for Ida Fuller, Issue Date: 26 Nov 1898*

This document at least establishes that Ida's claim to a familial relationship, if by marriage, is true enough.

Additionally, the "Fire Dance," a routine for which Loie herself became very well known, and to whom its invention is generally credited, was, (evidenced by our research), actually an invention not of Loïe's, but of Ida's, who performed the routine widely, both in Europe and in the United States.

In Forty Years of Observation of Music and Drama, by Robert Grau, 1909 Broadway Publishing Co., Grau, clearly a fan of Loïe Fuller's work, praised her artistic accomplishments, and bemoaned the fact that her genius had gone unappreciated in America. However, when touching on Ida, he writes (on page 240):
Ida Fuller is not a sister of Loie, but her sister in law. She married Frank Fuller, an electrician, who was closely identified with Loie's first success It is only fair to Ida to explain that her greatest achievement, the basic foundation of the success which she has so struggled for, the fire dance, is her own creation, as more than one important interest in theatricals has discovered by decisions in courts of equity, which give to Ida Fuller, for all time, undisputable protection to her patents and creations.
Loie's brother Burt (Loie's younger brother), also apparently an electrician, is often credited with having worked closely with Loie in the production of her routines, and Frank (her older brother), often goes unmentioned. We suspect that a rift developed between Loie and Frank, and can only imagine the unfortunate vituperations which must have arisen between them when Frank assisted his wife, Ida, in the development of the "Fire Dance."

On the other hand, we need to remember that although Loïe Fuller had the reputation of being extremely secretive as far as her "serpentine" dance routines and their lighting effects were concerned, in show business, whether in the moving picture industry, which was in its early infancy at that time, or on the stage, between dancers, or stage magicians (whose illusions immediately come to mind when thinking of Loïe and Ida Fuller's work), feuds between performers made the press, and what made the press made for public interest, and that translated into showers of gold. So we may never know for certain whether or not Ida and Frank actually hijacked Loïe's invention of serpentine dancing, or whether it was willingly shared among members of the same family.

AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE Serpentine Dancer a la Loïe Fuller, Posted in 1907

If in France the reception of this style of dancing was embraced with excitement and enthusiasm, it was not always so elsewhere. Below is a quote from On and Off, a collection of theatrical interviews published in London, in 1894 by journalist Gilbert Dalziel, who refers to himself as "Mr. Call Boy" (note that the satirical voice of the book calls into question the accuracy of anything reported) in which he reveals, during the introduction to an interview with dancer Mimi St. Cyr, the contempt he feels for this style:

"As certainly as the Serpentine dance has been overdone, so has it been misnamed. The Serpentine dance, as we know it, is not serpentine at all. It's a waving of the skirts which is far more suggestive of clothes hanging out to dry in a high wind than of serpents."

We think it is rather a shame that Mr. Call Boy should have written so derisively of the style of dance in which Ida Fuller specialized, particularly when earlier in the book, he publishes an interview she granted him! Following is a portion of that interview in which Ida Fuller briefly, and somewhat humorously talked about one aspect of her dancing:

"I hear that this dancing with the arms is much more fatiguing than dancing with the legs. Is that a fact, Miss Fuller?"

"It is just that, Mr. Call Boy. And for why? In dancing with your arms you have to hold them up so, or stretch them out like that (suiting actions to words), and all the blood runs out of them. There's not much natural strength where there's no blood, you know, and consequently one kind of dancing is more tiring than the other. I find the Butterfly dance a tremendous strain. Dancing with your legs is a different thing altogether. They are more or less in their natural position; the feet are mostly pointed to the floor, and when a leg is thrown above the head, it is only for a moment. It is back again before it knows it has been there!"

In Art Nouveau: The French Aesthetic, Victor Arwas describes the physical challenges of this kind of dancing, particularly in terms of the manipulation of the long bamboo rods to which were attached the flowing silks. In fact, La Loie, and presumably Ida Fuller also, sometimes manipulated hundreds of yards of silk during her performances, causing them to gracefully billow and take shape as high as thirty feet in the air above her.

But, as to the artistic merits of this style of dance, our readers can be the judge. The following YouTube video will treat you to a delightful collection of very early motion picture clips, wherein a number of women (who knows, perhaps one of them is Ida Fuller!), perform this style of dance.

*Although we have read that Loie Fuller, herself, never made a motion picture of her work, we observe that the dancer in clip number seven does at least resemble La Loie.




*This image of Ida Fuller's U.S. Passport Application was from Ancestry.com. (Source Citation: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Emergency Passport Applications (Issued Abroad), 1877-1907; Collection Number: ARC Identifier 1187503 / MLR Number A1 515; NARA Series: M1834; Roll #: 14; Volume #: 22. Source Information: Ancestry.com. U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007.)