"For truth to tell, dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education: dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with pen- that one must learn how to write." Friedrich Nietzsche
Long before Georgia O’Keefe painted her mystical flowers, Loie Fuller captivated Paris by creating the image of an enormous being that undulates and glows in successively hot colors. Rather than solely choreographing her body, Fuller experimented also with fabric, lighting, perspective, and color to achieve her hypnotic art. While Isadora may be the mother of modern dance, Fuller is the mother of art and technology. Thanks to the research of New York dancer/choreographer Jody Sperling, we have enjoyed live recreations of Fuller’s genius. Now, we have a feature film choreographed by Sperling, The Dancer, to appreciate Fuller’s life story.
Nominated at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival for Caméra d’Or, Prix Un Certain Regard, César Award for Best First Feature Film, and Lumières Award for Best First Film, The Dancer directed by Stéphanie Di Giusto had its U.S. premiere at the Walter Reade Theatre, as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendezvous with French Cinema.
Photo: Courtesy Wild Bunch
For anyone who loves period films, special effects, and Americana, this is a must-see film. From the opening shots suggesting the American west of the 1880s, we know Fuller, as played by French celebrity singer Soko, to be a tough fantasist who had to take care of herself. Her charming drunk of a father, with whom she spoke his native language - French, supported her ambition, but he was shot while soaking fully clothed in an outdoor tub. Fuller threw a match into the tub and set off into the woods on a horse.
In New York, she endured the unromantic life of an aspiring actress while living with her unimpressed mother. After some amusing auditions, she stumbled on her premise while acting as a subject for a hypnotist when her costume fell. She picked it up, swirled until the fabric covered her face and the audience cheered.
Photo: Courtesy Wild Bunch
With no training, beyond her own acute observation and experimentation, Fuller was a self-made artist. She absorbed the architectural illusions of the Christian Church. We see her admiring light coming through stained glass, gazing at an admirer through a colored vase, and studying the uplifted arms of Christ. That same admirer, who became her patron, told her that her avant garde pursuits would be adored in Paris. Off she goes to Belle Époque Paris.
Soko, as Fuller, is fascinating all the time. Fuller was a fitness freak ahead of her time, alternately training and healing her arms to withstand the strain of swirling heavy fabric for an hour. Self-conscious of her looks and sexuality, she avoided contact with her public, yet gathered a circle of women to dance outside and on-stage with her wild as the wind. One of those women was Isadora Duncan. Ah, if only Vanessa Redgrave (Karel Reisz’s feature film Isadora, 1968) or another actress of her caliber could have played Isadora.
The weak center of the film about the rivalry between Fuller and Duncan stems from the poor casting of Isadora. Jonny Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose, while lovely and graceful, plays the naughty, barely clad improviser from San Francisco, presented here as bitchy and forgettable. One might quibble about many other details, but, too much about The Dancer is strong. It is a sumptuous, respectful tribute to a female pioneer, a master of abstract eroticism.