Film History Essentials: Danse Serpentine (1897)

(English: Serpentine Dance)

What it’s about:

An unknown dancer, likely in Rome, performs a version of Loie Fuller’s famous Serpentine Dance. She spins and waves her arms, causing her dress to transform into various shapes before our eyes. Her dress, painstakingly hand-tinted, changes colors as she moves.

Why it’s essential:

Loie Fuller began her career on the stage as a child, and by her late teens she had achieved a certain amount of success and recognition as a comedic actress. In her autobiography, Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life, she gives a fascinating account of how, while playing a role as the subject of a hypnotist, she happened to stumble into the effect that she would go on to develop into one of the most famous dances of the 1890s. All on her own she carefully practiced the dance, designed the costumes that would emphasize its movements, and planned the lighting effects that helped to distinguish it. Her only problem then was to convince any theatrical manager to take a chance putting her on the stage in a type of act for which she was totally unknown.

The result was a string of bad experiences. Her act, once she secured a venue, was popular with audiences, but she found herself working for a series of managers who exploited her, who ultimately stole her dance and gave it to other performers, and the last of whom left her stranded in Berlin with no work. The first of these men gave her dance the name that it would become famous under. In reality, Fuller’s varied movements simulated a number of things in nature: butterflies, orchids, clouds, and more. Nevertheless her style was to be forever known as the “serpentine dance.”

Fuller now resolved to make her way to Paris in the hopes that she might find more appreciation there. She was disturbed, upon her arrival in October 1892, to find that the serpentine dance had preceded her. In fact, it was already on the program at the Folies Bergère, the very theater she had hoped to dance at. According to her own account, she went in to watch the show, and found the imitation (by an American dancer she claimed to know, and to have loaned money to) so inferior that she was sure she could outshine it. After auditioning her version for the theater manager, he agreed to take her on immediately; although first she performed for a few days under the name of her rival while the program was changed.

Loie Fuller, in costume

This proved to finally be the break she had been looking for, and she went on to achieve great success and acclaim. She lived the rest of her life in Paris, some 35 more years, and was acquainted with, and reportedly beloved by, many of the artistic and social elite of her day. Her life, work, and legacy are quite incredible and worth reading about, though they are beyond the scope of a discussion of film history. For whatever reason, although many, many serpentine dances were filmed, she was never captured on film herself, either performing her signature dance or in any other capacity.

Many online film databases and video uploads claim, erroneously, that she is the featured dancer in a number of “serpentine dance” films. Danse Serpentine, filmed for the Lumière brothers by an unknown camera operator in 1897, is one that frequently misidentifies her as its star. However, the actual Lumière catalog makes no such claim. The dancer’s face is clearly visible, and is clearly not Fuller. Furthermore, the inscription above the stage (though it is cropped out in some available versions), reads “Via Due Macelli” (“Street of Two Slaughterhouses”) which is the name of a street in the heart of Rome.

Although it just one of several examples of serpentine dances on film from these years, it is particularly notable for its use of color, reminiscent of the hand-tinting on Annabelle Serpentine Dance. Here, however, both the coloring and the dance are more sophisticated. It is much more evident here than in the Annabelle Moore version just why this technique so captured audiences’ attention and imaginations.

Why you should see it:

The way the colors of the dancer’s dress shift subtly through an entire rainbow of hues is mesmerizing and beautiful, but it’s the dance itself that truly enchants. There are several points during the dance where only the dancer’s head is visible among the voluminous folds of her costume, and sometimes even that is obscured or blends in with the black background behind her. The effect is almost one of watching a completely alien creature moving independently, flowing and fluttering around the stage.

Fuller herself often performed parts of her dances with only a single light source, which must certainly have heightened the sense of a disembodied swath of animated fabric shifting and changing on its own. Unfortunately, it would have been impossible to film with so little light at the time, so we are forced to do our best to imagine it with the help of approximations like this. Still, it is quite lovely in its own right.

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~ by Jared on March 12, 2023.

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