By Meredith Coleman
If you go on YouTube and type in “serpentine dance” in the search bar, films from the late 1800s appear, featuring dancers dancing against darkened backdrops. They move their arms as they hold onto sticks attached to the undulating fabric of their costumes. The fabric begins to rise and fall, swirl in circular motions. It becomes infused with a variety of colors. It comes to life. A few weeks ago, I watched the film Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895) and was first introduced to this distinct dance. I couldn’t help but be captivated by the rippling quality of the costume worn by the dancer Annabelle Moore in the film. I also couldn’t help but be captivated by the hand-tinted frames that came together to allow this outfit to be full of such transformations in color, with yellows becoming pinks, purples, and reds.
I wondered, who created the serpentine dance, something so full of energy?
Her name is Loie Fuller, an innovative dancer of the late 1800s who helped develop modern dance—and who is the focus of the film The Dancer (2016), playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center during their Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. Loie Fuller demonstrated not only dance’s ability to be a form of entertainment, but also an art form. She established the power of light, color, and projection. Little did I know that the hand-tinted color transformations in serpentine dance films of the late 1800s attempted to replicate the multi-colored electric lights that appeared on stage when Fuller performed, which allowed a variety of colors to materialize and change on her costume.
The Dancer, directed by Stéphanie Di Giusto and starring Soko as Loie Fuller, explores Fuller’s fascinating life. From her early years in the United States to becoming a star performer at the Folies Bergère in Paris, from a dance that started from sketches and became a performance, an art, the film gives you the opportunity to see who this woman was, maybe encounter her for the first time, and understand why many films tried to capture her unique, inventive movements.
The film allows you to view her serpentine dance as if you were in the audience of the Folies Bergère, watching her perform on the stage. In a particularly memorable moment, Soko (as Fuller) stands in the middle of a sea of darkness bathed in light as the electric, multi-colored hues travel upon the blank canvas of the silk fabric she wears. The colors go through a kind of metamorphosis, transforming into reds, blues, and greens. Through long shots and close-ups, you get to see the motion of her arms as she holds the bamboo sticks attached to the fabric, as she spins and twirls, allowing the material to live and breathe. The effect is magical.
The Dancer is playing at Film Society of Lincoln Center on March 2nd and March 6th, with the director and choreographer, Jody Sperling, giving a Q&A during the screening on the 6th. Soko gives a wonderful, emotional performance as Loie Fuller and the film gives you the opportunity to learn about Loie Fuller and recognize why she should continue to be thought of and admired in the 21st century.