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2013 New York Dance and Performance Awards
Nancy Reynolds is the winner of the 2013 Bessie Award for Outstanding Service to the Field of Dance.
Author Biography: Nancy Reynolds is director of research for the George Balanchine Foundation and a former member of the New York City Ballet. She has written widely about ballet and modern dance and is the author of Repertory in Review, among other books. Malcolm McCormick is a former professional dancer and costume designer who was a member of the dance faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles, and guest lecturer at other universities for many years.
AROUND THE TURN of the twentieth century, a new form of solo art dance-also called "aesthetic" or, occasionally, "barefoot" dance-began to appear on the stages of Europe and America. Some of the things that made it new were its seriousness of purpose, the use of concert music as an accompaniment, and an innovative approach to dance technique, in which the rigorous codes of ballet and the exhibitionistic high kicks of the music hall played no part. There was also freedom in dress-the dancers wore loose, uncorseted garments, revealed bare limbs, and danced without toe shoes. Their hair was unconfined. Four women-Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and the less famous Maud Allan-arrived independently at this new way to dance; they are considered the forerunners of the modern era. (Indeed, the first two became so well known that they are often popularly referred to by their first names only.) Although all were born in North America, they initially made their mark in the more receptive climate of Europe. Within just a few years, each was widely imitated on both continents. In creating a new identity, for dance, touring the world in the dissemination of their art, establishing schools to educate a new generation, and publishing books about their artistic goals and discoveries, they also represented an early form of New Woman-strong, independent, physically daring, self-sufficient. In much of what they did, they lacked role models of any kind.
It is popularly believed that these creators of a new dance were rebelling against "the ballet." But none, during her formative years, was in a position to see any ballet worthy of the name. The glories of the Russian repertory, which starred highly trained ballerinas displaying the latest elements of technical virtuosity, were an ocean away; thus, most Americans associated the dancer's art with tawdry showpieces featuring plump women in tightly laced corsets who were massed together in routines resembling military drills. And there were almost no men; even at the Metropolitan Opera-a rare example of a serious theater-male parts were danced by women en travestie.
Dance of one sort or another flourished in vaudeville, but this was not considered a high-class setting, even when graced by such stars as Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs. Patrick Campbell (and later by Fred Astaire and Marilyn Miller). For even the most distinguished performers played at least two shows a day, sharing variety programs with high-wire acts, roller-skating teams, animals, female impersonators, card-trick players, and so on, endlessly.
Then there were spectacle extravaganzas, forerunners of revue and musical comedy, which blended fairy-tale drama, song, dance, and vast tableaux and processions with the latest stage technology to create a phantasmagoria of theatrical marvels. The enterprising Kiralfy brothers produced some of the most elaborate blockbusters: in 1883 there was Excelsior, which glorified the march of technology; in 1888 Nero, or The Fall of Rome required a cast of 2,000. (A pageant about Egypt produced by Imre Kiralfy was seen by the young Ruth St. Denis.) The huge corps de ballet employed for these shows did not travel but was assembled from local talent-a hundred girls or more, mostly untrained. With dance episodes considered little more than leg shows, technical standards could not have been high. (When Florenz Ziegfeld came along to take up the tradition in 1907, he was hailed as "that promulgator of new century riots of color, Frenchiness, and female pulchritude, seasoned with music and song.") In short, dancing existed to titillate, decorate, or entertain-never to edify. And to dance was considered virtual prostitution. It was this prevailing state of affairs, rather than "the ballet," that drove the early dancers to evolve an art of self-expression, spiritual significance, and dignity. As Isadora Duncan declared in 1908, "It is to revive the lost art of dancing that I have devoted my life."
The fact that Americans had so few informed ideas about what dancing could or should be might have been an auspicious circumstance for anyone wanting to experiment, had it not been for a general mistrust of anything serious undertaken in the field. Resistance to dance innovation in America has usually been attributed to a legacy of Puritan anti-theatrical prejudice, which focused on the physicality of dance, and although there is some substance to this explanation, even in puritanical America the moral establishment accepted the idea that art and the theater-and even certain kinds of dancing-could be uplifting. Indeed, it was largely through the efforts of a liberal clergy that the arts in general achieved any social respectability. But there was also an attitude of moral austerity among the middle class and intellectuals. Both groups tended to associate art with decadent aristocratic political systems and with luxury and hedonistic tastes, all of which they perceived as a threat to the democratic experiment. Had they been able to foresee the egalitarian stance that modern dance would eventually take, they would no doubt have welcomed it sooner.
Female reformers in late nineteenth-century America supported the notion that vigorous exercise was essential to physical and spiritual well-being and could be accomplished in an aesthetic mode. Young women studied elocution and public speaking in academies and universities, where physical education took the form of Aesthetic Dancing (a system loosely based on balletic forms), German or Swedish gymnastics, or the "harmonic gymnastics" of the American Delsarte system. All of these reflected principles absorbed by the modernist forerunners, and the progression to an experimental free style of dancing in America seemed assured. It was slow in coming, however.
In the meantime, the idea that women were intellectually capable and educable had awakened the possibility that the feminine point of view might be unique and worth expressing. Women stuck to their gymnastics, statue posing, tableaux vivants, and "free" or "interpretive" dancing, and by 1910, helped by considerable progress in dress reform, they were pumping bicycles, learning to hike, swim, and canoe, and playing lawn tennis. When, two decades later, American modern dance offered the opportunity for real expression, American women possessed the most important attributes: a disquieted mind, irrepressible enthusiasm, and strong, supple bodies.
Though Isadora Duncan is usually given progenitorial precedence in inspiring the breakthrough to the modern era, Loie Fuller's fame preceded hers by a decade, and Fuller's niche beside Duncan is secure. Loie was not even a dancer by training (she had taken some six lessons in her life). Rather, she was an actress who specialized in male roles; nevertheless, she is considered the earliest major precursor of modern dance. Loie appeared onstage with bare feet; sometimes she wore draperies and sometimes flowing dresses, and she always went uncorseted.
Mary Louise Fuller was probably born on January 22, 1862, in a tavern in Fullersburg, a small village near Chicago. (In her years of fame, she delighted in giving journalists many versions of her life, including eight different birth dates.) Her mother had studied singing briefly, and while still very young, Loie appeared in the chorus of Faust with a Chicago opera company. She claimed to have also been a temperance lecturer and Shakespeare reciter; during the 1877-78 season, at the age of fifteen or so, she was employed full time as an actress with the Felix A. Vincent company, and through the decade of the eighties she performed in vaudeville, stock, and burlesque (usually in pants parts), while streamlining her name to Loie. One vehicle, The Arabian Nights, or Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp, in which she starred as Aladdin in 1887, was a burlesque spectacle featuring such amazing scenic effects as a "Veil of Vapor, or Steam Curtain" and a "Crypt of Crimson Crystals." The twinkling crystals were created by a switchboard of electric lights, rare for the time. (More often gas lighting, carbon arcs, and magic-lantern projections provided illumination.) Flashed onto gauze hangings, the lights enriched the stunning scenic transformations that were sometimes the raison d'être for a show. In one of the Arabian Nights ballets, the white costumes of the performers were tinted with rainbow colors by light beamed through two prisms.
Certainly Fuller learned something from the stage "magic" of the jumbled spectacles in which she regularly appeared for fifteen years (until she was almost thirty, for in her mature art, the play of light on moving fabric was her dance. Disadvantaged by lack of training as well as by a stocky body, she concentrated on illusionistic effects and the lighting techniques that made them possible. The story of her development belongs as much to the history of stagecraft as to the history of dance, for she was the first to exploit, if not to invent, many elements of modern stage lighting.
Fuller later claimed that in the beginning her dance vocabulary consisted of "twelve characteristic motions." Film fragments from about 1904 show that she used few jumps; there were long rushes across the stage and swirling turns and undulations of the arms and torso, along with various waltz steps and skips that one might expect from someone unschooled but adept at assimilation. While continuing the sweeping arm gestures buoying her draperies, she would kneel and extend one leg to the front, bending backward to brush the floor with her hair. In contrast to the ballet of her era, Fuller's movements seemed spontaneous and natural.
In 1891, after about a year of performing in London, Loie appeared in New York in an obscure play, Quack, M.D., in which she played a woman who was hypnotized by a doctor. For this eerie scene, she improvised a costume of silky transparent fabric illuminated by soft lights that was so long she had to hold it aloft to avoid tripping as she ran back and forth, occasionally spiralling in alternating directions. Then came a solo in another show, Uncle Celestin, in which, after the house lights dimmed (a rarity in 1892), she performed three dances, each lit by a single color, an effect achieved by placing a piece of colored glass in front of a projector. While in motion, Loie again raised voluminous skirts in the air, and her signature "serpentine dance" was born. (Although the precise origins of this dance are not known-due, in part, to various versions of the story offered by Loie-it was related to the "skirt dance," which combined ballet steps with clog dancing and was a great favorite in the English music hall. Loie had appeared with the popular skirt dancer Kate Vaughan while in London.)
With a suite of five dances, Fuller set sail for Europe and, after an engagement with a circus, arrived in Paris to open at the leading French music hall, the Folies-Bergère, on November 5, 1892. (She had hoped to appear at the Opera instead.) Her program consisted of Serpentine (to a popular violin piece, "Au loin du bal"), Violet, Butterfly, and XXXX, later called La Danse Blanche, and her success with critics and public alike was instantaneous-"a success without precedent in this theater," according to an opening-night reviewer. Illuminated by multi-colored electric lights, Loie danced in costumes made of yards of China silk, manipulating the material into the air by the velocity of her movements until it billowed and caught the light, fracturing and deflecting it to create the illusion of shimmering flowers, butterflies, clouds, and flames. On that Paris night, it could fancifully be claimed, dance of the twentieth century was born.
Following this triumph, Fuller was christened "La Fee Lumineuse"-"The Fairy of Light"-and the intoxication of watching her was compared to the effects of hashish. After fifteen years on the stage, she had found her art. Her popularity soon led to the appearance of Loie skirts, handkerchiefs, and scarves-even a Loie Fuller stove. When the Folies-Bergère closed for the summer, Loie undertook successful tours in London and New York. When she returned to Paris for a second season, she occupied all apartment adjoining the Folies-Bergère, where she gave her three-hundredth performance in January 1894.
Fuller was interested in exploring every means of combining color and movement. Her career flourished during a period, 1890-1915, when phenomenal changes in theater lighting were taking place; her spectacular illusions would not have been possible without the electric light. As early as 1846, the arc lamp had provided electricity in theaters for special effects, and Edison's invention of the incandescent lamp in 1879 gave theaters an alternative to gas lighting. But the aesthetic, expressive, and theatrical potential of lighting remained undeveloped until Loie began her experimentation. Operating the lights was difficult: an electrician was required to run each one separately because the colored gelatins had to be inserted by hand. Loie achieved special magic by projecting a multi-colored slide, superimposing another on it, and then removing the first. She claimed to use up to thirty-four lamps, operated by fourteen to twenty electricians, whom she directed by such prearranged signals as tapping her heels.
With time her effects became more and more elaborate: the "fiery lighting" of her 1895 Salome was adapted to turn sea into blood for another rendition of Salome in 1907; in the Fire Dance (1895), which she performed on a glass plate lit from below (her own invention), "shaking and twisting in a torrent of incandescent lava, her long dress spouting flame and rolling around in burning spirals, ... she stood in blazing embers, and did not burn." To heighten her effects, Loie used no scenery, and she draped the stage, including the floor, in black velvet, so that the theater was in total darkness before her dances began. The complete absence of light was one of her earliest and most dramatic inventions.
Fuller's costumes were also innovative, and to guard against imitators (who had appeared even before her great success and were prolific thereafter), she astutely patented some of her costumes as well as some of her scenic devices. In 1893 she received a patent for a dress with a simple bodice and very full skirt, as worn in the original Serpentine. A year later she patented a voluminous garment that had wands attached inside the skirt; these the dancer grasped, thereby obtaining a far greater "reach" in the manipulation of the fabric. Later specifications called for a skirt measuring 120 yards at the hem, made of the finest translucent iridescent silk. In 1895 Loie patented an arrangement of mirrors that framed the performer onstage: lights lined the angles where the mirrors joined, thus creating the reflection of many figures.
Excerpted from No Fixed Points by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick Copyright © 2003 by Nancy Reynolds. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||New Dance: America's Pioneers (1900-1940)||1|
|2||Experimentalism in Ballet: Diaghilev, Fokine, and the Russian Legacy (1900-1930s)||33|
|3||Modernism Revealed: Ausdruckstanz, the Dance of Expression (1910-1945)||77|
|4||Ballet Comes to America (1900-1940s)||106|
|5||America After Denishawn: The Heroic Age of Modern Dance (1920-1940s)||141|
|6||Ballet in Western Europe: The Rise of National Traditions (1900-1960s)||178|
|7||A World Apart: Dance in Russia and the Soviet Union (1900-1960s)||238|
|8||Ballet in America Comes of Age (1935-1965)||265|
|9||Modern Dance: The Second Generation (1935-1980s)||319|
|10||Schism and Transition: Reinterpreting Modern Dance (1940s-2000)||354|
|11||Beyond the Boundaries: Postmodernism (1960-1980)||393|
|12||Internationalism: The Merging of the Disciplines (1950-2000)||424|
|13||Ballet Rising (1960-1990s)||493|
|14||Ballet's High Tide (1960s-2000)||532|
|15||Late Modernism: Pluralism and the Ascendancy of Style (1960s-2000)||605|
|16||Musical Theater in America (1900-2000)||674|
|17||Dance in the Movies (1900-2000)||708|