The Electricity Fairy by Alex Mar

The Electricity Fairy by Alex Mar

Loïe Fuller, or La Loïe, is the inventor of modern dance as we know it. She transfixed her audience through movement embellished with light and costume design. This short history reveals the moment where she takes a small, uncredited part and creates something new. As with most novelty, it doesn’t take beyond the performance. In part because of her ordinary appearance, she can find no support in the late 19th Century United States as an actress.

She switches her interest to dance performance and turns to Paris, France, to find a willing audience. La Loïe becomes a star so popular that she’s internationally well-known and admired. This book follows both her artistic progress and her life, including her romantic relationship with a cross-dressing woman (or possibly transman). It brings to light a bit of forgotten history, pointing to her brilliance in use of illumination, choreography, and even chemistry as she continues to push the barriers of what is possible. At the same time, her singlemindedness doesn’t always work in her favor, as this account shows.

History may have forgotten her beyond mis-labeled, and rare, early footage, but during her era, La Loïe is famous. She’s welcomed by the elite and scientists, who let her in to see research in progress. Edison tries to convince her to be filmed with no success, but some research his company pursues ends up embellishing her dance. Copycats spring up, appearing in early films when she herself holds firm to the transient nature of performance. She’s unwilling to trust scientists to preserve her performances without corrupting them.

When visiting the Curies, she tries to convince them to allow her to use some radioactive materials in her performance. They refuse to expose an unsuspecting audience to what they already suspect of being dangerous, much to her disappointment.

These are just a few of the encounters described within. It’s a fascinating look at how she was perceived in her own time, and her lasting impression on many aspects of dance performance for all her name is all but lost. The book also gives a glimpse of the changing times as cinema impinges on the world of live performances. Recordings might reduce the impact of performances, but at the same time, film makes the art available to the masses instead of only the wealthy elite. Even the Edison/Tesla conflict is given some space.

This is a short, evocative, and at times, lyrical narrative of a dancer’s life who created her own techniques that still influence modern dance today. I enjoyed learning her history, especially in how it comes along with a sense of the changing era. The world trembled on the edge of a technological leap forward that would make the fascination with live performances dim as cinema brought even grand operas to a stage within the budget of the average person. And yet, because of her own wish for an ethereal performance, she refuses to grace the repetitive format of film. La Loïe has faded from the public’s memory until any of her filmed imposters is mistaken for her.

Two other elements added depth to this fascinating account.

She was not a beautiful, slender woman, but rather captivated audiences with her style and graceful choreography. La Loïe used light and moving fabric for a living canvas until audiences forgot her nontraditional appearance and became enamored of her art.

The second is simply this…she lived to explore new enhancements that would strengthen her next performance, becoming as much a chemist and light scientist as a performing artist. She was ahead of her time in many aspects. I’m glad to have met her through this moving account and its awareness of both the social mores and the scientific breakthroughs making her moment all that more exceptional.

P.S. This title and the Inventions-Untold Stories of the Beautiful Era collection is available for purchase, and to borrow, on Amazon.

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