Film Review: The Dancer

An effectively fictionalized period drama about the personal struggles and innovative work of lesbian, turn-of-the-20th-century, avant-garde theatrical dance artist Loie Fuller.
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Those interested in dance history—or who appreciate unconventional heroines, like to luxuriate in transporting period dramas and prefer movies based on true stories—will absolutely love The Dancer (released in France as La Danseuse). It’s a somewhat fictionalized, deliciously melodramatic depiction of the rise to stardom of the largely forgotten, turn-of-the-20th-century, avant-garde dance artist Loie Fuller (Soko).

Born in Illinois in 1862, Fuller invented a spectacularly visual signature dance form, in which she swirled enormous silk skirts, with the aid of long wooden rods attached to her hands, conjuring mesmerizing, circular designs enhanced by dazzling lighting effects made by electrical instruments of her own invention. Her crowd-pleasing “Serpentine Dance” quickly spawned imitators—willing to perform for less money. Though she filed a lawsuit, the court ruled against Fuller, determining that copyright protection did not apply to her work. Fuller subsequently moved to Paris where, in 1892, she created a sensation at the Folies Bergère and was heralded as the creator of a new dance art.

Some would argue that Fuller’s rightful place as the “mother” of modern dance was usurped by Isadora Duncan. Yet while Fuller certainly pioneered dance as an image-based art—divorcing it from plot and character and allowing for the development of abstract modernist choreography—her innovations were more theatrical than kinesthetic. While she can be considered a groundbreaker in multimedia performance, unlike Duncan, whose contributions lay in the physical aesthetics of her own body movements, Fuller’s body was not the focus, but rather the fuel for innovative movements of fabric and light.

In her passion-filled movie, director and co-writer Stéphanie Di Guisto spotlights just a slice of Fuller’s life—from her Midwestern childhood to her 1902 falling-out with Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp)—embellishing the dancer’s real-life struggles with heavy doses of conjecture while providing very little historical context. Yet except for the made-up character of benefactor Louis Dorsay (Gaspard Ulliel)—whose purpose seems only to lend the film its wonderfully steamy sex scenes—one can’t fault Di Guisto’s choices. She foregoes emphasis on Fuller’s influential role in the larger evolution of stagecraft and the rise of Art Nouveau in favor of underlining how committed Fuller was to realizing her revolutionary ideas, how the extreme physical demands of her performances caused severe damage to her hands, neck muscles and vision, and how emotionally affected she was by Duncan—these are some of the most interesting aspects of Fuller’s life and those most likely to feel relevant to 21st-century audiences. While the film makes much of the unrequited infatuation Fuller, a lesbian, had for Duncan, historical evidence supports only the fact that Fuller helped introduce Duncan to European audiences, and suggests Fuller felt betrayed when Duncan left her company once she had achieved her own recognition. Nonetheless, the overdramatizing of the duo’s relationship forces viewers to think more deeply about the women’s relative places in history.

Though Di Guisto’s superbly cast and gorgeously designed movie contains less performance footage than dance fans may like, the re-imaginings of Fuller’s solos, choreographed by Jody Sperling and convincingly danced by Soko, do justice to Fuller’s artistry and are often shot from the dancer’s perspective, giving a sense of what it must have felt like to be Fuller in performance. Ultimately, Di Guisto’s fervent film prioritizes a feminist-tinged respect for Fuller’s work. Drawing a timely connection for today’s technology-obsessed culture, the movie concludes with Fuller’s notification by her lover and loyal assistant Gabrielle (Mélanie Thierry) that she has finally gotten her patents. The originality of Fuller’s work is acknowledged and the legal protection of her trailblazing lighting devices and costume designs is ensured.

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