Re: electricity and dance history

Iris Garland (
Thu, 26 Aug 1999 11:48:00 -0700

As a dance history instructor, I will briefly try to deal with your
questions, Jeff. The questions you raise are not directly addressed to my
knowledge (for example, spotlights) in dance history. Dance moved from
gaslight in the 19th C. to electricity. Gaslight had a very dramatic
effect on the Romantic ballet creating the mysterious, supernatural effects
which enhanced the gothic themes of sylphs and deadly supernatural beings
so popular at the time taking a leaf from the boulevard melodramas no
doubt. The most famous dancer to utilize electricity was Loie Fuller, who
began in the 1890's to exploit electricity in the most innovative manner.
She used lighting effects and huge amounts of draperies to transform
herself into a lily, butterfly, orchid, etc. She appeared beyond the
human, and was eulogized by the symbolist poets of the time. Perhaps her
most novel effect was her Fire Dance in which she was lit on a glass
platform from below the stage, thus appearing as a flame. She was a big
hit at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, and even had her own theatre there.
She was not considered to be a great dancer technically, nor was she a
beauty. However, her performances were magical. There is some old film
footage of her at the Dance Collection of the NYPL. The Bauhaus of Oskar
Schlemme in the 1920's also used lighting creatively to abstract the human
figure, and then there is Alwin Nikolais (1950's and 1960's) who was
especially adept at creating lighting effects. It is interesting that all
of these dancers were known for abstraction of the human body. However,
Loie Fuller was the first to exploit electricity. She had many imitators
during her time, but no one could equal her effects which she kept very

This is off the top of my head. Perhaps someone else can add more.


>I have a question for the dance-historians among us:
>Is there a record of the ways in which dance changed (if any) with the advent
>of electrical lighting? Aside from time of performance, that is--did the
>ability to have, for example, a spotlight focusing attention, or the upstage
>area well-lit change the way choreographers made dances? I've had a bit of
>theory in the dramatic theatre on this subject, but dance wasn't addressed...
>The reason I ask is because I was thinking of the way the advent of the
>motion picture changed the skills of the actor. It's well known that the
>large emotive movements of the melodrama were eventually seen to be
>unsuitable for the screen--unless one was being purposely grotesque. This
>change, rather than limiting the actor, actually expanded the canvas
>available for expression--suddenly subtlety was a useful tool, in facial
>expressions, breath, etc. Some foresaw the "end" of the stage play--but that
>didn't quite happen. If the human mind has an absolute capacity for artistic
>forms (and sometimes I wish it did!) we seem to be far from it.
>I wonder if the same thing is happening in dance, though. I recall one of
>the first "Dances for the Camera" I saw, or rather I don't, since the name
>escapes me. However, the basic idea was the same movement phrase captured in
>(I believe) 9 different styles on the camera--sometimes showing full body,
>sometimes the face, sometimes focusing on the tendon of the forearm in
>extension--a line as beautiful as any I've seen in dance. This use of the
>technology enabled the audience--the vastly expanded audience--to see the
>choreography and the dancer in ways not possible in a traditional, proscenium
>space. Why is this wrong, or a threat to the dance world?
>Part of my frustration with this thread is the lack of acknowledgement of the
>amount of technology used in "non-tech" dance. Source 4's, lighting boards,
>compact disc players, portable stereos, all are accepted as tools of the
>trade...but suddenly the video camera and the projector and the computer is
>seen as a threat. To me, saying that a dance for the camera isn't dance is
>akin to saying that a CD of Mozart's Requiem isn't music. It's different in
>terms of convenience, and yes, sometimes in terms of quality.
>The times, they are a-changin'...but when aren't they?
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Iris Garland
Professor of Dance
School for the Contemporary Arts
Simon Fraser V7V 3A3

FAX: (604) 291-5907