Pieces of My Mind

Essays and Criticism 1958-2002

Frank Kermode

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pieces of My Mind
Poet and Dancer Before Diaghilev
In the summer of 1955 I wrote a short book called Romantic Image, published in 1957, inspired largely by love of W. B. Yeats. Yeats was keen on dancers, and the book has a chapter called 'The Dancer', which is partly about the excited response of some fin de siècle poets - English and French, and notably, Mallarmé - to dancers, actual, historical and mythical. The object of their admiration might be Salome, the most fascinating of them all, but they could also worship the music-hall dancers of the moment, lavishly courted by poets and reviewers both as performers and as exotically strange women. Dowson and Symons, friends of Yeats, haunted the stage doors. The mysteriously neurotic Jane Avril, familiar from the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec, was one famous name, and there were a good many others, not least among them Loïe Fuller, in whom Yeats seems to have had a particular interest.
The cult of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, of Fokine and Nijinsky and the composers and painters who became famous in that context, is a familiar theme, but this somewhat earlier cult of the dance and dancers had been half forgotten by the time this essay was written. My book said something about Fuller, and was adorned by a striking image of her, the work of Thomas Theodor Heine. Then I resolved to find out more about her, making the leisurely library visits I mention below. In the end it was by pure accident I got most of the information I was looking for, and the essay eventually appeared in Partisan Review, with some striking photographs in the American journal Theatre Arts, and later in a collection called Puzzles and Epiphanies (1962). When I returned the extremely useful material he had lent me I sent a copy of the article to Mr Nicol, who did not acknowledge it. I had used it,along with documents I found in the files of French periodicals and in the great collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, to say something of the dancer's contemporary reputation, and of how she achieved her remarkable theatrical effects. But I'm afraid that Mr Nicol, who had himself, as a very young person, been a member of a Fuller troupe (she had given up solo dancing in favour of ensemble work) may have wanted a biography, which it had never been in my mind to produce.
It is now much too late to apologize for this misunderstanding. Whether by my efforts or those of other fans, the celebrity of Fuller was in part restored for a time, though it never quite matched the fame of her rival Isadora Duncan, in most respects inferior as an artist but having a livelier biography. Duncan was celebrated in a successful movie, Fuller had to be content with the gorgeous tributes of Mallarmé. For a year or two Jonathan Miller and I gave some quite serious thought to the prospect of mounting an exhibition, but when there was one it was not of our making, and was shown in California and in Paris, but not in London. A pity, and the fame of Fuller is in consequence a little dimmer than it might have been. Anyway, I think of my essay not only as an appendix to Romantic Image but as retaining some interest as a first attempt to revive interest in a remarkable dancer.
Diaghilev figures in the title simply as a terminus; he arrived in Paris in 1909, and everybody knows what happened. 'Le rêve de Mallarmé se réalise', said Ghéon. What dream of Mallarmé? That which found a true theatrical sonority, a stage liberated from cardboard falsities; which emerged from a confluence of the other arts and yet remained, as Wagner did not, theatre. The Ballets Russes demonstrated the correspondence of the arts so wonderfully that in comparison Wagner's effort was, said Camille Mauclair, 'une gaucherie barbare'. Diaghilev arrived, not a moment too soon, in response to prayers from both sides of the Channel. One could trace the developments in taste which prepared his reception - not only in the limited sphere of the dance, but in writings on actors (the cult of Duse, for example), in the fashionable admiration for oriental art and theatre, in avant-garde agitation for theatrical reform. In March 1908, The Mask, a quarterlydedicated to this end and strongly under the influence of Gordon Craig, prayed in its opening editorial for a religion that did not 'rest upon knowledge nor rely upon the Word' but rather brought together 'Music, Architecture, and Movement' to heal 'the Evil ... which has separated these three Arts and which leaves the world without a belief'. The editor can hardly have expected his prayers to be answered so soon - not precisely by the theatrical reforms he had in mind, but by the Russian dancers, prophets of that Concord and Renaissance he so earnestly requested. Havelock Ellis, with his usual wide view, put the situation thus in The Dance of Life (1923): 'If it is significant that Descartes appeared a few years after the death of Malherbe, it is equally significant that Einstein was immediately preceded by the Russian Ballet.'
Ellis makes Diaghilev a John the Baptist of a 'classico-mathematical Renaissance', and the notion that this was a renaissance of some kind or other was evidently in the air. However, such credit as is due to its heralds should not all be awarded to the Russian ballet. There was, obviously, Isadora Duncan; but Isadora doesn't take us to the root of the matter. Where, for my purposes, that lies, I can perhaps suggest in this way: what Camille Mauclair said of Diaghilev was somewhat disloyally said, for he had used almost the same words years before of the American dancer Loïe Fuller. Art, he declared, was one homogeneous essence lying at the root of the diversified arts, not a fusion of them; and Loie Fuller was it, 'a spectacle ... which defies all definition ... Art, nameless, radiant ... a homogeneous and complete place ... indefinable, absolute ... a fire above all dogmas'. The language is Mallarméan; as we shall see, it was all but impossible to write of Loïe Fuller otherwise unless you were very naive. Still, not even Mallarmé could start a renaissance single-handed, and there has to be a word or two here about whatever it was that predisposed everybody to get excited in this particular way about dancers.
The peculiar prestige of dancing over the past seventy or eighty years has, I think, much to do with the notion that it somehow represents art in an undissociated and unspecialized form - a notion made explicit by Yeats and hinted at by Valéry. The notion is essentially primitivist; it depends upon the assumption that mind and body, form and matter, image and discourse have undergone a process of dissociation, whichit is the business of art momentarily to mend. Consequently dancing is credited with a sacred priority over the other arts, as by Havelock Ellis (whose essay is valuable as a summary of the theoretical development I am now discussing) and, with less rhapsody and more philosophy, by Mrs Langer in the twelfth chapter of Feeling and Form and (more flatly) in the opening essay of Problems of Art. In view of this primitivizing, it is worth remembering that the increase of prestige was contemporaneous with a major effort by anthropologists, liturgiologists, and folklorists to discover the roots of the dance in ritual of all kinds, and also with the development of a certain medical interest in dancing. We are all familiar with the interest shown by the generation of Valéry and that of Eliot in these matters; and from Eliot, at the time when he was busy with Jane Harrison and Frazer, we can get some notion of how they struck the literary imagination. Here, for instance, is a passage from an uncollected Criterion review of two books on dancing:
Anyone who would contribute to our imagination of what the ballet may perform in future ... should begin by a close study of dancing among primitive peoples ... He should also have studied the evolution of Christian and other liturgy. For is not the High Mass--as performed, for instance, at the Madeleine in Paris--one of the highest developments of dancing? And finally, he should track down the secrets of rhythm in the still undeveloped science of neurology.
Mr Eliot found the Noh plays exciting and praised Massine for providing in the ignorant modern theatre that rhythm regarded as essential by Aristotle. But the peculiar modern view could hardly have been developed before dancing became an accredited fine art; and the date for this seems to be 1746, when Batteux included it among the five with music, poetry, painting and sculpture. The general and developing Romantic tendency was to give music pre-eminence as being non-discursive, 'autonomous' as the word now is, referring to nothing outside itself for meaning; poems would be like that if there were not a basic flaw in their medium, the habit that words have of meaning something in ordinary usage. But some of this prestige was undoubtedly captured by dancing; it is more 'natural' and more 'primitive' than music, more obviously expressive of what Mrs Langer calls 'patterns of sentience' and 'the mythic consciousness'. I use this lateterminology because it is careful enough to avoid certain radical confusions. The dance, though expressive, is impersonal, like a Symbolist poem that comes off. Miss Deirdre Pridden1 finds the proper word to be Ortega y Gasset's 'dehumanization'; the dancer 'vide la danse, autant que faire se peut, de son humaine matière'. Something might here be said about organicist theories of expressiveness in Modern Dance, opposed not only to conventional ballet (as Fuller and Duncan and Yeats were) but sometimes even to the use of music, as irrelevant to the Gestalt of the dance; the source of these theories is Delsarte, but they have been much refined. However, there is no disagreement from the fundamental principle that dance is the most primitive, non-discursive art, offering a pre-scientific image of life, an intuitive truth. Thus it is the emblem of the Romantic image. Dance belongs to a period before the self and the world were divided, and so achieves naturally that 'original unity' which, according to Barfield for instance, modern poetry can produce only by a great and exhausting effort of fusion.
The Nineties poets wrote endlessly about dancers, welcomed foreign troupes and prepared the way for the serious impact of the Japanese Noh in the next decade.2 But they also enjoyed the dancers themselves, and regularly fell in love with them. Symons and his friends would meet the Alhambra girls after the show and take them along to the Crown for drink and serious talk; serious not because of what Symons called the 'learned fury' of these 'mænads of the decadence', but in a humbler way. This was the epoch of the Church and Stage Guild, Stewart Headlam's club for clergy and actors. Headlam believed 'in the Mass, the Ballet, and the Single Tax' and such was his balletolatry that he wrote a book on ballet technique. But he also believed that the liturgy must not continue to be deprived of dancing, and so laboured to make the stage respectable, that the stigma on dancing might be removed. Among the membership girls from the Empire and the Alhambra preponderated. Headlam was not original in his liturgical views, which may have gained currency from Anglo-Catholic propaganda for ceremonies not explicitly forbidden;3 however, he gives one a pretty good idea of what must have been a common enough belief in this passage from an article he contributed to his own Church Reformer (October, 1884) in a series on the Catechism:
... to take an illustration from the art of dancing, which perhaps more than all other arts is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, ordained by the Word of God Himself, as a means whereby we receive the same and a pledge to assure us thereof; and which has suffered even more than the other arts from the utter antisacramentalism of British philistia. Your Manichean Protestant, and your superfine rationalist, reject the Dance as worldly, frivolous, sensual, and so forth; and your dull, stupid Sensualist sees legs, and grunts with some satisfaction: but your Sacramentalist knows something worth more than both of these. He knows what perhaps the dancer herself may be partially unconscious of, that we live now by faith and not by sight, and that the poetry of dance is the expression of unseen spiritual grace. 'She all her being flings into the dance.' 'None dare interpret all her limbs express.' These are the words of a genuine Sacramentalist ...
The poet is T. Gordon Hake. Headlam knew Symons well, and also Yeats and many other Nineties poets and painters. He seems, in his Guild and in writing of this kind, to reflect rather accurately the liturgical, poetic, and music-hall aspects of this renaissance of dancing. The liturgical ingredient developed luxuriously in the border country of Anglo-Catholicism; witness R. H. Benson's essay 'On the Dance as a Religious Exercise', an account of the Mass as a dramatic dance:
The Catholic ... is not ashamed to take his place with the worshippers of Isis and Cybele, with King David, and with the naked Fijean, and to dance with all his might before the Lord.
The antiquarian interest culminated in G. R. S. Mead's The Sacred Dance of Jesus (published in The Quest in 1910, but long excogitated). This was Havelock Ellis's chief source, and it is a work of great and curious learning, written in a long tradition of attempts to explain Matthew 11:17, 'We have piped unto you and ye have not danced'. Mead was most interested in the second-century Hymn of Jesus, but he deals with the Fathers and with medieval church dancing, with the liturgies of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches, and so forth. I doubt if Mead is taken very seriously by modern historians - he isn't cited in the large bibliography of Backman's Religious Dances (1952) - but for a while he mattered a lot. Yeats, for example, went to hislectures. He was by no means the only zealous dance-historian of the time. Toulouse-Lautrec, who was not interested in these matters, had an English savant thrown out of a dance-hall for plaguing him about antiquity; this could have been Mead, but not necessarily. At a time when it was relatively easy for a dancer to acquire a reputation for learning, Loïe Fuller was said on high authority (Anatole France) to be wise in the history of dancing; she took as her prototype Miriam, who, according to Philo, as quoted by Mead, symbolizes perfect sense, as Moses symbolizes perfect mind.
The presence of the savant in the bal tells us something about the seriousness with which music-hall dancing was taken on both sides of the Channel. From Symons and Goncourt one knows that it was so; and of course this was a period of close relations between London and Paris. Yvette Guilbert often appeared in London, Marie Lloyd and others in Paris; it was fashionable to treat them as very great artists. This cult of the music-hall has been persistent; there is a classic statement of it in Mr Eliot's essay on Marie Lloyd (1932), and it still goes on in a London which has only one or two feebly surviving halls, constantly threatened with demolition. Nothing distresses some English intellectuals more than the closing of a music-hall. This attitude is a weakly descendant of a positive avant-garde reaction against commercial theatre in the Nineties; failing dance-drama or übermarionettes, there were still Marie Lloyd and Little Tich, defying cultural and social division, freely satirical, speaking with the voice of the belly. You could talk of Yvette Guilbert, who, according to André Raffalovitch, sang 'the sufferings of those the world calls vile', in the same breath as the Duse.
The Parisian music-halls were certainly not short of a similar intellectual réclame, and had their place, as part of the metropolitan experience, with all the other pleasures devised for an elite that took its pleasures seriously - fine clothes, Japanese prints, neurasthenia. They are as important in the early history of modern art as folk-music and primitive painting, with which indeed they are obviously associated. Our received idea of this world owes more to Toulouse-Lautrec than anybody else, and there is no reason to think it very inaccurate. The circus, the vaudeville, the bal, were serious pleasures; the primitive, the ugly, the exotic were in demand. The brutal patter of AristideBruant, La Goulue coarsely cheeking the Prince of Wales, the emaciated and psychopathic May Belfort, the cherished ugliness of Mme Abdala; all are characteristic. The mood is that of the violent Lautrec drawings of Guilbert and Jane Avril, of dancers calling themselves Grille d'Egout or La Goulue, of café-concerts with such names as Le Divan Japonais and prostitutes with such noms de guerre as Outamoro. In this atmosphere all the dancers I am concerned with did their work, and were treated very seriously.
Of a good many of them it was enough to say, as Symons did in his excited lines on Nini Patte-en-l'air, that they possessed
The art of knowing how to be Part lewd, aesthetical in part, And fin-de-siècle essentially.
Symons was one of those Englishmen whose solemn Parisian pleasures were the admiration of Lautrec - Conder, the strangest of them, he often drew, superbly drunk in his fine evening clothes. But Symons was building an aesthetic in which dancing was to have a central place - the climactic essay is called 'The World as Ballet' - and so his interest was slightly different from the painter's. Lautrec was equally absorbed by La Goulue and Jane Avril; but for Symons the former, a Messalina who wore her heart embroidered on the bottom of her knickers, was less important than the latter, who demonstrated that the female body was 'Earth's most eloquent Music, divinest human harmony'.
Some time in the Thirties a French exhibition, devoted to life under the Third Republic, showed Jane Avril and Loïe Fuller as representing the Dance, and most of what follows is concerned with these dancers. Like Fuller, Avril had the reputation of literacy, and enjoyed the friendship of Lautrec, Renoir, Theodor Wyczewa, Maurice Barrès. It is clear from Lautrec's posters that what interested him was the lack of conventionality, almost the gaucherie, in her attitudes, her being set apart from all the other girls. She danced a good deal alone, and not only in the solo variations of the quadrille; she designed her own dresses, and got some of her effects by whirling movements possibly learned from the English dancer Kate Vaughan, also perhaps a sourceof inspiration to Fuller - she was well thought of in the Eighties and later for bringing back long skirts for dancers. Avril, again like Fuller, lacked formal training and mechanical predictability; Pierre Charron said she was like
une fleur balancée, troublante
Au souffle du vent chaud qui l'endort doucement ...
Avril had special privileges at the Moulin Rouge; she alone was not required to take part in the quadrille. In the poster Toulouse-Lautrec did for her London season you see her waving a thin leg at a different angle from the other three dancers'; in other drawings she is alone, one leg seemingly twisted, the other held clumsily up, or circulating skinny and solitary in the shadow of La Goulue. Symons saw her dancing before the mirrors in the Moulin Rouge and wrote of her 'morbid, vague, ambiguous grace' in a poem called 'La Mélinite: Moulin Rouge', which Yeats in 1897 called 'one of the most perfect lyrics of our time'. The only possible explanation of this enormous over-estimate is the irresistible appeal of a poem combining the Salome of the Romantic Agony with Pater's Monna Lisa:
Alone, apart, one dancer watches Her mirrored, morbid grace; Before the mirror face to face, Alone she watches Her morbid, vague, ambiguous grace, And enigmatically smiling In the mysterious night, She dances for her own delight.
But she had talent. Whereas La Goulue and others gambolled, says Francis Jourdain, Avril danced. 'L'arabesque tracée dans l'espace par une jambe inspirée, n'est plus un signe vain c'est une écriture', he says, echoing, perhaps unconsciously, a phrase of Mallarmé.
There is small doubt - and here lies much of her interest - that this dancer owed most to the air of morbidity of which Symons speaks, and specifically to the long time she spent in her teens as a patient ofCharcot at the Salpétrière. This hospital, and particularly the ward of the grandes hystériques, in which Avril had been treated for her chorea, was used as a kind of alternative to music-halls; Charcot and his patients welcomed visitors, and the symptoms of hysteria4 were well known to a large public. Charcot is celebrated for having turned Freud 'from a neurologist into a psychopathologist', but despite his discovery that he could induce hysterical symptoms by hypnotism, and his observation that certain nervous disorders were always a question of 'la chose génitale', Charcot himself did not know as much as Freud was to learn from watching him.5 He was greatly impressed by the resemblance between the symptoms of his patients and medieval descriptions and representations of demoniac possession and obsessive dancing. He seems not to have known the theory, now, I gather, beyond dispute, that the saltatory epidemics were caused by ergotism, a disease brought on by eating blighted rye. As early as 1877 he wrote of an hysteria patient who had hallucinations of serpents and exhibited 'in an embryonic state and sporadic form, a specimen' of medieval dancing mania, emphasizing that the symptoms appeared 'in a rudimentary state' and were arrested by compression of the left ovary. In 1887 he wrote, with Paul Richer, a book called Les Démoniaques dans l'art, in which he tries to show that the convulsions and dances of the possessed are characteristic of various stages in the hysterical seizures he had observed, and of which he shows sketches. Avril was never permanently cured of chorea, and had ample opportunity to observe her fellow-patients; whether by accident or design she seems to have reproduced some of the symptoms of hysterical dancing, doubtless in a rudimentary form, and I have no doubt that Charcot would have found Lautrec's famous poster 'Jane Avril aux serpents' characteristic of hysteria (compare, for example, the sketch from Mazza da Bologna on p. 72 of Les Démoniaques). 'Ambiguous grace', certainly; but the ambiguity was agreeable to a public much interested in 'neurasthenia' (an American discovery, but rapidly naturalized in Paris). Considered in this light, as combining certain powerful aesthetic and pathological interests of the period, it is easy to see how Avril produced a frisson nouveau and encouraged the literati to love the highest when they saw it in the Moulin Rouge.
Under these conditions it is not surprising that a good many dancerscame to be associated with avant-garde movements in the other arts, and there was to be an idéiste dancer, Valentine de Saint-Point, who performed against a screen upon which 'geometric shadows' were cast,6 and a Cubist and Dadaist dancer, Nina Payne, whose dancing to jazz music greatly pleased the fastidious Levinson. The Cubism, he said, must have something to do with a strange cylindrical couvrechef she wore. There were also vaguely Vorticist dancers in Mme Strindberg's Cave of the Golden Calf in London just before the first war; we know that cut-outs and shadows were used (see F. M. Ford's novel, The Marsden Case) but the memoirs of the period are hazy about what went on, and Miss Margaret Morris, who certainly knows, will not say. Isadora Duncan was a 'symbolist' dancer; but it is sometimes forgotten that she derived much that was admirable in her dancing from Loïe Fuller, and this brings me to the most important of all these names, to the woman who seemed to be doing almost single-handed what Diaghilev was later to achieve only with the help of great painters, musicians, and dancers.
Many living people must have seen Loïe Fuller, but there is no book about her, except her own autobiography, and no powerful tradition, as there is for Isadora Duncan. The standard reference books are scanty and inaccurate, and so should I have been, had I not had the good luck to encounter Mr E. J. Nicol, a nephew of the Miss Nolan who not only backed Fuller but carried out the famous experiments in textiles and dyes which were associated with the dancer's vogue. Mr Nicol also belonged to Fuller's company as a child, and knows all about a great many matters which were kept secret, mostly of a technical sort. For all correct comments on such techniques in what follows Mr Nicol is responsible, and for none that is incorrect. The rest of the material comes from diaries, newspapers, theatre programmes, publicity hand-outs, and the like; and, of course, the autobiography, Fifteen Years of a Dancer's Life (French edition, 1908; English, 1913).
Loie Fuller was born in Illinois in 1862, under trying circumstances: she claimed to have caught a cold at birth which was never cured. She used this claim in much the same way as Isadora insisted that her character was predetermined from the womb ('Before I was born my mother was in great agony of spirit and in a tragic situation. She couldtake no food except iced oysters and iced champagne'). Throughout her life, Fuller made much of her congenital ill-health and demanded certain extraordinary attentions. Mr Nicol does not think she was particularly frail. A talented child, she captivated audiences with her songs at the age of five, and at the age of thirteen with her temperance lectures, during which she exhibited coloured illustrations of the liver. Later she went on the stage. Her early career was undistinguished, but she gave a hint of things to come by forming her own company and taking it on a long, but disastrous, tour of South America. In 1889 she made her first London appearance in Caprice, which opened on the 22 October at the Gaiety and closed almost at once. She went back to New York. At this time she had played everything from Shakespeare to burlesque but she had never danced.
In the early days of what is called Modern Dance it seems to have been a convention that all the best things happened by accident, like Ruth St Denis's getting the idea of her oriental dancing from a cigarette packet. Loïe Fuller encouraged the idea that she developed from one happy accident to the next. The first radical bit of luck came when she was acting, at a small New York theatre, a part in which she was hypnotized. To get the atmosphere right the management arranged for the stage to be illuminated entirely by green footlights, while the orchestra played sad music. During this hurriedly mounted piece, Fuller found herself on stage wearing a gauzy Indian skirt that was much too long for her. She says in her book that it was a present from an heroic admirer who later fell in the Khyber Pass; and she told a French historian that she got it from another girl. Anyway, she hit upon the idea of gliding hypnotically about the stage, holding the skirt up. To her surprise there were pleased exclamations from the house: 'It's a butterfly!', 'It's an orchid!' She danced around amid applause and then dropped ecstatically at the hypnotist's feet, 'completely enveloped in a cloud of the light material'. Next day she put the skirt on again and was studying it in a looking-glass when she noticed that sunlight made it translucent. 'Golden reflections played in the folds of the sparkling silk, and in this light my body was revealed in a shadowy contour.' Thereupon, 'gently, almost religiously', she waved the silk about, and saw that she had 'obtained modulations of a character before unknown ... Finally I reached a point where eachmovement of the body was expressed in the folds of the silk, in a play of colours and draperies that could be mathematically and systematically calculated.'7
Such was the basis of her original act. She whirled about with her arms aloft - later she extended them with sticks concealed in the drapery - as shown in Toulouse-Lautrec's lithograph - and the resultant spiral or serpentine effect she differentiated into twelve characteristic motions or dances, each carried out with different lighting. The lighting was provided by an electric lantern with coloured glasses, another device she was later to develop to an extraordinary degree. The final dance was performed in total darkness save for a single ray of yellow light crossing the stage. From the outset she invited attention to these optical effects; she was never beautiful, and even in these days too plump for her shadowy contour to be an important part of her appeal. This was new, though she admits modestly that at this stage she was 'far from imagining that I had hold of a principle capable of revolutionizing a branch of aesthetics'. Her very ignorance of classical technique was to contribute, with the hypnotic attitudes, the resemblances to natural objects, and the optical illusions, to her establishment as a living emblem of a new aesthetic.
The act was almost immediately successful. 'Three cheers for the orchid, the cloud and the butterfly!' cried the New York audience. But the New York managers were full of greed and duplicity; she was at once plagued by imitators, some even using her name (a trouble she was to have for many years) and after certain vicissitudes and wanderings she found her true home in Paris, where she arrived in October 1892. She was engaged to dance at the Folies-Bergère, and with a programme of five dances including the Serpentine she achieved a fantastic success, which was augmented later in the decade when she returned with new items. All over Europe and America she was imitated, but never successfully, largely because of the care she took to keep secret the technical apparatus upon which she depended. She was not overstating her triumph when she said that the usual audience at the Folies-Bergère was every evening 'lost amid a crowd composed of scholars, painters, sculptors, writers and ambassadors'. Outside the theatre, students pelted her with flowers and drew her carriage; the police, about to take brisk action against a procession obstructingcirculation at the Madeleine, held their hands when they discovered that all was in honour of La Loïe Fuller.
At the time of her first success she was taken up by Rodin, who declared that she was 'a woman of genius, with all the resources of talent' and 'a Tanagra figurine in action'. She painted Nature, he said, in the colours of Turner; she was the woman on the famous Pompeian frieze. Anatole France, who wrote a preface for her autobiography in 1908, called her 'marvellously intelligent' but added that it was her unconscious that really counted. 'She is an artist ... the chastest and most expressive of dancers, beautifully inspired, who reanimated within herself and restores to us the lost wonders of Greek mimicry, the art of those motions, at once voluptuous and mystical, which interpret the phenomena of nature and the life history of living things.' Other admirers were the Curies, to whom she later dedicated a remarkable dance. She knew anybody she cared to know. Pretty well all the theatrical artists of Paris represented her at this time, notably perhaps Steinlen and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose lithograph is probably the best of all; but she asked neither Lautrec nor Steinlen for posters, preferring their imitators. A pretty poster drawing by Chéret hung in her dressing-room. Perhaps she supposed herself too far from the real centre of Lautrec's interests; anyway, he soon moved on to more congenial subjects.
Loïe Fuller undoubtedly enjoyed all this. In a Paris that paid her 12,000 francs a month and was full of women wearing wide Loïe Fuller skirts, she expected a lot of attention. There is a note of rare disenchantment in an entry in Renard's diary (1901) which tells how he met Fuller in an omnibus, a shapeless figure too highly painted, sausage-fingered, with only the rings to make any divisions, an intermittent smile, as if everybody on the bus was the Public; vague myopic eyes. She was turned off the bus for not having her fare; Renard wanted to say, 'Mademoiselle, I know and admire you; voilà dix sous!' But he did not. It is surprising to hear of her using a bus; she lived extravagantly.
Her well-publicized hypochondria did not diminish. She took elaborate precautions against headache, and informed journalists that she was threatened with paralysis of the arms. Every performance ended in what looked like total collapse. Isadora Duncan, who never forgave Fuller for launching her, does nothing to spoil the picture of Fuller as agreeably mysterious, hypochondriacal and queer. She speaks ofvisiting her in Berlin, where Fuller sat in a magnificent apartment at the Hotel Bristol, surrounded as usual by an entourage of beautiful girls who were 'alternately stroking her hands and kissing her'. 'Here,' says Isadora, 'was an atmosphere of such warmth as I had never met before.' Fuller complained of terrible pains in the spine, and the girls had to keep up a supply of icebags, which were placed between her back and the back of the chair. Judge Isadora's surprise when, after an expensive dinner, Fuller went off and danced. 'Had this luminous vision that we saw before us,' asks Isadora, 'any relation to the suffering patient of a few moments before?' Fuller was clearly one to keep separate suffering and creation. M. F. Jourdain also vouches for the icepack, but remembers it as wielded by the faithful Gaby, a Mlle Bloch who was for many years Fuller's companion-manager, and who kept the company going after Loïe's death in 1928. (It survived, though in decline, till 1940, when the Occupation put an end to it; but something called the Loïe Fuller ballet turned up in 1958 in a French film called Femmes de Paris.) M Jourdain testifies that every noise made Fuller suffer, even that of conversation; 'when the level of noise increased she would hastily apply the icepack to her neck, and, begging for silence with a gesture of supplication, she would stop her ears.' Once he saw her rehearse. She did not take off her coat, but sat on the stage, placed the icepack on her neck, stuck her fingers in her ears, and signalled the conductor to begin. She then followed his gestures with her eyes, taking care to hear as little as possible of the noise she had unleashed. Then she went back to her carriage. Naturally the performances were a little more tiring, and she was carried home to bed after every one of them. Mr Nicol says she had sinus trouble and loved overheated rooms; she was capable of arranging the kind of tableau Isadora came upon simply to impress visitors. As to rehearsal, she treated her company less tenderly than herself, wearing them out with all-night sessions. Mr Nicol was suspended from the company for inattention during a long rehearsal, at the age of five.
Fuller remained for a great many years enormously popular in the music-halls of Europe. She conquered London, as they say, in 1893, appearing during the interval of George Edwardes's In Town, a show distinguished by May Belfort's performance of 'Daddy wouldn't buy me a bow-wow'. But this did not prevent the English intelligentsiafrom taking her quite as seriously as the Parisian; for instance, there is an odd poem in French, in The Cambridge ABC of 11 June 1894 - it did not last long but had a cover by Beardsley - which refers to the 'Varicolore et multiforme' Fuller, and uses such expressions as 'une volupté profonde ... inquiétant mystère', etc. The popular press found her both amazing and moral - her Mirror Dance showed eight Loïe Fullers 'dancing as if they were the fabled victims of the Tarantula, the whole forming an artistic spectacular effect that the world has never seen equalled'; yet she made no 'gesture or movement which would offend the susceptibilities of the most modest-minded of British matrons or maidens'. Her long skirts seemed to bring about a long-needed rapprochement of Art and Morality.
Quite early in her career she had built up a company, and her shows grew more elaborate. She had her own theatre at the Paris Exposition, and in it she introduced Sada Yacco to the European public. Yacco's success, unlike Fuller's, was not unmixed. Eventually Fuller built around Yacco her 'Japanese company' - I think Yeats had this company in mind when he spoke of her 'Chinese Dancers' in 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen', for she seems never to have had a Chinese troupe - and took them, with Isadora Duncan, on a tour of Germany. (Isadora left this 'troupe of beautiful but demented ladies' and struck out on her own, without ever rebutting the charges of immodesty, ingratitude, and treachery which Fuller laid against her.)
A French journal of the Exposition period describes her as 'parfaitement double ... à la ville petite, à la scène grande ... a very pushing woman'. By this time Mr Tindall of Pearson's Weekly was willing to claim that 'she had given the world such ideas of colour as had never been conceived before; look at the pictures in the Paris salons if you would see some of the more striking effects of Loïe Fuller's dancing ... she ranks with the great geniuses of the ages'. But she went on appearing at the Coliseum, in (for example) a variety bill called 'La Miraculeuse Loïe Fuller in the Grand Musical Mystical Dances', which was itemized as follows:
(1) The Flight of the Butterflies (Radium)
(2) The Dance of the 1,000 Veils,
this in five tableaux: 'Storm at Sea - Wrecked, Lost'; 'The River of Death'; 'The Fire of Life'; 'Ave Maria'; 'The Land of Visions'. How two famous dances, 'The Butterfly' (subject of many photographs) and 'Radium', a dance in honour of the Curies, came to be conflated, I do not know. 'The Land of Visions', Mr Nicol surmises, was a way of using up some photographs she had had taken of the surface of the moon.
As time went by, she depended more and more on her company, but also upon ingenious optical effects. Before 1909 she had founded her School, and by 1912 the best dancers were allowed to take over her Lily, Serpentine, and Fire Dances. But the new dances were more and more abstract. Her troupe had a great success in London in 1923 with a shadow ballet called Ombres Gigantesques. There are some splendid photographs in the Sketch for the 13 December of that year, the eve of a charity performance to be attended by the King and Queen. An enormous shadow hand plucks at the cowering dancers; a vast foot descends to crush them. In other performances, for example in a ballet using Debussy's La Mer, the dancers were not seen at all, but simply heaved under a huge sea of silk. One late dance 'consisted solely of silver-sequined tassels being "dabbled" in a narrow horizontal shaft of light - the background and the performers being veiled in black' (E. J. Nicol). Other performers - Maud Allen is a notable though forgotten Salome - came and went; but Fuller remained in the front line till her death in 1928.
The career of Fuller is unintelligible without some reference to her technical repertory. She had, of course, her own aesthetic notions, and claimed to have brought about a revolution in the arts. At first she saw the dance as arising naturally from music, but expressing human emotion best when unimpeded by training. 'The moment you attempt to give dancing a trained element, naturalness disappears; Nature is truth, and art is artificial. For example, a child will never dance of its own accord with the toes pointing out.' Rodin expressly agreed, and Massenet was so struck with the doctrine that he gave Fuller unrestricted performing rights in his music without royalty. Debussy was also interested, and Florent Schmitt wrote Fuller's Salome music (1893). But she very often used commonplace music, and it is hard to believe that her mature doctrine was either musical or expressive. The line ofthe body, never, as we have seen, the principal exhibit in her performance, grew less and less important, and in the end hardly counted at all - witness those dances in which no human figure was perceptible to the audience. The story she tells of her stumbling upon a new art of illuminated drapes in motion - and this at the outset of her career - has the germ at any rate of the truth. In a theoretical chapter of her autobiography she has some reflections on Light and the Dance; she was greatly concerned with the affective qualities of colour and its relation to sounds and moods (speculations much in vogue at the time) and was once thrown out of Notre Dame for waving a handkerchief in front of a sunlit window. She maintained the opinion that 'motion and not language is truthful', a view not likely to meet much opposition among the poets of the time, but she did not mean the simple dancer's motions or even those involuntary gestures organized into art which are the basis of Modern Dance; she meant the manipulation of silk and light. With them she could penetrate the spectator's mind and 'awaken his imagination that it may be prepared to receive the image'.
Fuller used in her publicity a remark by Pierre Roche that she was unequalled as an electrician and used her coloured lights on silk with a painter's art. In fact in the earliest days of theatrical electricity she seems to have gone a remarkably long way towards realizing that dream of a Farbenkunst which had been epidemic since the eighteenth century. She was given great credit for her skill at the time, not only by aesthetes who thought of the whole thing as a transcendent success for cosmetics, but by practical theatre people. Sarah Bernhardt consulted her. There was growing interest in the spectacular possibilities of electric light on cheap materials, but nobody else brought off what Mallarmé called the 'industrial achievement' of substituting coloured light for all other properties, 'instituant un lieu'.
The means by which she did this were closely kept secrets. She put it about that one very striking effect was discovered by accident, when an electrician 'the worse for strong drink, threw two lights of different colours on the stage together' (Pearson's Weekly). In fact, of course, she was intensely preoccupied, and most ingenious, with light. She used the carbon arc-lights and coloured gelatines with which the theatres of the period were equipped, but with colours of her own specification. More important, she designed large magic-lantern projectorswith slides of plain or frosted glass. The slides, which she painted with liquefied gelatine, were the fundamental secret, and only Fuller and Miss Nolan had access to them. Theatre men were not allowed to work the projectors, and the Company had its own trusted electricians. It was on such slides that she printed the photographs of the moon for the 'Nuages' ballet. The bewildering 'Radium' dance was done by projecting iridescent colour on to silks using first one multi-coloured slide, then superimposing another, and then withdrawing the first. When one thinks of her influence on future stage lighting, one should remember not only the Lyceum pantomimes in which she was regularly copied, but also that, as Mr Nicol says, 'our whole modern system of projected stage lighting owes its origin to her ingenious mind'. Experiments with coloured shadows on the cyclorama, and also with mirrors, were natural developments of such interests.
Her innovations were not confined to the lighting. She also did surprising things with silk. 'The idea of dyeing and painting silk in terms of abstract colour and not of pattern seems, undoubtedly, to have been Fuller's own', writes Mr Nicol. The work was carried out by Miss Nolan, and the dyed silks became a commercial success, still remembered as 'Liberty' silks. Mr Nicol would credit Fuller with an influence on Gordon Craig and others; certainly we have been underestimating her during all the years when her revolutionary innovations were forgotten. One has a clear picture of a performer who converted dancing into something quite other, whose scenes and machines were of a new theatrical epoch, and whose gifts lay primarily in such inventions. Writing of a performance at the Theatre Champs-Elysees in June, 1922, Levinson said, 'Even though she has the insipid primary plastique, the scholarly faux-héllenisme of the Anglo-Saxon (which forms an apparent link between her school and Isadora's) her personality is none the less fascinating ... She is a great imaginative creator of forms. Her drapes animate and organize space, give her a dream-like ambiance, abolish geometrical space ... Whatever belongs to the dance is ordinary; but tout ce qui tient de l'optique est plein d'intérêt.' Levinson had no doubt that this was another matter entirely than 'les enfantillages caduces de Duncanisme et ces vaines danses d'expression'.
It is a little surprising, therefore, that much of Fuller's fame derivedfrom her ability to represent natural objects - moths, butterflies, lilies, etc. Dances of this kind were frequently photographed, and she kept them in her repertoire right into the Twenties. The Serpentine dance is part of the history of art nouveau; it would be tedious to make a list of the compliments paid her by distinguished men on her power to reveal fugitive aspects of nature. Certainly some of the photographs are impressively moth-like and lily-like. With this strain of compliment there was mingled a persistent note of praise for her Orientalism and her Hellenism too. Such contradictions, if they are so, may be reconciled in the aesthetic of a Mallarmé; he wrote that the dancer was not a woman dancing but a metaphor containing elemental aspects of our form, sword, cup, flower, etc. And Symons, in The World as Ballet, finds in the dance 'the evasive, winding turn of things ... the intellectual as well as sensuous appeal of a living symbol'. She was a power like one of Nature's, and her creation had the same occult meanings.
The heart of this matter is, indeed, the chorus of poetic approval, and the terms in which it was couched. Consider, for example, the 'Fire Dance', a popular item from early days. She told the credulous Mr Tindall of Pearson's Weekly that this dance had its origin in an accident: when she was dancing her Salome at the Athénée (1893) she danced before Herod as 'the setting sun kissed the top of Solomon's temple'. But it also kissed her garments, and the public, always vocal, cried out and called it 'the fire-dance'. In fact this was merely another attempt to offset the cold electric calculations of Fuller. The Danse du Feu was lit from below stage, by a red lantern directed through a glassed-in trap. The effect was striking (Pearson's Weekly has some lurid coloured photographs). Fuller appeared to the music of the 'Ride of the Valkyries', shaking, we are told, and twisting in a torrent of incandescent lava, her long dress spouting flame and rolling around in burning spirals. She stood, says Jean Lorrain, in blazing embers, and did not burn; she exuded light, was herself a flame. Erect in her brazier she smiled, and her smile was the rictus of a mask under the red veil that enveloped her and which shook and waved like a flame along her lava-nakedness. Lorrain goes on to compare her with Herculaneum buried in cinders (it wasn't, of course), the Styx and its banks, Vesuvius with open throat spitting fire. Only thus, he argued, could one describeher motionless, smiling nakedness in the midst of a furnace, wearing the fires of heaven and hell as a veil. Gustave Fréville called her a nightmare sculpted in red clay. 'The fire caresses her dress, seizes her entirely, and, inexorable lover, is sated by nothing short of nothingness.' Years later Yeats was pretty certainly remembering this dance as well as Dante and a Noh play when he spoke in his 'Byzantium' of the dance as an emblem of art, caught up out of nature into the endless artifice of his Byzantium, the endless death-in-life of the mosaic:
... blood-begotten spirits come And all complexities of fury leave; Dying into a dance, An agony of trance, An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
The 'Fire Dance' had all the qualities Yeats asked of the art, for not only was the dancer unconsumed, but she also wore the obligatory enigmatic smile. 'From this flame which does not burn', says Ménil in his Histoire de la Danse (1904), 'there leaps, between two volutes of light, the head of a woman wearing an enigmatic smile.' Ménil, as it happens, goes on - as Jourdain did - to question whether all this trickery of silk and electric light was really dancing at all, and he wonders how, from the vulgarity of the cheap glare and waving skirt, there could come this hashish-like experience. Goncourt's reaction was similar: 'What a great inventor of ideality man is!' he moralized, contemplating this 'vision of what is strange and supernatural' yet has its origin in common stuff and vulgar lights.
Other dances were greeted with equal rapture. Georges Rodenbach draws widely on Fuller's repertoire in his poem 'La Loïe Fuller', first published in Figaro in May 1896, and warmly praised by Mallarmé. It has fifty-eight lines, and is too long to quote in full, but here are some samples:
Déchirant l'ombre, et brusque, elle est là: c'est l'aurore! D'un mauve de prelude enflé jusqu'au lilas, S'étant taillé des nuages en falbalas, Elle se décolore, elle se recolore.
Alors c'est le miracle opéré comme un jen: Sa robe tout à coup est un pays de brume; C'est de l'alcool qui flambe et de l'encens qui fume; Sa robe est un bûcher de lys qui sont en feu ... .
Or, comme le volcan contient toutes ses laves, Il semble que ce soit d'elle qu'elle ait déduit Ces rivières de feu qui la suivent, esclaves, Onduleuses, sur elle, en forme de serpents ... O tronc de la Tentation! O charmeresse! Arbre du Paradis où nos désirs rampants S'enlacent en serpents de couleurs qu'elle tresse! ...
Un repos.
Elle vient, les cheveux d'un vert roux Influences par ces nuances en démence; On dirait que le vent du large recommence; Car déjà, parmi les étoffes en remous, Son corps perd son sillage; il fond en des volutes ... Propice obscurité, qu'est-ce donc que tu blutes Pour faire de sa robe un ocean de feu, Toute phosphorescente avec des pierreries? ... Brunehilde, c'est toi, reine des Walkyries, Dont pour être l'élu chacun se rêve un dieu ... .
C'est fini.
Brusquement l'air est cicatrisé De cette plaie en fleur dont il saigna. L'étreinte De l'Infini ne nous dure qu'un court moment; Et l'ombre de la scene où la fresque fut peinte Est noire comme notre âme, pensivement.
What Mallarmé liked about this was the recognition that Rodenbach restores to dancing its ancient character - it provides its own decor (elle s'étoffe). For Fuller's 'imaginative weavings are poured forth like an atmosphere' in contrast with the short-skirted coryphées of the ballet, who have no ambiance save what the orchestra provides.
Everything conspires to bring Fuller's performance into the positionof an emblem of the Image of art, 'self-begotten' in Yeats's favourite word; or like the body of a woman yet not in any natural sense alive (prodige d'irréel), enigmatic, having the power of election. The darkness of the stage at the end of the performance is the natural darkness of the modern soul which only the Image, hardly come by and evanescent, can illuminate: 'the embrace of eternity lasts us only a short moment'. This power of fusing body and soul, mending all our division, is celebrated even in Pearson's Weekly. More completely than any other dancer before her, Loïe Fuller seemed to represent in visible form the incomprehensible Image of art in the modern world,8 as Mauclair said, 'The Symbol of Art itself, a fire above all dogmas'. And she remains the dancer of Symbolism, from Mallarmé to Yeats; a woman yet totally impersonal, 'dead, yet flesh and bone'; poème dégagé de tout appareil du scribe. 'Thanks to her,' said Roger Marx, 'the dance has once more become the "poem without words" of Simonides ... above all one is grateful to her for giving substance to that ideal spectacle of which Mallarmé once dreamed - a mute spectacle, which escaped the limits of space and time alike, and of which the influence, powerful over all, ravishes in one common ecstasy the proud and the humble.'
In February 1893, Mallarmé went to the Folies-Bergère to see Loïe Fuller. It was an historic evening. André Levinson, complaining in the early Twenties of the exaggerated deference paid in literary circles to the music-hall, credits the Goncourts and Huysmans with beginning the vogue, but goes on: 'One day Stéphane Mallarmé, aesthetician of the absolute, was seen pencilling, in his seat at the Folies-Bergère, his luminous aperçus on the so-called serpentine dances of Loïe Fuller, fontaine intarissable d'elle-même. Since then the whole world has followed ...' What Mallarmé was writing emerges as a passage of prose notably difficult even for him, but the centre, indeed the source in most cases, of contemporary poetic comment on Fuller. Concerning her, he says, and the way in which she uses the fabrics in which she is dressed, the articles of contemporary enthusiasts - which may sometimes be called poems - leave little to be said. 'Her performance, sui generis, is at once an artistic intoxication and an industrial achievement. In that terrible bath of materials swoons the radiant, cold dancer, illustrating countless themes of gyration. From her proceeds anexpanding web - giant butterflies and petals, unfoldings - everything of a pure and elemental order. She blends with the rapidly changing colours which vary their limelit phantasmagoria of twilight and grotto, their rapid emotional changes - delight, mourning, anger; and to set these off, prismatic, either violent or dilute as they are, there must be the dizziness of soul made visible by an artifice.' He goes on to suggest that in this kind of dancing, in which the dancer seems to have the power infinitely to expand the dance through her dress, there is a lesson for the theatre, in which there is always a banality that rises up between dance and spectator. Loïe Fuller makes one see how the subtleties inherent in the dance have been neglected. 'Some restored aesthetic,' says Mallarmé, 'will one day go beyond these marginal notes'; but he can at least use this insight to denounce a common error concerning staging, 'helped as I unexpectedly am by the solution unfolded for me in the mere flutter of her gown by my unconscious and unwitting inspirer'. And he speaks of the dancer's power to create on the boards of the stage her own previously unthought-of milieu. The decor lies latent in the orchestra, to come forth like a lightning stroke at the sight of the dancer who represents the idea. And this 'transition from sonorities to materials ... is the one and only skill of Loïe Fuller, who does it by instinct, exaggeratedly, the movements of skirt or wing instituting a place ... The enchantress makes the ambience, produces it from herself and retracts it into a silence rustling with crêpe de Chine. Presently there will disappear, what is in these circumstances an inanity, that traditional plantation of permanent sets which conflict with choreographic mobility. Opaque frames, intrusive cardboard, to the scrap-heap! Here, if ever, is atmosphere, that is nothingness, given back to ballet, visions no sooner known than scattered, limpid evocation. The pure result will be a liberated stage, at the will of fictions, emanating from the play of a veil with attitude or gesture.' He sees the dance of Fuller as 'multiple emanations round a nakedness' which is central, 'summed up by an act of will ecstatically stretched to the extremity of each wing, her statuesque figure strict, upright; made dead by the effort of condensing out of this virtual self-liberation delayed decorative leaps of skies and seas, evenings, scent and foam'. And he concludes, 'I thought it necessary, whatever fashion may make of this miraculous contemporarydevelopment, to extract its summary sense and its significance for the art as a whole.'
There is dispute among students of Mallarmé as to the place of dancing in his unsystematic system, and less attention than might be expected is paid to this tribute to Loïe Fuller. But there seems to be no very good reason for discounting what it says: that she represented for him at least the spirit of an unborn aesthetic; that she offered a kind of spatial equivalent of music; that she stands for the victory of what he called the Constellation over what he called Chance, 'le couronnement du labeur humain', as Bonniet describes it in his Preface to Igitur. Like the archetype of Art, the Book, Fuller eliminated hasard. Thibaudet, indeed, believed that the whole concept of the Book owed something to Mallarmé's meditations on the dance; so did Levinson, arguing that Mallarmé glimpsed in the ballet 'a revelation of the definitive Œuvre, which would sum up and transcend man'; so, more recently, does M Guy Delfel. The fitness of the dance as an emblem of true poetry is clear. Valéry was expanding the views of Mallarmé when he made his famous comparison between them (poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking). Mallarmé's growing concern for syntax, so irrefutably demonstrated by L. J. Austin, does not militate against this view that the dance took over in his mind some of the importance of music; for syntax is the purposeful movement of language and such movement has, in either art, to be assimilated to the necessarily autonomous condition of the Image. The dance is more perfectly devoid of ideas, less hampered by its means, than poetry, since it has not the strong antipathy of language towards illogic; yet it is not absolutely pure; the dancer is not inhuman. Mallarmé deals with precisely this point in the opening article of Crayonné au Théâtre (before 1887) when he discusses the ambiguous position of the dancer, half impersonal; very like the position of the poet ('The pure work requires that the poet vanish from the utterance' in so far as he can). But Fuller was more purely emptied of personality: an apparition, a vision of eternity for Rodenbach; for Mallarmé 'l'incorporation visuelle de l'idée'.
If it seemed necessary, as it did, for poets to reclaim their heritage from music, the dance provided something more exactly fitting as an emblem of what was aspired to; and in a sense Fuller can stand for the liberation of Symbolism from Wagner. She is much more properly theSymbolist dancer than any orthodox ballerina; and there is a clear discontinuity between the general admiration for dancers of French poets earlier than Mallarmé and his praise of Fuller. In Baudelaire the 'human and palpable element' counts for much; in Gautier also. But in the new age, the age of Mallarmé and Yeats, what matters is that the dancer 'is not a woman'; that she is 'dead, yet flesh and bone'. The difference constitutes a shift in the whole climate of poetry, represented by the shift in English poetic from Symons to Pound, from Symbolism as primarily an elaborate system of suggestion, of naming by not naming, to the dynamism of the Vortex and the Ideogram. For Fuller is a kind of Ideogram: l'incorporation visuelle de l'idée, a spectacle defying all definition, radiant, homogeneous.
Such, at any rate, was the way those people saw Fuller who saw her with eyes opened to dance as a majestueuse ouverture on a reality beyond flux. They saw in her 'la voyante de l'infini'. When Diaghilev came, defying the genres, overwhelming the senses with music and colour and movement, one or two people perhaps remembered her as having been the first to do it. I am convinced that Valéry did. Again and again he returns to the dance as a satisfactory emblem of a desirable poetry. It best illustrates what he calls non-usage - 'the not saying "it is raining" - this is the language of poetry; and movement which is not instrumental, having no end outside itself, is the language of dancing. Poetry, like dancing, is action without an end.' As the dancer makes an image of art out of the quotidian motions of her body, so the poet must 'draw a pure, ideal Voice, capable of communicating without weakness, without apparent effort, without offence to the ear, and without breaking the ephemeral sphere of the poetic universe, an idea of some Self miraculously superior to Myself'. The Dance makes of an activity of the body - sweat, straining muscle, heaving chest - an idea, a diagram of a high reality. Valéry called his dialogue, L'Ame et la Danse, of 1921, 'a sort of ballet of which the Image and the Idea are Coryphaeus in turn'. The dialogue embodies in language of refined wit and gaudy elegance the essence of our post-Wagnerian aesthetic. Athiktè, the central figure, is usually thought of as a conventional ballet dancer; and she does dance on her points. But, as Levinson said in his pamphlet on the dialogue (Paul Valéry, poète de la danse, 1927) the tourbillon, her ecstatic finale, is not merely a ballet step, it is thewhirling of a mystic's dance. Though Valéry collected ballet photographs, they were of a special sort, chronophotographies; the plates were exposed in darkness, the dancers carrying lights; and the result was a whirl of white lines, a record of the pattern of aimless poetical acts. In any case, we need not suppose him so devoted to the ballet as to have forgotten Loïe Fuller. He was on the point of refusing the invitation to write the dance dialogue because he 'considered ... that Mallarmé had exhausted the subject' and undertook it finally with the resolve that he would make Mallarmé's prodigious writings on the subject 'a peculiar condition of my work'. So I believe that when he came to write the passage comparing the dancer with a salamander - living 'completely at ease, in an element comparable to fire - he was remembering Fuller. The passage culminates in a long, rhapsodical speech from Socrates: 'what is a flame ... if not the moment itself? ... Flame is the act of that moment which is between earth and heaven ... the flame sings wildly between matter and ether ... we can no longer speak of movement ... nor distinguish any longer its acts from its limbs'. Phaedrus replies that 'she flings her gestures like scintillations ... she filches impossible attitudes, even under the very eye of Time!' Eryximachus sums it up: 'Instant engenders form, and form makes the instant visible.' And when the dancer speaks, she says she is neither dead nor alive, and ends: 'Refuge, refuge, O my refuge, O Whirlwind! I was in thee, O movement - outside all things ...' A Bergsonian dancer almost, 'révélatrice du réel' as Levinson says.
The propriety of yoking together Avril and Fuller as I have done here is now, perhaps, self-evident. Avril is a smaller figure altogether, but she demonstrates the strength of the link between dancing and poetry, as well as the important pathological element in the dancer's appeal. Fuller deserves, one would have thought, some of the attention that has gone to Isadora. Levinson, who repeatedly declares his faith in classical dancing as the one discipline 'féconde, complète, créatrice', respected Fuller, but despised Duncan as having no technique, no beauty, no suppleness, her feet flattened and enlarged by years of barefoot prancing, her music primitive. The fact is that Duncan was much more the Tanagra figurine, the dancer from the Pompeian fresco, than Fuller, who earned these descriptions in her early days. And Duncan certainly did not submerge her personality in strange disguisesand unnatural lights. The Modern Dance has developed theories sufficiently impersonal to make it intensely interesting to Mrs Langer, creating a symbolic reality independent of nature. But it depends always upon the body - upon the power of the body not to express emotion but to objectify a pattern of sentience. Fuller with her long sticks, her strange optical devices, her burying the human figure in masses of silk, achieved impersonality at a stroke. Her world was discontinuous from nature; and this discontinuity Valéry, speaking of his Symbolist ancestry, described as 'an almost inhuman state'. She withdrew from the work; if to do otherwise is human, said Valéry, 'I must declare myself essentially inhuman'.
This is the doctrine of impersonality in art with which T. E. Hulme and T. S. Eliot among many others have made everybody familiar. 'The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality ... the more perfect the artist the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.' Thomas Parkinson, commenting on Ortega y Gasset's 'dehumanization' - 'a point can be reached in which the human content has grown so thin that it is negligible' - remarks acutely that the confused reception accorded to Pound's Pisan Cantos was due to critical shock at their identification of the sufferer and the creator. Pound, in leaving off his 'ironic covering', simply broke with a rule of poetic that he himself had done much to enforce. Mr Parkinson is glad; he wants to let 'the Reek of Humanity' back into poetry, where he thinks it belongs, and he seems to regard the impersonality doctrine as a lengthy but temporary deviation from some true 'romantic aesthetic'. I am not sure that he is right, or how far he misunderstands the human relevance of what the impersonal artist attempts. Mrs Langer could answer him, and I am quite sure that there Pound does not show the way back to reeking humanity. In Mr Eliot, in Valéry, we surely are aware of what Stevens called 'the thing that is incessantly overlooked: the artist, the presence of the determining personality'.
However this may be, Fuller's progressive extinction of the dancing body was a necessary component of her success as an emblem of the Image, out of nature. The imagination of the spectator fed upon her, independently of what she intended (she once caught sight of herself in a glass when dancing, and was surprised that what she saw bore norelation to her intention). She is abstract, clear of the human mess, dead and yet perfect being, as on some Byzantine dancing floor; entirely independent of normal action, out of time. It is a highflown way of talking about an affected music-hall dancer with an interest in stage-lighting; and, but for the example of Mallarmé, we should hardly venture it. Yet she was not a mere freak; dancers are always striving to become, like poems, machines for producing poetic states; 'they labour daily', as Levinson says, 'to prevent a relapse into their pristine humanity'. Only when the body is objectified in this way does it function, in the words of Whitehead, as 'the great central ground underlying all symbolic reference'. Also, it dies; and in so far as it is permitted to appear like something that does, it cannot represent victory over hasard, perfect being, the truth behind the deceptive veil of intellect. How is this to be overcome? 'Slash it with sharp instruments, rub ashes into a wound to make a keloid, daub it with clay, paint it with berry juices. This thing that terrifies us, this face upon which we lay so much stress, is something they have always wanted to deform, by hair, shading, by every possible means. Why? To remove from it the terror of death, by making it a work of art.' So William Carlos Williams on primitive ways into the artifice of eternity. Fuller's dehumanization was another way; it is very closely related to a critical moment in the history of modern poetic, but it is also, and this is as we ought to expect, rooted in the terror and joy of the obscure primitive ground from which modern poets draw strength for their archaic art.
Copyright © 2003 by Frank Kermode All rights reserved