This tribute to Loïe Fuller, the pioneering American dancer and choreographer, is a cocktail of movement and visual art; the former being released through the dynamic of voluminous silk capes, which are manipulated by three performers from within and without to create swirling patterns and an exotic assortment of shapes. Fuller created her signature work, Danse Serpentine, in 1891 (allegedly after a wardrobe malfunction with an over-long skirt) and brief film of her performing one of many variations of the dance, with billowing waves of silk creating circles all around her like petals of a rose in full bloom, are amongst the oldest recorded film of dance. Her technique generally used two bamboo canes as arm extensions to create astonishing shapes.    

Bombyx Mori
© Martin Argyroglo

Fuller was regarded as a leading light in the Parisian art nouveau movement and she was widely imitated in the early twenties (her followers were known as the “Fullerettes”), although the significance of her work largely disappeared from vogue after her death in 1928. Ola Maciejewska, a Polish choreographer now based in France, deserves much praise for reminding us of Fuller in Bombyx Mori, made in 2015, which had its UK premiere as part of the exhilarating Dance Reflections festival presented by Van Cleef and Arpels. The intriguing title is the scientific name for the domestic silk moth and its larva, the silkworm. 

Fuller pioneered the use of changing colour in her designs and makeup. Her billowing costumes were innovatively captured in changing colours through lighting that Fuller created through her own colour gel inventions. She even had techniques that conjured the image of fire through the stage being lit from below. Jolanta Maciejewska’s designs for Bombyx Mori are conversely monochromatic and dark to boot, a gloom regularly enhanced by low lighting levels and intermittent blackouts.

The work begins laboriously (literally) with the three performers – Ola Maciejewska herself with Amaranta Velarde Gonzales and Maciej Sado – carrying their swathes of black silk and arranging them, in silence, carefully pleating the fabric to create a circle of silk with a hole in the centre. This process took many minutes and was clearly an expert skill in its own right: my neighbour whispered to me, “Why didn’t they do this before the show started?” and it was a reasonable question, but if they had done this preparation before the performance began, we would not have appreciated the expertise involved in laying out the fabric so assiduously. Once this was done, the performers crawled underneath the silk and pushed their heads through the hole so that the material became a large diaphanous dark cape wrapped around them.

Bombyx Mori
© Martin Argyroglo

It was here – some 20 minutes’ into the piece – that the craft documentary turned into visual arts entertainment, as the performers swirled their garments in every conceivable way, creating a myriad of kaleidoscopic patterns, very much in the way that vintage film of Fuller shows, stopping from time-to-time in distinctive and sometimes unusual shapes (I recall something resembling a child’s cot, a square, a pyramid). Even if faces were often hidden, one quickly became accustomed to distinguishing who was who and from the get-go, Velarde Gonzales commanded attention with her capacity to create the most captivating images. Although very different processes are at play, the visual imagery reminded me of the Black Light Theater of Prague (Attraction, the Hungarian winners of the X Factor, in 2013, is a similar shadow theatre group). 

Microphones hung above the stage, occasionally capturing and amplifying the performers making guttural, throaty noises. Mostly, it was slow, silent and soporific; a tranquillity that was broken by the sudden whiplash swishing of material, the only sounds coming from this movement. After 60 minutes, I felt for how their shoulder joints must have ached from manipulating heavy material in those continual circular actions.

There were some dead and dull moments, exacerbated by the silence, but there were also flashes of memorable imagery – particularly in an arresting finale – in this coordinated display of upper-body strength and athleticism. It’s also warming to see that the legacy of Loïe Fuller lives on almost a century beyond her death.

***11