Taylor Swift, Bill T. Jones, Shakira, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They’re all famous. But why isn’t Loie Fuller, the artist that influenced them all?
A modern dance trailblazer and pioneer of theatrical lighting techniques, Loie Fuller (1862-1928) has impacted and inspired generations of dancers, musicians, fashion designers. Yet her name remains largely forgotten.
But two female filmmakers — Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum — are on a mission to change that. Their documentary film Obsessed with Light is set to illuminate Loie’s life and artistry on the big screen on Monday, February 12 in New York City, as part of the 2024 Dance on Camera Festival.
Ahead of the screening, I met with Sabine and Zeva to discuss why they chose to pay homage to Loie’s artistry and what it took to skillfully craft their 90-minute kaleidoscope of entrancing visuals interspersed with archival footage, celebrity interviews, and wise words from Loie herself.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
When did you first fall in love with Loie’s work?
Sabine: I was working on a documentary called Picasso and Braque go to the Movies which was about the influence of early cinema on cubism, and that’s when I saw, for the first time, a short clip on the Serpentine Dance. Zeva and I had just finished our previous film which was about a very interesting woman named Gertrude Bell, and were looking to find another woman that nobody knows about. We thought that [Loie Fuller] would make a fantastic [subject] because her performances were so mesmerizing.
Zeva: What was so surprising when we started doing our research on Loie Fuller was that so many contemporary artists and performers referenced her in their works, and clips of the Serpentine Dance popped up in museum shops all over the world. We realized that it was everywhere. It was ubiquitous. But Loie was nowhere. Nobody knew about her.
How did you pick which international luminaries from dance, music, fashion you wanted to discuss Fuller’s impact and influence on their artistry?
Sabine: It was important for us to show a range [of artists] because that’s what surprised us. That [Loie] reached so many disciplines. When choosing the interviewees, we thought about how each of them could highlight an aspect of Loie. Either an aspect of her life, her work, her personality, or her own personal influence. In that way we are not only completing the picture but the amazing transcendence that she had.
After sifting through so many interviews, stills, and archival footage, is there anything about Loie’s life or artistry that took you by surprise?
Sabine: For me personally, there wasn’t much that took me by surprise because it was very clear to me that [Loie] was who she was. Down to earth. You could see that in her writing or in the way people described her. But one of the surprising things was when we came across original tapes, interviews conducted by someone who had worked on her biography at an exhibition and was able to interview Loie’s students. And to hear them describe how it was working with her, that was surprising.
Zeva: Yeah, the tapes were in the same grocery bag that we saw in the archive as they were in when they were donated to the museum. It was fantastic to [see] these individuals who had literally danced with Loie Fuller. We were also able to make contact with the granddaughter of [one of the] dancers.
Also, what surprised me the most about Loie Fuller was that she was so multidimensional. She was incredibly competitive and ambitious but also incredibly devoted to her mother. She actually cancelled a performance in Russia because she heard her mother was very ill. And she got a judgment against her for like $40,000. She was a fascinating person, and as we did more and more research, more areas of her personality came out. Kind of like peeling an onion.
The film itself plays out like a dance — darkness with bursts of light throughout. Was this a conscious choice?
Sabine: It was very much a conscious decision. We wanted to create a film that would in some way feel like a Loie Fuller performance. And also in the way it moves from one subject to the next. It’s like the transformation that happens naturally within the performance of Loie Fuller where it goes from one shape to another seamlessly.
Zeva: We were also very aware of the fact that it was going to be an explosion of elements between [Fuller’s] work and Jody Sperling’s choreography. And given the incredible archive footage, we wanted the interviews on black [background], very simple, so that they were like a little bit of a breath that the viewer could take in between.
Queer women seem to be disconcertingly absent from the pages of dance history. Did you at any point see this film as an opportunity to create space for queer women like Loie Fuller to be celebrated and acknowledged in the field?
Zeva: We were very conscious of that in the same way that we were very conscious of the fact that she fought against the stereotype of the performer being thin and beautiful. We really wanted to focus on Loie Fuller’s work, and give homage to someone who was so insanely ahead of her time in terms of her creativity and her obsession to create.
What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
Zeva: The sense that they’ve seen Loie’s work without realizing it. And to have sort of an aha moment or get an understanding of something that they saw but didn’t understand where it came from.
Sabine: One of the [best] things about seeing this film in the theater is that it really transports you into the realm, that mesmerizing ambience that Loie created, and that’s what I hope the audience [experiences]. That they are participating in the performance of Loie by watching the film.
© Reanne Rodrigues (2/7/24) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
To purchase tickets for Obsessed with Light and other films featured in the 2024 Dance on Camera Festival, click here.
Read about a review of Stéphanie Di Giust’s The Dancer (2016) which tells the story of real-life ‘Serpentine Dance’ inventor Loïe Fuller here.
Read about Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad highlighting fearless adventurer and political powerhouse, Gertrude Bell here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured and middle image: Stills from Obsessed with Light. Courtesy of Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum.