Discovering the 'it girl' of turn-of-the-century Paris in 'The Dancer'

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Loie Fuller was the ultimate “it girl.” A little-known dancer from Illinois, she wound up in turn-of-the-century Paris, smack-dab in the middle of La Belle Epoque. Her friends? They were artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and filmmakers the Lumiere Brothers, and her protegee was acclaimed dancer Isadora Duncan.

Fuller herself was a pioneer in modern dance and theatrical lighting techniques, but it has taken Stephanie Di Giusto’s film “The Dancer” (“La Danseuse” in French) to rescue her name and legend from obscurity, mainly because so little of her work survived the ages. Unlike Duncan, Fuller avoided filming herself since she believed dance was too fleeting and delicate an art form to capture on celluloid.

“I didn’t know Loie Fuller at all,” professes Di Giusto in an interview in Tokyo during a promotional tour. “By accident, I came upon a black-and-white photograph of a young woman dancing on stage in what appeared to be a large white sheet. I was mesmerized, not least because she looked so modern. So I did some research, and that’s when I learned the dancer’s name.”

At that point Di Giusto didn’t know she would be writing the screenplay and directing “The Dancer” in what would be her feature debut.

“To be honest, I didn’t know much about dancing and wasn’t passionate about watching it,” she says. “But Loie was fascinating to me, and I decided to film her movements as a boxer rather than as a dancer. It made much more sense to me because this was a woman who was always at war, doing battle with someone or something. Mostly, it was with her own self.”

In the film, Fuller is portrayed as an awkward American girl longing for art. She first dances in New York before making her way to Paris, where her career takes off and she finds a lover-cum-patron in Le comte Louis D’Orsay (Gaspard Ulliel), meets and tutors Isadora Duncan (Lily Rose Depp) and dances at the opera. Yet all this time, she’s plagued by insecurity and low self-esteem.

Fuller is played by Stephanie Sokolinski, who is better known by her singular moniker, Soko. The French musician-turned-actor also has quite a following in Japan.

“I knew Isadora Duncan but I wasn’t really aware of Loie Fuller,” she says. “And then I discovered how she danced and the incredible amount of work that went into her movements.”

Soko trained with choreographer Jody Sperling to duplicate Fuller’s famed Serpentine dance, which involves spiraling around the stage in layers of white fabric that spin and swirl as they change colors under a huge lighting apparatus that Fuller herself had developed.

“She was an engineer and an artist,” Soko adds.

The story, however, emphasizes Loie and Isadora’s relationship over the dancing, a fact that garnered criticism from dance enthusiasts in Europe when the film opened there last year.

“Loie had to work and work to hone her craft while Isadora was a natural, who hardly needed to practice,” Di Giusto says. “Obviously, there was a lot of friction and jealousy there. I needed to show that, because insecurity was so much a part of Loie’s life and art. If not for her insecurities, her dancing would not have existed.”

“The Dancer” is now playing at select cinemas. For more information, visit