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Articles / André Levinson 
 
 
 
 
André Levinson
"The art and meaning of Isadora Duncan"
in Copeland, Roger: What is dance?, p. 438-444
New York, Toronto, Membourne, Oxford University Press, 1983.
 
 
 
      Thanks to the fact that, up to recent times, ballet has been the exclusive domain of a closed circle, it was isolated from the gen- eral public by prejudices which have not yet been overcome. The individual form in which the art of dance first reached us, excit- ing and troubling us, was the dance of Isadora Duncan. This powerful artist did not immediately arouse our sympathy; her widespread recognition came later, coinciding with a decline in her style. Consequently, evaluations of her dancing have been as enthusiastic as they have been superficial.
 
     Instinctively reacting to the new beauty Miss Duncan reveals, friends of her art in the public and in the press created a com-pletely false and unsuitable criterion for evaluating her talent: they compared her dancing to ancient dance.
 
     Little is known about ancient dance; its living tradition is irre- trievably lost. We do know of its deep ties to forms of cult wor-ship. In acknowledging the absence of a religious basis in her explorations of dance, Miss Duncan herself denies that her art is a direct organic perpetuation of antiquity; her dance, she asserted in a public lecture, is not a dance of the past but a dance of the future. But if there is not a genuine link to the little-known essence of ancient dance in her art, then its ideological, I would say even moral, base coincides in part with the themes of the somewhat simplified and vulgarized Hellenism of our day. Its
slogans are: freedom of the body, the cult of plastique, palp-able beauty- a cult nourished by the beautiful relics of museums. But it seems to us that there is no need to mix our current Hellenism with the already difficult-to-comprehend character of ancient culture.
 
     Fans of Duncan's art, hoping to find a measure of support for their arguments and to justify their enthusiasm before the judg- ment of skeptics, greatly overestimate the significance of such museum pieces. There is no question that one must credit Miss Duncan with a serious study of the monuments of ancient art of reliefs, and especially of vase painting, all of which develop and enrich her dance. But it would be quite erroneous to per-ceive this as her innovation or as the "focal point" of her art. The fact is that by reconstructing antiquity through documents which have been preserved, it is possible to recreate the tradition not
only in choreography but on the contemporary stage as well. Perhaps many have not been able to discern, through the veil of her creative individuality, the unprecedented evocation of antiq-uity which is one of the main attractions of Sarah Bernhardt's interpretation of Racine's Phedre. The creation of this image is preceded by an extensive study of museum treasures right up to the Attic treasures in our own Hermitage. The basic inability of plastic arts, sculpture, and painting to give movement to each instant has been fatal in attempts to restore ancient forms of dance. These art forms can only fix one instant of movement, chiefly its
beginning or end. Plastic art is especially static, as it is tied to rules of equilibrium. Therefore, ancient art can give us only a whole series of poses and positions. It is not within its powers to give us an entire presentation of the dynamics of dance or movement itself. Even the most consistent and resourceful attempts to recreate ancient dance are inevitably characterized by inadequacy and arbitrariness.
 
     But Duncan's art is not tied genetically to antiquity. It is sup-ported (to a greater degree) by the contemporary Hellenic slogan of the body's freedom from clothing and the cult of the body reborn. The contemporary ideal of nudity, which only censor- ship prevented Duncan from achieving, does not at all agree with ancient aesthetics, which valued the choreographic mean-ing of clothing and draperies. Consequently, one generally can-not relate the slogans supporting nudity purely to aesthetics. But the overemphasis on slogans is in protest against false shame, against the hermetically sealed philistinism of Duncan's moral-izing critics. In a word, the slogan offers a conventional lie as opposed to the attacks of the naive.
 
     A socially significant issue raised by Duncan is our deep con- cern for the physical development of the younger generation, and our own struggle against approaching degeneration. Dun-can's innovation in the area of dance naturally added to the blos-soming of various types of sports. This was seen in the devel-opment of every imaginable kind of gymnastic group during the past decade. Duncan's dancing appeared to affect choreography in the same way that the sudden appearance of the natural corset affected dress reform in the world of fashion. It is completely natural that Isadora Duncan sought not so much to create a new phalanx of refined artists as to make her pedagogical goal the general dissemination of her message to the masses. It is not without reason that A. G. Kornfeld noted, in his "small eulogy" to the artist, the significance of her art as "the possibility for all of us to be beautiful." The cult of athleticism, of the strong, lithe, healthy body, gave rise to talk not only of the influence of contemporary society on her dancing, but of the "racial" quality evidenced in Duncan's art. The aesthetic character of her dance carries this typically anglo-saxon impression. This characteristic is best described by a term already in use for another aspect of
English artistic cul-ture- "Pre-Raphaelitism."
 
     Pre-Raphaelitism is a reactionary movement which brings overrefined classical and post-classical forms back to the level of primitive artistic concepts. It is a compromise movement-one not quite strong enough. Although it finally breaks with the aca-demic tradition, it does not then return to the initial stages of development of the art but timidly stops short. English Pre-Raphaelite artists broke from the powerful maturity of the cinquecent thanks to Botticelli and Verrocchio; none of them approached Giotto.
 
     Duncan has that vividness of form, that absence of chiaro- scuro, that concreteness of art which characterized the quattro-cento. In her Ange avec violon, in her poetic Primavera, there is all the healthy strength of the good Lorenzo di Credi, softened by the fragile intellectualism of Botticelli. Duncan has that romantic yet not overly profound nostalgic du passe which developed in the treatment of antiquity during the quattrocento, that idyllic note, that inability to capture the monumental such as one sees in the work of Pietro di Cosimo, whose Venus sits among the little multicolored flowers in a melancholy field while a fleeting but- terfly
alights on her bared knee.
 
     In essence Duncan's dance is mimetic- figurative. She draws her forms from imitations of natural, common poses and move- ments, and with her spontaneous mimicry she conveys emo- tional experiences. It is true that there is not an exact duplication, but there is a deep analogical resemblance to antiquity. In the Ange avec violon she imitates, with the movement of her arms, the motions of playing a real violin; in Primavera, choreographed according to Botticelli' s painting, she drops countless flowers; in the Lullaby of Gretchaninoff, she bends just so over the infant's cradle, and when her Narcissus bends his beautiful knee over the imaginary stream into which he gazes, the audience can feel the moisture and transparency of the current, the trembling and the sudden coldness going through his body. 
 
     As, in Goethe's ballad, water drawn from the palm of the hand by Brahmane's wife turns into a crystal ball, so Duncan's imitative gesture scoops imaginary objects from the surrounding atmosphere revitalizing them with actual palpable life. That is why her use of various props—palm branches, golden leaves in Tchaikovsky's Romance—seems to be an unnecessary infringement on her orig-inal purity.
 
     In her dancing she extracts mimetic, even dramatic content from the music's impressions. This has elicited many opinions as to whether she dances Chopin, Grieg, Beethoven authentically, but even a whole crusade of musicians could not arrive at the truth. Since this or that image or mood are created by irrational forces within our minds, they cannot be identical for everyone, and therefore cannot be considered universal.
 
     I am convinced of music's power to inspire moods and move- ments by the extraordinary example of the somnolent Made-line- who dances under hypnosis. Her will is paralyzed, and the only source of her movement is the musical rhythm, that insur- mountable imperative, spontaneously acting upon her imagina-tion and surrogate will. From it comes the diversities of her dance and the sometimes frenzied rise of dramatic experience.
 
     In depicting her spiritual moods, Duncan does not go beyond the boundaries of realistic movement. Her dance- free from the constraints of clothing, is a free, broad run; leaps are not char-acteristic of her (although they are a primary element of classical ballet), nor is dancing on point, which is practiced by all baller-inas whose heads and arms, in addition, are guided by specific rules of equilibrium. Duncan's head is freely thrust back or is bent forward; her hands, independent of the movement of her arms, live as a free expression of life. In this there is yet another analogy to ancient dance. Lulled by the rhythm, passive and indecisive, her
head, arms and torso sway right and left at the beginning of a Strauss waltz. Her impatient leg simply beats time.
 
     Impressions of Duncan's latest performance take shape in a more definite and concrete form, which I venture to describe here. Here she performed plastic and dramatic creations like Gluck's Orpheus and the songs of Richard Wagner.
 
     After the orchestra's overture, a mournful Orpheus appears from a dark corner of the stage, flooded with crimson light. The head is tilted back, the hands are at his sides. In this long funeral moment, his mood is revealed only by the agonizingly slow movement of his footsteps. His costume, which is too long, falls in straight, rigid pleats, as if a body were dragging behind him, hindering his movement. This material constraint expresses Duncan's impotent despair until she extends an invoking arm upward, with fingers outstretched. Then, as a violin intones Orpheus' repeated cry, "Eurydice! Eurydice!" she bends over an imaginary grave and with gestures of tenderness breaks the sol-emn, stern ritual of funereal rites. This action, executed by Dun- can with the absolute minimum of figurative means,
lacks the distinctive mark of ancient funereal mimicry. The ancient mour- ner invariably feigns the gesture of pulling out his hair by plac-ing his crooked arm over his head. Duncan's portrayal is not based on archaeology but on spontaneous experience. True, this experience is not sufficiently deep, because the sublime conception is not within the dancer's means. The second scene- a cho-rus, and the dances of the Furies spellbound at the end of Orpheus' lyre- is less attractively conceived. It is true that Dun- can skillfully manages to evoke the impression of a moving chorus with many people represented. She is able to communicate
the orchestra's anxious dissonances by sudden breaks in her plas-tic line; but the dance itself fails because of the lack of technical means. This "flat-footed" or, as the Romans called it, "planipes" dance did not use leaps or movements on point, but allowed for great variety of certain kinds of runs and steps. Her knee thrusts forward, billowing the light cloth of her tunic, or she throws her legs back, breaking the pleats in her garments, pleats which con-sistently fall back into place. Often during her dance Duncan throws back her head and thrusts forth her arms with extended, pointing fingers; the typical gesture of an ancient "dactylology." In general, the artist only uses material from ancient dances in measure with her amateur technical capabilities.
 
     On the stage of the Elysees Theatre, Duncan relates to the image of Orpheus' drivers a blissful shadow, a nuance of the fragile grace of the eighteenth century. In the final glorification of the gods, her extended hands, trembling with joy, bring the Olympians generous and beautiful gifts of thanks. The figurative strength of her gesture is such that the audience can see the sacrificial flowers and vessels in her hands.
 
     Of course, Duncan's mimetic paraphrase in no way exhausts the contents of Orpheus. The artist herself knows that gesture is conditioned by and dependent on meaning. As the sweet voice of the real Orpheus, accompanied by a solo violin, sings in self- forgetfulness, a mute dancer moves across the stage. But even with her naive and limited concept of Orpheus, Duncan's per-formance was distinguished by nobility and deep tenderness.
 
     The Brahms waltz suite, which formed the second half of the program, answers to a great degree to Duncan's talent. At the base of her art lies an unconscious sense of formal creation and a particular musical sensitivity. Her dance is impressionistic and calls forth a feeling of involuntariness, of sudden improvisation. The Brahms waltzes are an example of this. In the first measure, the dancer seems to be already rocking and even resisting the inspiration of the music until her movement begins to become more denned and full and the whirlwind of the dance totally carries her away. More than anything else, Duncan's art is repro-ductive: it
is a sound turned into movement. Often her gestures remind one of the instinctive dancing movement of a conductor at his music stand.
 
     The Brahms was followed by a Schubert encore. Somewhat naive, but noble and penetrating, the fully realized artistry of these dances had a lyric charm which dispersed the uncertain and sometimes painful impressions of Orpheus.
 
     On the second evening, in Wagner's Four Poems, from the epoch of Tristan's creation, the psychological passivity of Dun-can's art was once again revealed. In L'Ange her arms cross in supplication and her lips shine with gratitude; she coils her arms and bends her torso in exhaustion beneath the sweet charms of the music. She intertwines her arms in a gesture of torment and self-defense- Suffering. In Dreams, the dancer, lying on the ground, actually seems to be a sleeping person- symbolism is always important in her dance and, raising herself on her elbow, she joyfully gazes at images of a magic dream.
 
     These Poems serve as Duncan's prelude to Isolde's Death. Here again, her strength is focused on the mimicry of the face and hands: her legs are motionless: only occasionally does a swift gust carry her ahead a few paces. Again, as in Orpheus, the artist in a white chlamys with wide sleeves, and with gestures of lamenting tenderness, bends beneath the body of her beloved until the storm of ecstasy straightens her bent back and turns her clouded gaze upward.
 
     With each crescendo of the orchestra, she shakes her uplifted arms and finally throws them vigorously to and fro. Her least effort is accompanied by smooth and sinewy movements of her horizontally extended arms, exactly like an unseeing soul. It goes without saying that this was not a tragic and majestic ascension of Isolde: the dancer's movements are the echo of her imagina-tion—her voice.
 
     In the Bacchanale from Tannhauser, the dance in Venus' grotto, the dancer does not succeed at all. She is not capable of com-municating a multifaceted musical image in which melodic fig-ures at first stand out distinctly and then slip back into the sea of orchestral polyphony: the representation of bacchanalia can-not be realized without the counterpoint opposition of separate groups within a mass of dancers. This is why the artist, who is usually so mindful of the rhythm, here sometimes reinterprets it. Her whole appearance, uniting full-grown maidenliness with young masculinity, is alien to the music's spontaneous charms. The violet stage lighting and the blood-red tunic are powerless.
 
     The Three Graces (this was the preparatory study for Botticelli's Primavera performed by Duncan on a previous occasion) is the height of her art. The dancing nymph reaches out her hand to an unseen friend, and then she herself is suddenly the friend, a new dancer joining in to the music; after this a third one springs up. Here, elements of banal transformation (a quick change of clothing) are side by side with sudden and full metamorphosis. This brings us to the very essence of the artist's creative ability.
 
     The psychological elements are joyfulness, light intoxication with the spring sun, free strides, a gentle breeze, and the playful pleats of her tunic. There is  something bucolic about her. There is no tragedy. No eroticism. There is no real femininity in her essence. In her there is a simple grace, strength, the joy of youth. And this is why this artist-androgyne can be at once Orpheus and Eurydice, Narcissus and Daphne, Pan and Echo, and L'Ange avec Violon. These two evenings defined for us Duncan's signif-icance. Undoubtedly, her art form has become familiar, and its emotion will only sometimes reflect our experiences; her excita- tion will  often be fruitless. Because we see in it the appearance of an unusual personality, all her art is valuable, but its content exhausts itself. A phenomenon like Duncan is a frequent occur-rence, appealing but not remarkable. Placing her within the gen-eral evolution of theatrical dance is a precarious business...
                                                                                                                                                                                                           (1917)
 
 
 
 

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