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Articles / Paul-James Dwyer
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Articles / Emi Yagishta
First I would like to say why I chose this topic. Even though many scholars/critics have written about Isadora Duncan, there is still a lack of information about her early career in London. As a consequence, this period of her career has remained somewhat unclear in dance research.. Thus the merit of this study lies in the fact that materials which have remained unknown in the previous studies about Isadora Duncan will come in the fore and thus will reveal more information about this period. With this aim, my research probes and adds new information about Isadora’s early career.
My principal research questions are as follows:
a) Why did Isadora Duncan decide to go to London?
b) What kind of performances she showcased in London?
c) What did she study in London?
d) How did she create her own dance style?
As a method, I used unpublished materials including Isadora’s brother Raymond’s memoir that were shown to me by descendants of Isadora Duncan. In addition to this, I used programs, historical newspapers and Isadora’s autobiography, My Life.
Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco in the USA and after she grew up there, she moved to Chicago and New York. After completing her career in New York, she decided to move to London in 1899. In previous studies, other researchers mentioned that Isadora decided to go to London in 1899. However, when I checked a brochure of a performance recorded in 1898, a year before she had moved to London. This piece of information was stimulating because as I noticed that before she decided to move there, she danced in front of British audience. I present a glimpse of that performance before you. You could see that Isadora’s name in this brochure1 . Perhaps, this first performance had influenced her decision to move to London.
In her autobiography, she wrote about the great dreams and expectations she had about moving to the British capital:
“I dreamed of London, and the writers and painters one might meet there- George Meredith, Henry James, Watts, Swinburne, Burne-Jones, Whistler…These were magic names, and to speak the truth, in all my experience of New York I had found no intelligent sympathy or help for my ideas.”2
As a child, she read several books written by English writers, including Dickens, Thackeray, and Shakespeare3 and she got acquainted with several English friends personally while she was there for her first performance. I assume that her performance was a great success, which might have influenced her decision for future settlement.
When the Duncans arrived in London, they visited many touristic places and museums, and she audited one lecture on Venus and Adonis at the National Gallery. Especially, Isadora and Raymond were interested in the British Museum and spent lots of time to see Greek Sculptures. Isadora remembered those days like this:
“We spent most of our time in the British Museum, where Raymond made sketches of all the Greek vases and bas-reliefs, and I tried to express them to whatever music seemed to me to be in harmony with the rhythms of the feet and Dionysiac set of the head, and the tossing of the thyrsis. We also spent hours every day in the British Museum Library, and we lunched in the refreshment room on a penny bun and café au lait.” 4
After she saw real Greek sculptures in the British Museum, she got inspiration from them, especially from Greek vases and bas-reliefs. As a consequence, she started to study on Grecian dance. Raymond remembered those days like this.
“Here in London became the real study of the dance. The British Museum was our master. I spent days making copies of the Greek vase painting while Isadora awaiting for seats when no one was present took on the poses of Greek bas-relief. Here commenced the first conception of conformity to a style which here was the Hellenic ideal. From this constant taking of attitudes before the sculpture Isadora acquires a new movement created by the rhythm of throwing herself into the attitude performed.” 5
In this above comment, it is evident how Isadora and Raymond went to the British Museum and indulged themselves in European art and culture and started to study on their own arts. These studies have contributed significantly in reconfiguring aesthetics of Isadora’s dance by adding up some new expressions.
Aristocrat’s Salons and Performance with Benson’s Company
When Isadora played at the Kensington Square Park, London, she met actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who introduced her to the London aristocracy. This made it possible for Isadora to dance privately at the homes of the bourgeoisies.
To make a living on her own, Isadora took part in Benson’s Company’s performances in London. She danced the first fairy role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You could see Isadora’s name and role in this brochure.6 Besides, this performance, she took part in Tempest, Henri V, although she didn’t like these roles.7 This photo was taken in Feb, 1900, when Isadora took part in Benson’s Company, you could see Isadora in the middle of this photo.
In her memoir, she didn’t write that she advertised her dance, but I found the advertisement in the historical newspaper as follows:
“The Dance Idylls of Isadora Duncan arranged for drawing rooms, garden, parties, &c. Town or country. For terms, particulars, &c., address Miss Duncan, care of Alfred Schuls-Curtius, 44 Piccadilly-circus, W.”8
Looking at this advertisement, people from aristocratic class got interested and requested her to perform at their houses. As I will explain in a next section, this is how she got a chance to dance at the Gallery.
Performances at the New Gallery
One of the friends of Ms. Campbell, Mrs. George Wyndham invited all artists and intellectuals in London to her house and arranged for Isadora to dance in her drawing room.9 In this gathering, Isadora met Charles Hallé,10 a director of New Gallery, and from his supports, her activities flourished.
Hallé taught Isadora on Burne-Jones, Rossetti, William Morris, all the school of Pre-Raphaelites, American painter, Whistler and poet, Tennyson.
Moreover, Halle introduced painter William Blake Richmond, poet Andrew Lang, and composer Hubert Parry to Isadora. He asked them to support Isadora’s performances, and he held “Three Evenings with Isadora Duncan” at his New Gallery. In these performances, Richmond talked about the relationship between Dance and Paintings; Lang talked about Greek myth and Dance; and, Parry talked about Music and Dance. After their lectures, Isadora danced as a part of the Evenings.
These performances were patronized by the daughter of Queen Victoria, Helena, accompanied by support committee formed by prominent figures like Countess Valda Gleichen, Countess Feodore Gleichen, painter Sir Wiliam Richmond, writer Henry James, poet Andrew Lang, composer Sir Hubert Parry, music critic Fuller Maitland etc.11
According to Allan Ross Macdougall who wrote books on Isadora, the first of these three performance was held in March 16th in 190012 However, the Morning Post in June 23rd in 1900 reported about “Three evenings with Isadora Duncan” like this. You could see that the date of the performance is June 28th, 1900.
Moreover, when I checked Morning Post on June 28th in 1900, first performance would be held on June 28th at the New Gallery and Lang would talk about Greek Myth and Isadora would illustrate that in her dance.13 Therefore, I contend that Macdougall’s record must be erroneous. I bring to your notice that the other researchers, for example, Fredrika Blair14 and Peter Kurth15 followed previous research which is Macdougall’s record,16but I found that exact performance date from newspapers. Morning Post on June 27th also reported that Isadora Duncan’s Evenings would be held at the New Gallery as follows.
“Mr. Andrew Lang had consented to open the recital tomorrow evening with a talk on the Greek classics that Miss Duncan will dance. Tickets for these evenings may be obtained by applying to Miss Duncan, 15, Kensington-court-place.“17
In this performance on 28th, Lang talked about Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, Isadora danced Lamentation for Adonis and other dances inspired by paintings.18 According to performance notice for the second performance, Parry talked about Music, Countess Valda Gleichen selected some music from Gluck’s Orpheus, and Isadora danced to Gluck and Chopin’s music.19
The reason why she decided to use Chopin’s music was one of the committee members, music scholar and critic, John Alexander Fuller-Maitland who recommended Isadora that she should dance to good music like Chopin’s waltzes instead of dance to poem. Isadora followed his advice, and from this point, she began to respond to Chopin’s music. In Isadora’s memoir, she wrote about her performances at the New Gallery as follows.
“I danced in the central court, round the fountain, surrounded by rare plants and flowers and banks of palms, and these functions were a great success. The newspapers were enthusiastic and Charles Halle was overjoyed at my success; everyone of note in London invited me to tea or dinner, and we had a short period during which fortune smiled upon us.”20
In the third performance on July 6th,21 titled as Dance Idylls from fifteen century masters, Richmond lectured about Botticelli and La Primavera, after that Isadora showed her dances that were inspired by the paintings of Botticelli and Titian.22 Music was also from the fifteen century, and instruments were also from same century. According to Western Times on July 16th, these dances were critiqued to be “very artistic and exciting to the imagination was the effect of this revived Ancient art. The audience of this occasion (Dance Idylls from Fifteen Century Masters) seemed confined to those of the “highest cult.”23
Evening Telegraph wrote: “She was particularly successful in reproducing the poise of the different figures in Botticelli’s “Primavera” though, curiously enough, she failed with the leading figure of Spring. Much better was her wonderful dance after “Bacchus and Ariadne” the grace and spirit of which must have been obvious even those wholly ignorant of the art of dancing”.24 This painting is Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian.
Western Times reported: “Miss Duncan’s own costumes were entirely composed of diaphanous material,25 which allowed the graceful symmetry of her movements to be seen to perfection. She wore golden sandals on her feet. In the Bacchus and Ariadne dance, suggested by Giovanni Picchi,26 her dress was of red, garlanded with vine leaves.”27 You could see that Isadora might get inspiration from this Titian’s painting. Because the Bacchus in this painting wore red cape and a wreath made of vine leaves. In this report the reviewer also wrote that: “She wore golden sandals on her feet”, so from this, we need to think when she danced in London, she wore sandals. From these above archival sources, I bring to your attention that when Isadora was in London, she didn’t establish her typical style yet, which is dancing barefoot.
In this photo28 Isadora is seen to dance Primavera, and we can see that she didn’t dance barefoot.
(Life into Art, p.37)
And this is the famous painting of Bottichelli’s Primavera.
Compared to Isadora’s Primavera and Botticelli’s painting, Primavera, Isadora might have tried to depict the third lady from left in the painting. The lady is wearing a tunic with printed flowers and she is a symbol of spring. Isadora was also wearing a similar kind of costume and her stomach part is abundant like the third lady in the painting. On this performance, The Evening Telegraph reported as follows:
“Miss Duncan took up a series of graceful poses like those of figures on a Greek vase, but passes from one to another so quickly that the succession of postures resolved itself into a dance. Miss Duncan has both the elevation and the muscular strength of the dancer, but she makes it her chief aim to develop the pictorial side of the dance, and leaves feats of limb to others.”29
Isadora created her own dance inspired by Greek vases at the British Museum, Italian paintings at the New Gallery. So, drawing on ballet exercises learned in the USA and London, she created her own style. In her photo Primavera, I note that her arm and hand were very expressive and legs make little attitude, expressing how her dance was elegant and charming.
In this presentation, I have attempted to throw light on Isadora’s early career. Drawing upon archival sources, I make it evident how Duncan’s early career in London was meaningful in establishing contacts with artists of repute and intellectuals who undeniably inspired her to create a new dance aesthetics. There she had an opportunity to learn real Greek arts, Italian paintings. These experiences pushed her to create her reshape her practice and help her to create new dance as an art form. I have demonstrated how her dance performances were well-received and earned great admirations from most several intellectuals and renowned artists of that time in London.
I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the descendants of Isadora Duncan -- Ligoa Duncan, Michel Duncan, and Dorée Duncan -- for the help they have given me in my research. They have shown me unpublished materials, Raymond Duncan’s memoir.
1. The brochure is on July 18th in 1898. The title of performance was The Story of Narcissus: Done into Dance by Isadora Duncan.
2. My Life, p.37
3. My Life, p.23
4. My Life, p.44
5. Memoire of Raymond, p.13
6. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Royal Lyceum Theatre on Feb. 22-28 in 1900.
7. Evening Telegraph, 6 Aug. 1900
8. The Times, 26, 28, 30 Mar., 6 Apr.1900.
9. My Life, p.48.
10. He was an English painter and a director of the New Gallery. His German-born father was a famous pianist and conductor, Sir Chalres Hallé. (Seroff,p.42)
11. Morning Post, 23 Jun. 1900. Macdougall wrote painter, Lawrence Alma Tadema was also a member of committee.(Macdougall, p.53)
12. Macdougall, p.54
13. Morning Post, 28 Jun. 1900
14. Blair, p.34.
15. Kurth wrote that performance date was March 17th . (Kurth, p.60)However, no record that Isadora performed at New Gallery on March 17th. Blair wrote that “The first recital was reviewed the next day (March 17, 1900) in the London Times”(Blair, p.34) So, he followed her record.
16. According to Macdougall, he used The Times on March 17th in 1900, and it reported Isadora danced for poems of Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, Theokritos’s Idylls and Triumph of Daphnis, Mendelssohn’s Spring Song, Nevin’s Water Nymph.
17. Morning Post , 27 June 1900.
18. Western Times, 16 July 1900.
19. From a brochure of the New Gallery on July 3rd in 1900.
20. My Life, p.49.
21. From a brochure of the New Gallery on July 6th in 1900.
22. According to Macdougall, there were eight dancers including Isadora, but three of them didn’t dance. However, all dancers showed dances that along the theme of dance. Isadora danced as a central figure of “Primavera” and one of her most loved students, Irma kept the costume that Isadora wore while dancing the “Primavera”. (ARM,p.56)
23. Western Times , 16 July 1900,
24. Evening Telegraph, 6 Aug. 1900.
25. In her autobiography, Isadora wrote: “It was typical of an English well-bred
assembly that no one remarked that I danced in sandals and bare feet, and transparent veils, although this simple apparition made the klatch of Germany some years later. But the English are such an extremely polite people that no one even thought of remarking upon the originality of my costume and, alas!” (My Life, p.43)
26. He was an Italian composer, organist of the early Baroque era.
27. Western Times, 16 July 1900.
28. According to Life into Art, this photo was taken in 1899, London, when she danced Primavera.
29. Evening Telegraph, 6 Aug. 1900
Blair, Fredrika. Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman, Quill, 1986.
Duncan, Isadora. My Life, Livelight,1996.
Duncan, Dorée(ed.) Life into Art: Isadora Duncan and Her World, Norton, 1993.
Kurth, Peter. Isadora: A Sensational Life, Back Bay, 2001.
Macdougall, Allan Ross. Isadora: A Revolutionary in Art and Love, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1960.
Seroff, Victor. The Real Isadora: the Life of Isadora Duncan, Avon Books, 1972.
Evening Telegraph, 6 Aug. 1900.
Morning Post , 27 June 1900.
Morning Post, 28 Jun. 1900Morning Post, 23 Jun. 1900.
Times, 26, 28, 30 Mar., 6 Apr.1900.
Western Times, 16 July 1900.
The Story of Narcissus: Done into Dance by Isadora Duncan, Lowther Lodge, 18 July 1898.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Lyceum Theatre 22-28 Feb, 1900.
Evenings with Isadora Duncan, The New Gallery, 3 July, 1900.
Evenings with Isadora Duncan, The New Gallery, 6 July, 1900.
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Articles / Margot Fonteyn
People called her a great artist—a Greek goddess— but she was nothing of the kind. She was something quite different from anyone or anything else.
Isadora Duncan is more difficult to describe, explain, categorize, or summarize than any other dancer, even the mysterious Nijinsky. She does not lit into any category because she was a poet of motion. A poet uses the words we all know and, following his own inspiration, creates a language personal only to him. That is what Isadora did with human movement. In a way, ridiculous as it sounds, she was not interested in what goes by the name of "dancing.” Dancing has rules. It has steps, movements of the legs, hopping, changing weight; even the most primitive dances are composed of certain repetitions which, no matter how simple, constitute steps. When it comes to folk dancing, the steps begin to exist for their own sake, but Isadora had not the least interest in such distinctions, and the most highly developed technique of all, that of ballet, she abhorred.
We make the mistake of thinking of her in terms of theatre because dance now is exclusively a matter of entertainment. Whether presented on a stage or enjoyed spontaneously in a nightclub, it belongs to our leisure hours, certainly not to our religious life or material survival. Isadora tried to return dance to its original spiritual purpose, but to disseminate it through the then available channels. I doubt that she was ever fully aware of this conflict. She would dance as readily in a salon or garden as on a stage; the location was of minor importance because she was not a theatre artist except in the sense that temples or churches in early history were the "theatres” of community life. But that was long before the modern stage, framed in its proscenium arch, created its own rules for making a genuine truth out of artificiality by means of technique and art.
In the modem sense of theatre Isadora was an amateur. She saw nothing incongruous in explaining with words what she had tried to express in her dance if she thought the audience had not grasped her message. It did not bother her that theatre convention expects the performance to stand or fall on its own merit, and explanations to be confined to the program notes—she was on a different track altogether. Her theatre should have been a temple, as she sought the ''divine expression of the human spirit” and what she called the truth of my being.”
This truth was compounded more of emotion than anything else; instinct was her guide, while logic and reason were but passing visitors. She wanted to become nature itself, to be the sky, the waves, the breeze, not to transmute them by any known formula of art. So she had to invent her own formula. She had to find how she herself would run or skip if joy motivated that reaction, how she herself would bow down if sorrow crushed her; then she used those movements and gestures as her dance steps. Such people as Isadora—one of a kind—seem to appear in the world without rhyme or reason. It is possible that we are aware of them only when their appearance coincides with a period that is ready for them, as was her case. It is possible that twenty years earlier or later no one would have been interested in her message—or perhaps she herself would have communicated it in a different way; who can tell? In any event, she was born at the right time, in 1878, and California was probably the best place for her to grow up because both the climate and the intellectual atmosphere induced a certain freedom of movement and thought.
Isadora’s father deserted the family early on. and her mother struggled to support the four children, two sons and two daughters, by teaching music. Of the four, Isadora was the one who gained most from the combination of a Scottish father and Irish mother; she had beauty of face and form, inherent musicality, a generous heart, and all the compelling charm of the Irish that makes others follow wherever they lead. As a child she had no hesitation in teaching her younger playmates to dance, regardless of the fact that she knew next to nothing about it herself. Later on it was only natural that the whole family would be swept off to Chicago, New York, and Europe in pursuit of Isadora’s compulsion to dance in her own way. She believed that Hellenic Greece held the key to that secret of movement she desired, so, as soon as her initial impact on Europe had brought in a small nest egg of money, the Duncan family continued via Venice, and thence, following ecstatically but in considerable discomfort the route of Ulysses, to Athens. It was 1903. Isadora had reached the age of twentyfive without encountering love. She did not need it—her vitality and emotions were entirely absorbed in her quest.
Their first Athenian dawn found all five Duncans ascending the Acropolis and beholding with mystical reverence the overwhelming and lofty perfection of the Parthenon. They had, in Isadora’s words, " gained that secret middle place from which radiates in vast circles all knowledge and beauty.” Now her task was to capture that beauty.
For the last jour months each day I have stood before this miracle of perfection wrought of human hands . . . and I did not dare move, for I realized that of all the movements my body had made none was worthy to be made before a Doric Temple. And as I stood thus I realized that I must find a dance whose effect was to be worthy of this Temple— or never dance again. . . . For many days no movement came to me. Ami then one day came the thought: These columns which seem so straight and still are not really straight, each one is curving gently from the base to the height, each one is in flowing movement, never resting, and the movement of each is in harmony with the others. And as I thought this my emus rose slowly towards the Temple and I leaned forward— and then I knew I had found my dame, and it was a Prayer.
Out of such immature ecstasy Isadora created her dance; it cannot be repeated or imitated or taught, for, of all her pupils, only those she kept with her and inspired herself learned anything—and then, human as she was above all else, when they grew up to be successful on their own account and show some independence, she was not too pleased!
In their first euphoric days on the Acropolis the Duncan family, as of one mind, had decided to honour the ancient Greeks by building an arts commune where they would live the homespun life, with their heads in lofty thought and their feet in sandals. They threw themselves into this extraordinary and hopeless project with typical fervour, scouring the region until they came upon a hill at Kopanos, declared by Isadora’s brother Raymond, as he cast his staff to the ground, to be the chosen site. Raymond drew' up ambitious plans to include a house, a small temple, a Greek theatre, a library, and various outbuildings; sheep were to graze on the slopes. Isadora bought the hill at considerable expense and likewise the special stone, transported by donkey, to construct substantial walls for the house, which was modelled on Agamemnon’s ancient palace at Mycenae—nothing less.
The house was completed—it is now being restored as a Duncan museum—but the rest of the scheme was doomed from the start. For one thing, it became far more costly than anticipated and, in any case, Isadora was to find out that she was the last person in the world for the truly simple life. When she discovered love and luxury, she took to them both fervently, often, near the end of her short life, spending her last penny on a bottle of the best champagne. Raymond was the true ascetic in the family; to the end of his days he wore robes, a beard, long hair, sandals—and, I suspect, a serious mien.
It gradually became clear that the Duncans' dream of reliving the artistic glories of ancient Greece could not materialize. Isadora’s savings began to run low and the modern Athenians showed no enthusiasm for being swept back to their golden past by a family of eccentric Americans—the big hit of her performances was her Viennese waltz. Discouraged, she went alone at midnight to dance in the ruins of the Dionysus
Theatre and then, ever restless—but secretly relieved?—she headed for Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, and Russia. She found romance, riches, fame, and tragedy.
She was nothing if not a bundle of contradictions. Without ever relinquishing her belief in the Greek dance of temple and arena, she also wanted to be a theatre star—she was happy to be applauded and acclaimed. She was eager to succeed as an artist, and indeed poets, musicians, painters, writers, sculptors, the theatre reformer Stanislavsky, and the designer Gordon Craig were devoted admirers—sometimes lovers. She bloomed in their company.
In her muddleheaded, instinctive Irish way she tried to do the impossible and a lot of the time she succeeded. I don’t believe she fully understood what she was, or the true quality of her affinity with Greece. She was the mythological Mother Nature, the eternal woman. Her motivation, fixation, obsession was for children; through every crisis she clung to her dream of a school where a thousand children would live in joy and health in dance, and teach thousands more in everincreasing numbers. She was not so much a liberated woman, in the rather narrow modern sense, as an allembracing eternal earth mother. She was pure mother, not housewife. No one ever heard of Mother Nature having a husband, and no more could Isadora. In the end she married her wild Russian poet, Essenin, but not out of a sudden conversion to respectability; it was only because she saw in his curly golden head an image of her dead son as he would have grown up, and she could refuse him nothing, least of all the possibility of a passport to leave Russia with her.
The bizarrely simple and avoidable accident that had drowned her two children, trapped in a car as it slipped into the Seme during a violent storm, was a catastrophic tragedy. It tore her soul, left her not a second without pain and sorrow, and destroyed her life. Neither dance, nor champagne, nor lovers gave her peace ever more, until one day a long scarf, thrown unthinkingly around her neck, caught in the wheel of her car—driven by a young man she had instinctively recognized as a messenger of the gods—and took her swiftly to that place where her innocent children awaited her.
The measure of our inability to recognize basic truths of nature when we see them is that almost everything about Isadora’s turbulent life that seemed natural and logical to her was sensational or scandalous to the civilized world.
Had Isadora as a young girl been able to see Anna Pavlova in her prime she would have understood that the technique of a highly trained ballet dancer is no more than absolute control of movement, the means by which the soul can be released and the spirit shine forth. But Isadora was a year or two older, and by the time she did see Pavlova she was so engrossed in earning the torch of natural dance that she could not equate hersell in any way with ballet. Yet I think it undeniable that in her free use of arm movements, Isadora influenced the ballet quite strongly. Oddly enough I cannot really see that she was the "Mother of Modern Dance,” as she is often called, except that by taking dance back to the beginning she made it easier for others to start out again in new directions. To have some understanding of how and why she was able, with little more than emotion and personality, to make such a deep impression on artists and intellectuals, one must look at the state of dance during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century—which roughly coincided with the first twenty of Isadora’s life.
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