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Texts / Deborah Jowitt
The search for motion
It is far back, deep down the centuries that one’s spirit passes when Isadora Duncan dances; back to the very morning of the world, when the greatness of soul found free expression in the body, when the rhythm of motion corresponded with the rhythm of sound, when the movements of the human body were one with the wind and the sea, when the gestures of a woman’s arm was as the unfolding of a rose petal, the pressure of her foot upon the sod as the drifting of a leaf to earth.
Isadora Duncan inspired many such passages of fervid prose among her admiring contemporaries. From the beginning of her career, around the turn of the twentieth century, to her death in a bizarre automobile accident in 1927, those who saw her dance were less interested in writing about what she actually did than in presenting their bedizened responses to her.
Yet even as she evoked a fragrant never-never land, this American was creating a contemporary image for the stage dancer. Not a steely-legged virtuoso whipping off pirouettes, not a coquettish quasi-virgin, not a disembodied nymph, but a noble-spirited woman, bold, yet pliant - free to use her imagination and her body as she wished.
Artists in other fields were struck by her audacity: innovators in theater, such as Edward Gordon Craig, Konstantin Stanislavski, and Eleonora Duse; sculptors like Auguste Rodin and Emile-Antoine Bourdelle; poets, musicians, painters, dress designers. The artists who admired her were often the ones who shared her aversion to academic forms and her emphasis on expressiveness. But to them, as to a larger public, she articulated through dancing several important notions of her day. She evoked an idyllic “nature,” even as developments in science and industry were shrinking the countryside, finally stripping poverty of its last veil, picturesqueness. She emphasized the connectedness of body and soul at a time when links between human beings, their work, and the land were being severed, and Victorian prudery shaped moral law. Like certain of her contemporaries in the Arts and Crafts movement - Gustav Stickley, for instance - she advocated simplicity and organic design when public taste decreed elaboration in both decoration and decorum. (A look at the exhibits of the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 is enough to make you believe that the appetite for things carved, chased, embroidered, teased, and draped until no plain surface is visible must have reached some kind of apogee.) Finally, and perhaps most important, she made herself into an emblem of freedom - freedom not only from conventions of dance, but from conventional ideas about how women ought to dress and conduct their lives.
She profited - no doubt about it - from the fairly debased state of ballet in Western Europe and America around the turn of the century. The Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev didn’t arrive to dazzle Europe with the boldness of its colors, music, dancing until 1909. The heyday of Romantic ballet had been over for at least sixty years. Few outside Russia had seen the high-order spectacles Marius Petipa was creating in St. Petersburg. The legacy of fine dramatic ballets that August Bournonville had left to the Danes was stored in Copenhagen. The public’s appetite for spectacle and virtuosity was being satisfied to a stupefying degree by enterprising managers. Dancers, wrote George Bernard Shaw, come dispiritedly from another evening of ballet amid the smoke fumes at London’s Alhambra Theatre, were . . still trying to give some freshness to the half-dozen pas of which every permutation has been worn to death any time these hundred years.”
A spectator seeing Isadora Duncan perform at the peak of her power - arguably, sometime between 1902 and 1913 - would have seen her alone onstage; although, after she founded her first school in 1904, her little girl students sometimes appeared to flock around her, to hold her hands and dance in a ring (Later, various of her adopted daughters - Irma, Anna, Therese, Lisa, Margot, and Erica - might, on occasion, spell her onstage.) She might alternate her appearances with selections of important music - Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Wagner - played by a pianist, or slip onto the stage to dance a portion of a symphonic work, then exit, leaving the orchestra to continue without her, as if she were a solo instrument.
Her settings were simple, but grand. The gathered blue-gray voile curtains she traveled with were very long so that they lay along the floor in foamy piles. People remember that when the light struck them in certain ways, you could see trees and clouds. She preferred lighting to bathe her in the roses and ambers of dawn and dusk, with an occasional flame red or deep blue for moodier pieces. White light, she detested; it didn’t look natural to her. And she quite understandably disliked follow spots: what light in real life, she wanted to know, ever followed a person around?
She danced on a carpet - usually described as blue-gray, but sometimes as emerald green - which also traveled with her. It must have given additional softness and resilience to her footsteps, a stand-in, perhaps, for the grass that in her imagination carpeted her dancing ground. A cushion, too, for the shock of her (shockingly) bare feet.
The spectator would have seen a woman somewhat taller than medium height - five foot five or five foot six, people say - and rather voluptuous. (We know from her letters that she considered herself thin when she weighed 128 pounds and not distressingly fat when she weighed 143 pounds.) Her hair would be loosely caught back to frame the mild, sweet face. She’d be bare-legged under veils or a tunic of the lightest China silk or silk chiffon, little ragged wispy things that would float in your hand if you picked them up. The tunics she usually gathered in under her breasts and around her hips, after the fashion of one of the Graces in Botticelli’s Primavera, a copy of which, she claimed, always hung in her family’s various homes while she was growing up.
Perhaps the orchestra or the pianist would begin to play; or perhaps she would first walk quietly onto the stage and simply stand for a while, listening to the music, swaying slightly as if waiting for a wave to gather force inside her. Then she would embark on phrases built of simple, eloquent walks and runs, of buoyant waltz steps, of skips and leaps - not so much covering the stage with patterns as making of it a three-dimensional world in which invisible presences or aspects of the musical climate drew and repelled her. The phrases were elastic and expansive. Not stuffed with steps. There was plenty of time for the spectator’s eye to take in the dancing figure, to follow her motions as she bounded into the air or fell to the floor, acknowledging the weight of her body, complying with gravity as no ballet dancer did. And the fullness of her gestures in space increased this sense of amplitude, of generosity.
Some of the gestures were abstract, like the lovely upward drift of the arms with which she so often ended her solos; some were pantomimic. Some sixty or seventy years after seeing Duncan perform her “Maidens of Chalkis” dance in Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis, Marie Rambert remembered vividly how “she threw a ball and ran after it, bounced it, caught it in midair; or else she played with ‘osselets,’ reclining by the sea, leaning on one elbow and throwing up those little square bones from the inside of her hand to the outside . . . Of course she had neither a ball, nor the little bones - but you saw it all in her dance.”
It must have been logical to accept her as a symbol of freedom. To her contemporaries, a small stock of knowledge about her life would have sharpened this perception. She talked and wrote frequently to deplore women’s lack of liberty. She insisted on her right to bear children out of wedlock, subject to no man’s control. She even danced while visibly pregnant, enhancing the image of herself as a fecund Demeter and giving Puritans a good shock. But a spectator who knew nothing about her could respond to the air of freedom she created onstage - in moments of serene repose, as well as in those wild maenad skippings with head flung back and strong throat exposed. Her gestures, instead of culminating in poses, flowed out into the space around her. Neither her clothing nor the conventions of dancing restricted her. Clearly, this was no Trilby, being manipulated by a shrewd manager or ballet master. She looked as if she were dancing out her own feelings in response to the music, making her own decisions.
She displayed at times, too, the artless vigor of a fine animal - an unusual image for a female and a dancer. A San Francisco lawyer told his daughter that Isadora gave him the feeling that she “could leap to the ceiling, but she never did,” that she leaped like a coyote in the wilds, and “you always felt there was boundless exertion in back of her.” The painter J. B. Yeats compared Duncan dancing onstage to a kitten playing by itself:
We watched her as if we were each of us hidden in ambush.
I don’t wonder that at first New York rejected her - she stood still, she lay down, she walked about, she danced, she leaped, she disappeared and reappeared - all in curious sympathy with a great piece of classical music, and I sometimes did not know which I most enjoyed, her or the music.
The very qualities in Duncan’s art that Yeats enjoyed were ones that galled many who saw her. Those who associated dancing with a mastery of ballet technique applied the words “amateur” and “dilettante” to her. Some spoke of the poverty of her dance vocabulary and attributed her popularity to a fluke of charisma. On first seeing her in Russia, young Vaslav Nijinsky, unlike many of his colleagues, did not fall under her spell. He told his sister point-blank, “. . . her performance is spontaneous and is not based on any school of dancing and so cannot be taught . . . it is not art.”
There were many who were outraged instead of intrigued by the way she allied herself with major composers, daring to say that she was interpreting the soul of their music. When she danced to the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan in New York in 1911, conductor Walter Damrosch felt it prudent to warn the audience that “. . . as there are probably a great many people here to whom the idea of giving pantomimic expression to the ‘Liebestod’ would be horrifying, I am putting it last on the program, so that those who do not wish to see it may leave.” A critic might accept her glosses on Schubert’s German Dances or waltzes by Chopin or Brahms, but recoil before the spectacle of Miss-Isadora-Duncan-from-California essaying Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony: “The little figure leading its own life alongside it was a frustrating and upsetting experience - this immense art work accompanied by all that triviality.” The reaction is understandable, but I don’t think it would have occurred to Duncan to consider a symphony in terms of tonal variety or harmonic richness and thus hesitate to tackle it: she thought she heard Beethoven speaking and wished to respond. Her first experiences with great composers were intimate ones: when she was growing up, her mother played the piano decently and often. Beethoven and Chopin were revered members of the family.
When Duncan’s lover, Gordon Craig, nicknamed her “Topsy,” he may have been thinking of her ramshackle, “artistic” childhood. If she did, in some sense, “just grow” into an artist, the climate of her native California may have been partly responsible. Aesthetic movements flowered robustly in the warm air and sunshine. People could stage poetry readings, put on plays and pageants out of doors. They could wear Greek outfits as a sign of liberal thinking or artistic proclivities without the bother of donning long woolens under them - as a doctor - dress reformer gravely counseled British aesthetes to do. Poet Charles Keeler had himself photographed in a windblown toga, gazing searchingly into the distance.
Duncan’s own father wrote poetry:
See, the centuried mist is breaking!
Lo, the free Hellenic shore!
Marathon-Platea tells us
Greece is living Greece once more.
It was understood that the writer was pondering an intaglio, but he might well have been looking across the San Francisco Bay to the hills of Berkeley, soon to be known as the “Athens of the Pacific.”
Cultivated folk could see fine theater and hear fine music in San Francisco, a boomtown desirous of becoming a great city. The great Polish actress Helen Modjeska made her American debut there in 1877, the year Angela I. Duncan was born (the “Isadora” took precedence later). Sarah Bernhardt played San Francisco, and Edwin Booth and Adelina Patti, as well as Lottie Collins, the high-kicker from the London music halls, and many others. Duncan, as a girl, could have seen the theatrical dancing of the day in variety shows or musical plays - pert corseted females (some with scant training) marching about the stage to form a variety of eyecatching designs; skirt dancers with their spirited blend of clog dancing, ballet steps, and skirt maneuvers. She might have seen extravaganzas like The Black Crook - a revival of the 1866 hit played San Francisco in 1893 - in which ballet dancers spun and stalked about on the tips of their toes between the tableaux, the mist-and-fire stage effects, and the scraps of lurid, often inconsistent plot.
The four Duncan children - Augustin, Elizabeth, Raymond, and Isadora - were all mad for the theater. Encouraged by their mother and an aunt Augusta, who had hoped to go on the stage, they and their friends put on plays in the barn belonging to a house they rented in Oakland, and the four of them toured a high-toned family variety show up and down California. Small wonder that when Isadora left San Francisco in 1895 to seek her fortune, she sought - and found - work in a theatrical company, that of impresario-director Augustin Daly.
Poverty molded Isadora Duncan’s character as profoundly as art did. In addition to writing poetry, her resourceful father, Joseph Duncan, at various times published a newspaper, ran an auction gallery, speculated in real estate, and was instrumental in setting up two banks, but around the time of Isadora’s birth, it was discovered that, during a period of financial disasters when many California banks were forced to close, he’d been using bank funds to finance private stock speculations. Among other things. He could have gone to jail. Mrs. Duncan, angered as much by his philandering as by his financial peccadillos, divorced him.
In a series of rented lodgings in Oakland and later in San Francisco, always behind with the rent, she took in sewing and taught piano. (She also read her children, says Isadora, freethinker Robert Ingersoll’s preachings against such Christian institutions as marriage.) The kids ran wild and grew up clannish and resourceful. It was in her childhood that Isadora developed a talent for scrounging, for coaxing money out of friends and credit out of merchants. She quit school young and embarked on a prodigious course of reading. She began teaching some kind of “expressive dancing” to neighborhood children. At fifteen, “Miss A. Dora Duncan,” along with her sister Elizabeth, set herself up as a teacher of ballroom dancing - schottisches, waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, gavottes. Augustin and Raymond were recruited, no doubt to give female pupils a more delightful time, and by 1894 all four young Duncans were listed in a San Francisco directory as teachers of dancing.
Like many of her day, Duncan prized above all art that appeared to be a spontaneous expression of feeling, and so successfully did she create the illusion of spontaneity in her performing that many people supposed she was improvising. In her later years, she must have derived a certain mischievous pleasure from the bafflement of onlookers at “dress rehearsals” during which she simply sat and listened intently to the orchestra interpret the music she was to dance to - more willing to be thought an instinctive genius than observed as a sweating worker.
Evidently, she did sometimes improvise, and she allowed herself considerable leeway in performance. Yet, if the reconstructions of her dances can be relied on, she joined them to the music with firm craftsmanship; every time a musical phrase repeats, the dance steps associated with it appear again also.* Too, she did on occasion defend herself against the charges of mindless self-expression: “. . . even in nature you find sure, even rigid design. Natural dancing should only mean that the dance never goes against nature, not that anything is left to chance.” She was a disorganized and pleasure-loving woman, but sentences here and there in her letters leave little doubt that she was a choreographer, a real one, who worked on her dances. “Dear,” she wrote to Gordon Craig in 1906, “it’s rather discouraging trying to work with one’s body as an instrument . . . However I found something quite new for me this afternoon - only a little movement, but something I have never done before & may be the key note to a great deal.” (This, incidentally, was written in the middle of a strenuous tour just three months after the birth of her daughter Deirdre.)
In keeping with her role as Romantic revolutionary, she also misted over the evolution of her style, disavowing any connections with existing dance traditions and promulgating the gospel of sudden inspiration. She created, in her various writings, pictures of herself being inspired. Duncan, standing for hours with her hands crossed over her solar plexus, finally deciding that it was the “central spring” of movement. Duncan standing, again for hours, before the Parthenon until her hands floated upward: “I had found my dance, and it was a prayer.” Young Isadora dancing on the San Francisco beach below Cliff House, imitating the waves. She was, undoubtedly, a woman to whom transcendent moments came, and she did build her dancing persona on her own body and her own disposition - impetuous, mischievous, serious, generous, candid. However, she also drew from a variety of sources any idea that would support a link between the perfectability of the body and the perfectability of the soul and launch her into motion as its messenger.
’During Duncan’s lifetime, her dances were not filmed or notated. Her daughters - Lisa in Paris; Irma, Anna, and Therese in the United States - passed on to their students what they had learned or observed. Elizabeth Duncan’s pupils also learned dances, and some - like Anita Zahn and Erna Schulz - went on to perform them. It is likely that details have eroded or been changed, and possible that the process of teaching may have tied down elements that were originally allowed to change from one performance to the next.
How, if at all, did she train to be a dancer? Late in her life, Duncan claimed that she had taken three ballet lessons as a child, hated their rigidity, and took no more. This may not be strictly true; there’s some slender evidence that, as a young woman, she studied briefly with Marie Bonfanti in New York and with Katti Lanner in London. But all her life she railed against ballet training because it took account only of the body and because its gestures struck her as unnatural, even though she admired the great Russian dancers she met: Pavlova, Karsavina, Nijinsky.
So ballet played little, if any, role in her development. What did then? A daughter of Isadora’s girlhood friend, Florence Treadwell (later Boynton), has said that she’s sure her mother and Isadora used to go together to the Oakland Turnverein, where they could have taken part in folk and social dancing and in gymnastic classes. That’s something Isadora’s mother might have approved of. However disciplined the drills and procedures, gymnastics since the Civil War had subtly aligned itself with other movements concerned with the liberation of women - liberation, in this case, from the tyranny of corsets and heavy, tight clothing, from unbalanced diets, and a lack of fresh air and exercise. Gymnastics, when Isadora was growing up, was no longer a men-only, muscle-building activity. The “new gymnastics” stressed flexibility, coordination, balance. Its bending, twisting, and stretching exercises led to a more mobile torso. The jumps, done without ever putting the heels down, promoted lightness and strong ankles. (Later, Isadora taught just such a way of jumping to her pupils.) In a moral climate far more wholesome than that of a ballet class, girls as well as boys moved in vigorous rhythms, sometimes to musical accompaniment, even pairing up to make pleasing designs as they manipulated the de rigueur props: slim wands, small wooden rings, lightweight dumbbells, and Indian clubs. There were some differences between the gymnastics taught in public schools and colleges and what was taught in the turnvereins. Nevertheless, there was considerable similarity between the “new” American gymnastics and calisthenics, as set forth by such reformers as Dio Lewis, and the “new” approach to German gymnastics generated by Adolf Spiess.
Duncan on occasion decried the mechanical aspect of gymnastics; nonetheless, some form of it served her as barrework serves the ballet dancer. In all the schools she founded, gymnastics began the day. To her lover, Gordon Craig, from the icy darkness of St. Petersburg in January of 1908, she wrote, “I go each morning to a Swedish institute for gymnastics in order to keep alive.” She knew that the body had to be primed for dancing, and some of her favorite authors supported her in this. Hadn’t Plato in his “glorious Republic ’ decreed that music and gymnastics should be the foundation of education? Hadn’t Goethe written that a certain amount of technical expertise was a prerequisite for art? The Duncan skip, with the free leg lifting to the back and then swinging front, is like a standard gymnastic exercise, set skimming in space and given artistic modeling by the floating arms and arching back.
By the middle of the 1880’s, when Duncan would probably have been exposed to it, gymnastics, like almost every other area of American cultural life, was tinted by a new craze: Delsartism. In his native France, Francois Delsarte had developed an intelligent and systematic way of analyzing posture, gesture, and vocal expression by linking these with corresponding mental and spiritual states, intending his system to serve professional orators, actors, and singers. He died in 1871 without visiting America; he might have been astonished to see the offshoots of his teachings, carried there by disciples. Delsarte principles added a moral note to gymnastics, helped society ladies to acquire graceful gliding walks, toned up schoolchildren’s recitations with appropriate gestures, brought new expressivity to “living pictures.” Delsartism made thinking about the body not only advisable but fashionable. And spiritually uplifting into the bargain. Consider these words by the author of The New Calisthenics: A Manual of Health and Beauty:
Get your slouching John and your shuffling Peter into an erect manly carriage, if you can, for three minutes, and see what the moral effect will be. Get that sneaking, lying boy to stand erect, throw up his head and say: “I am no knave; I am the King.” He will be the King, while he says it at least; and you - perhaps he - will have learned a lesson.
The rising young salon artist Miss Isadora Duncan, interviewed in 1898 by the New York Herald Sun, made it clear that she admired Delsarte (“Delsarte, the master of all principles of flexibility, and lightness of body, should receive universal thanks for the bonds he has removed from our constrained members . . .”) and that she had absorbed his message about the connection between movement and mental attitude.
It would have been hard for a bright, serious young person with theatrical aspirations growing up in America in the 1880s and 1890s not to have been influenced by Delsarte. Duncan could have picked up some Delsartean theory grafted onto school gymnastics or elocution classes; she could have attended one of the “schools of expression” founded by Delsarte pupils (there was one in San Francisco by 1888, one in Oakland by 1892); she could have studied privately or read some of the Delsarte manuals flooding the market (she owned one, Craig said). She couldn’t have read a treatise by Delsarte - he never got around to writing one - but she might well have read The Delsarte System of Expression by Genevieve Stebbins, a book that went through six editions between 1885 and 1902. There are enough similarities between Mrs. Stebbins’s ideas and ones Duncan later expressed, between some of Stebbins’s “drills” and exercises later taught in Duncan’s schools to suggest that Isadora might have read this manual.
A would-be dancer could learn much from Stebbins’s elucidation of Delsarte theory. She could be made aware of the moral function of art: Francois Delsarte considered that to value art for art’s sake was as absurd as to value the telescope for the telescope’s sake instead of for what it brought into focus. She could learn how the various parts of the body express emotion by studying Delsarte’s charts - charts so bristling with trinities that one follower called Delsarte “Swedenborg geometrized,” and G. B. Shaw suspected him of trying to found a “quack religion.” Equipped with the knowledge that the body was divided into three zones, the head, the torso, and the limbs - corresponding to the three “essences” of human behavior: the mental, the moral, and the vital - and understanding that action occurred in three corresponding ways - away from the center (excentric), balanced (normal), and toward the center (concentric) - she could proceed to the myriad of permutations. She could learn from reading Stebbins about the “harmonic poise” derived from Greek statues and practice the rules for “artistic statue posing,” watching in a mirror to see if she could indeed move from pose to pose in a fluid manner “as unaffected as the subtle evolutions of a serpent.” Book propped on a table, she could follow some of the more strenuous exercises in “aesthetic gymnastics” Stebbins had devised:
Assume attitude of explosion [a lunge - “excentro-excen- tric”] . . . (b) throw body forward, striking floor on thigh of strong leg. Be careful to protect the face with the forearms as you throw torso to the floor.
Although Delsarte theory dealt primarily with “attitudes” and gestures, performed while standing in place, it was full of spatial implications. The performer’s body was dynamically linked with points in three-dimensional space in terms of attraction and repulsion, fall and rise, tension and relaxation. So the system provided a splendid base for the expansion of expressive gesture into dancing. Duncan made her gestures travel across the stage by means of the simple walks, runs, and skips that came easily to a naturally athletic child, by the jigs and reels she learned from her Irish grandmother, and by the social dances she studied and taught. In those of her dances that have been reconstructed from the memories of her pupils - particularly the ones made during the first half of her career, like the lovely Brahms waltzes, the Schubert and Chopin pieces - the basic three-step pattern of the waltz appears in many guises. Pulsing in place, rushing forward, turning. Usually it’s a very light and lilting thing, done mostly on the toes, but without a trace of stiffness. The robust hop-step-step-step of the polka she completely transformed - sharpening it sometimes by opposition in the arms and body, delivering it with triumphant force, even compressing it, on occasion, into 3/4 time.
After her girlish confidences of 1898, Isadora never credited Delsarte again, although others linked her with him. Certainly her dancing was “no art of Delsartean formulas,” as Redfern Mason pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1918, but her gift for pantomime, her idealistic view of art, her Greekishness connected her with Delsarte in the minds of many spectators. Delsarte had given the public a framework in which to consider new forms of dance. Isadora stretched that framework; still, at the core of her art always lay the idea that a Delsartean gymnastics teacher had bluntly expressed in 1889: “Strength at the centre; freedom at the surface.”
By the time Isadora Duncan gave those first recitals in New York, she had served a solid apprenticeship in the theater - about two years touring America and England with Augustin Daly’s company in productions that ranged from a musical play, The Geisha, to bowdlerized Shakespeare. She’d done a little singing, small-part acting, dancing along the flitting-fairy line (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and probably something like skirt dancing. Yet at the beginning of her career as a solo artist, she set about severing in audiences’ minds the connection - and it was one that was taken for granted - between dance and entertainment, by allying herself with the work of sculptors, painters, composers, and writers whose reputations were unassailable. Much later in her career, she said grandly to a reporter, “I use my body as my medium just as the writer uses his words. Do not call me a dancer.” Her quibble was not really, I think, with being a dancer, but with being what people thought a dancer was.
In the early solo programs, the art she chose to link herself with was, for the most part, trendy rather than great: the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Ethelbert Nevin’s Narcissus, the Idylls of Theocritus (usually read in performance by Elizabeth or one of the brothers), Ophelia - a popular heroine with late-nineteenth-century painters. She danced her Botticelli Primavera, “scattering seeds as she goes, plucking the budding flower,” to music by Johann Strauss.
Descriptions of Duncan around this time make it sound almost as if she were doing the kind of narrative “plastiques” Genevieve Stebbins had performed: “Dressed in a simple white frock, Miss Duncan took up a series of graceful poses, but passed from one to another so rapidly that the succession of postures resolved itself into a dance.” The photographs Jacob Schloss took of her, probably early in 1899, suggest, endearingly, that she had not yet settled on the image she wished to project. In one, she stands, somewhat awkwardly, in fifth position on the tips of her toes; in another she smiles at the camera in a seductive back arch, caught perhaps in a skirt dancer’s waltz turn; in a third, she offers herself to the camera with a simple, generous gesture, arms open, head falling back, which presages the later Isadora. It’s illuminating to compare one of Schloss’s pictures of her, in a “Mercury attitude,” with one her brother Raymond took in Greece five years later. The pose is nearly the same, but the genteel nymph has become a true bacchante, the solo “artiste,” a great dancer.
Actually, the change seems to have taken place quite rapidly, with only a finishing luster applied by the air of living Greece, where she and her clan attempted to build a grandiose house-temple-theater complex until a search for water drained their (her) resources. The transformation began in London. (Like many American artists, Duncan had to go to Europe to build a reputation and she was always more appreciated there.) In 1900, at London’s New Gallery, she gave three recitals sponsored by many prominent persons in the arts, among them the writers Henry James and Andrew Lang; the painters Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, William Holman Hunt, the only surviving founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Walter Crane, the designer and illustrator, prominent in the Arts and Crafts movement; musicologist Sir Hubert Parry and the music critic of The Times, J. Fuller Maitland. The Greek scholar Jane Ellen Harrison took over the Duncan siblings’ role of reading Theocritus while Isadora danced. In one recital, all the dances were inspired by literary works, in another by paintings, in a third by music. From these performances, Duncan gleaned theories, images, sources of inspiration that nourished her for many years.
It’s no wonder that Holman Hunt invited Duncan to perform at his house and to act as sponsor and adviser for the New Gallery concerts. Not only was she a charmingly frank young barbarian who doted upon famous men, she had the Pre-Raphaelitish moral fervor and zeal for social reform as well as a taste for quattrocento Italian painting. And how delicately she learned to bring to life those motifs beloved of Botticelli and of the by-then-deceased Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It was not the realism of the English painters that drew her - the Renaissance domesticated - but their mythological and religious fantasies. And she must also have been attracted to the implied motion in some of these pictures, the ways in which the artists distilled anecdote into gesture. She too loved to create the vision of a chaste but voluptuous flight and amorous pursuit, thin draperies blown back by the rushing: Pan and Echo, Bacchus and Ariadne. You can see her motions figured in the Zephyr and hastening Chloris in the corner of Botticelli’s Primavera, in the Phyllis and Demopöon of Burne- Jones - only in the latter painting, it’s a youth who flees a pursuing maiden, his head turned back to regard her in fear and fascination.
Duncan continued to perform some of the “Dance Idylls” presented at the New Gallery for many years, long after she had stopped making dances rooted in painting. The activity within a picture frame showed her a way to fill the stage frame, playing all the roles if necessary; and that knowledge she kept and built upon. The New Gallery recitals also cured her of dancing illustrations of poetry, line by line, and upgraded her musical taste. She danced, apparently for the first time, and on Fuller Maitland’s suggestion, to music by Chopin. She abandoned Strauss and performed her Primavera to Mendelssohn’s Spring Song and, in another of the programs, to an air from Fabritio Caroso’s sixteenth-century dance manual, ferreted out by musicologist Arnold Dolmetsch. At one of these recitals, she danced, perhaps for the first time, the minuet from Gluck’s Orpheus. Throughout her life, she remained partial to Gluck’s music, ignoring his eighteenth-century restraint, and to the Orpheus theme: the descent into darkness, the emergence into light, the loss of a beloved, the creation of an artist through suffering.
During Duncan’s first few years as a concert artist, she seemed always to be searching for sources of motion - in museums, books, nature. She was trying to invent dancing powerful enough to match the vision she expressed in her best Whitmanesque rhetoric: “I see America dancing, beautiful, strong, with one foot poised on the highest point of the Rockies, her two hands stretched out from the Atlantic to the Pacific, her fine head tossed to the sky, her forehead shining with a crown of a million stars.” It only seems odd at first that some of her sources for this heroic “Dance of the Future” were the vase paintings, bas-reliefs, and statues of ancient Greece.
Denying the charge - or compliment - by her contemporaries that she was trying to bring museum figures to life, she said that she was learning from them how to study nature. To her, as to Auguste Rodin and John Ruskin, the Greek statues, like the gods and goddesses they so often represented, embodied natural forces. It was these forces she was seeking when she browsed through the British Museum, the Louvre, museums in Berlin, Munich, Athens itself. She was drawn to figures in arrested motion, in poses suggesting action just completed or about to start: the Nike of Samothrace, the small Tanagra figures (out of whose poses she - or perhaps her protegee and adopted daughter Irma - did later develop phrases to edify her little students), the three headless Fates who once reposed on the east pediment of the Parthenon, a stooping knucklebone player, a frenzied maenad. They aided her to a calmness, a firmness, a force different from the fluid, weightless traceries of motion in the Pre-Raphaelite canvases. And they did supply her with gestures: postcards in a sizable collection she supposedly carried around with her show lunging warriors, reclining figures, processions of draped women, whose postures were echoed in her dancing and in the offstage persona that she displayed to photographers.
It was said that Duncan was trying to re-create the dance of the ancient Greeks. She denied this charge too. It was her brother Raymond who, much to her dismay, gave occasional recitals of two-dimensional, straight-off-the-vase stuff. And she went far beyond the many other professionals and amateurs who, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, had turned to pseudo-Grecian dancing and costume as an aesthetic gesture or a statement of freedom.
That so many writers saw in her their favorite museum figures vivified or an imagined antiquity brought to life reveals their own slant of mind. When Duncan began to develop her art, European cultural life had been tinged with Hellenism for more than a century; she fitted herself, most satisfyingly, into a trend. To link something with Greece automatically dignified it. In 1895 a Frenchman, Maurice Emmanuel, had written a treatise on The Antique Greek Dance, making scholarly (if often wrong-headed) attempts to reconstruct ancient dance steps by analyzing statues and the figures on vases; one of his aims was to link Greek dance with “modern dance,” i.e. French ballet, by pointing out similarities and differences, thus aggrandizing a form temporarily in need of all the justification it could get.
Although Duncan went to Greece, the trip only fueled ideas she already had. As her rival Ruth St. Denis later pointed out, Greece was for Isadora “a state of mind.” In this, she was like many of the cultivated people to whom Greek poetry, Greek philosophy, Greek architecture, Greek statues, bas-reliefs, and vases were of consuming interest. Few of them had been to Greece, not even the early German Hellenists Lessing, Winckelmann, and Goethe. In the Greece they imagined, disease, fear, brutality, exhaustion, hunger had no place. Neither did bad art. If there had been any, it hadn’t survived. With the educated naïveté typical of the age, Gilbert Murray marveled that the citizens of Athens in the fifth century B.C. hadn’t seemed to notice how extraordinarily splendid life in their enlightened society was.
The statues epitomized this distant grandeur, with their serenity, their impersonal gaze, their pallor. Perhaps most important, they afforded a way for people to look at and think about the body, while ignoring some of the realities that the nineteenth-century mind was not prepared to accept as beautiful. The statues were nude or, like Isadora Duncan, barely clad, but you could stare at them without feeling guilty, because the people they portrayed were so noble, so apparently beyond desire. Neither hair nor wrinkles grooved the smoothness of their marble torsos. To avid viewers, their voluptuous forms embodied intellectual and spiritual ideals. “Greek sensuousness, therefore,” said Walter Pater, “does not fever the blood.”
That was what Duncan believed too, and traded on. She exposed a good deal of flesh, but with such exalted innocence that the eye could ponder her unrebuked. “It was with a gesture full of chastity and grace,” declared a Russian actor, that she would replace a breast that had fallen out of her chiton. The official position is clarified in these words written by a Dutch critic in 1905: “Everything was touched by pure beauty; sensuality was completely absent.” In other words, for her contemporaries to find her dancing beautiful, they had to find it chaste.
So, in part, did she. She thought of her body the way an aesthete thought of a Greek statue: as a temple ennobled by the spirit and intellect it housed. She could refuse to wear the long chemise Cosima Wagner urged on her at Bayreuth, when she danced the “Bacchanale” in Tannhauser in 1904, because she dismissed the idea that her body could inspire lust in an audience as unthinkable. Her knowledge of Delsarte fortified her in the position that it wasn’t the body itself, but only certain movements of the body that could be thought of as shameless. When the Black Bottom and the Charleston became popular, she deplored them because they emphasized action in the hips - “the seat of the appetites.”
It was not just by looking at Greek art and wandering about the Parthenon that Duncan developed her perspective on the uses of antiquity. Between 1900 and 1905, critical years in her development, she read Nietzsche. It was in his The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music that she was first exposed to the notion that the fierce Dionysian aspect of Greek tragedy and Greek religion was a necessary balance to the Apollonian aspect that entranced Nietzsche’s - and most of Duncan’s - contemporaries. As Nietzsche wondered whether dissonance in music might not serve to express Dionysian frenzy, Duncan, for her dancing Furies and maenads, experimented with such dissonant images as clawed hands, crouched body, the upward fling of the head that she noticed in moon-besotted dogs as well as in painted bacchantes. The Fury dances from her Orpheus (as reconstructed by Julia Levien, a pupil of Isadora’s adopted daughter Irma, and performed by Annabelle Gamson) are quite terrifying. The dancer becomes a flock of creatures who prey on each other as well as on their destined victims. Now tormenting, now tormented, they snatch at the air as if it were human flesh, lift huge imaginary stones, flee and recoil, finally fall to the ground in what might be satiety or exhaustion, or both. These dances, and others, like the bold dances of the Scythian warriors from Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris, contained images far darker and less polite than any that Duncan’s beloved Gluck might have envisioned, as, guided by Nietzsche, she turned to the choruses of Greek tragedy for inspiration:
Oh, they like a colt as he
Runs by the river,
A colt by his dam
'When the heart of him sings,
With the keen limbs drawn
And the fleet foot aquiver
Away the bacchanal springs!
It may be mere coincidence that the copy of Euripides’s The Bacchae that she used to travel with has a bookmark placed at this passage, but it’s easy to imagine her enthralled by the grand, free rush of movement it conjured up.
Nietzsche would probably have been astonished at the use to which Isadora put his theories about the chorus in the antique drama. He had asserted that
. . . the scene, together with the action, was thought of only as a vision, that the only reality was just the chorus, which of itself generates the vision and celebrates it with the entire symbolism of dancing, music, and speech.
Duncan, therefore, decided that she would never play the protagonist in a potentially dramatic dance, but that - all alone - she would be the chorus: “When I have danced, I have tried always to be the Chorus ... I have never once danced a solo.” An undated program for a performance of Orpheus during her 1909 American tour indicates that she wished to be seen as the companions of Orpheus, as witnessing shades during the scene in Hades, as happy spirits in Elysium. Later, she added a dance of the Furies. If the nouns are plural, it is because she wasn’t so much choosing to play the one-who-stands-for-many as trying to suggest an entire dancing throng, in which call and response become simply differing modes of a single plastic impulse, “. . . bound endlessly in one cadence.”
This would have been a way of liberating herself from the more narrowly defined role-playing of the “Dance Idylls,” a way of creating a more flexible scene. There are those who swear they saw her as Iphigenia going to the sacrifice, but it’s clear that she was trying to suggest the action as it might have been envisioned by the chorus, thereby giving the picture a heroic impersonality and magnifying herself into something more than a solitary woman dancing for an audience. It could be said that in doing this, she presaged the abstractions of early modern dance, in which the dancer would eschew impersonation and equate her own persona with universal human feelings and drives.
Much has been made of the back-to-nature aspect of Duncan’s work. In 1903 or 1904, an Englishman who saw her dance in Berlin named her a new Joshua, before whom . . the factory walls fell down, the festering slums and ugly places of London crumbled away . . However, what she sought in nature was what she was looking for in Renaissance paintings and Greek statues: laws of motion. And at the turn of the century, she saw the natural world from a perspective that wouldn’t have been possible fifty years earlier. The harnessing of electricity gave her a new framework, a new vocabulary for dealing with nature, no matter how mystically and romantically she set about it.
“The true dance must be the transmission of the earth’s energy through the body.” Isadora was twenty-five or twenty-six when she jotted that down. Elsewhere, she described how, standing with her hands over her solar plexus, she envisioned herself receiving the “rays and vibrations” of the music in this “crater of motor power,” which would then transmute the musical essence into movement and send it flowing out through her limbs.
She thought of herself as a dynamo.
She made audiences perceive her this way too, even though they would not have recognized the source. What they saw was how all the gestures of her limbs seemed to be impelled by a strong lift of her rib cage, by an expansion or folding in at the center of her body. It’s what motivated her characteristic run, which Frederick Ashton, enraptured by her in 1921, described like this: “She had a wonderful way of running, in which she what I call left herself behind, and you felt the breeze running through her hair and everywhere else.”
Did Isadora Duncan read treatises about electrical energy? Probably not (although she certainly read a surprising assortment of books). What she did do, in the summer of 1900, along with the rest of Europe, was stroll through the streets of the International Exposition in Paris. At night, colored lights played on the waters at the Chateau d’Eau in front of the brilliantly illuminated Palace of Electricity with its Hall of Dynamos. Like her fellow American Henry Adams, she might well have been roused to an almost religious contemplation of the great forty-foot dynamos humming with inexplicable power.
At the fair, too, she saw a compatriot, Loïe Fuller (later - briefly - her sponsor), performing her famous “Danses Lumineuses” in the Art Nouveau theater that had been built in the fairgrounds expressly for her. Fuller, manipulating yards of silk by means of wands concealed underneath her outsized skirts, illumined by her own ingenious inventions in lighting, functioned as a kind of motor. Even such potentially static images as her Lily were created through motion, kept in the air by motion; their fluid outlines would not have been visible except for the constant churning of her hidden arms and body.
Whether these particular sights influenced Duncan is, of course, a moot point, but excitement about the marvels of electricity was widespread - a fit subject for an impressionable young dancer’s fantasies. Earlier, Genevieve Stebbins had written about the implications for movement of ideas expressed by John Tyndall, the British scientist and popular writer, teacher, and lecturer on physics, who had toured the United States in 1872-1873. Like Duncan, Stebbins had utilized analogies drawn from electrical theory to create the image of a charged and vibrant body. Indeed, it is startling to come across in one of Stebbins’s books a passage that might explain Isadora’s decision to use her middle name - a name which, she once explained to Gordon Craig, means “gift of Isis,” or “child of Isis.” Stebbins writes: “Osiris, the all-powerful god, gives light to Isis, who modifies it and transmits it by reflection to men.”
Margaret Thompson Drewal has pointed out that Stebbins’s and Duncan’s references to Isis and their connecting of electricity and magnetism with the soul could both have been inspired by the two-volume Isis Unveiled by theosophist Helen Blavatsky (1877 - the year of Duncan’s birth). To Blavatsky and to Stebbins, Isis was not only a potent goddess, but a symbol of nature, ancient wisdom, and spiritual power - a role model, in a sense, for women wishing to affirm their instinctual connection with nature and their identity as spiritual beings.
Isis/Isadora knew also that this luminosity was transmitted in waves, and with her customary untidy eloquence she linked these invisible undulations to those visible in wind and ocean and those sensed in her own interior tides. “Waves - love waves - ,” she wrote to Craig, “I’ve been writing about dance waves, sound waves, light waves - all the same - .” What she had observed while letting off adolescent steam on a California beach, and fortified with lashings of science and Schopenhauer - and, perhaps, Stebbins’s ideas about the undulatory nature of breathing - she built into a theory of dance capable of connecting her to the processes of the universe. That it also, in a sense, linked the machine with organic nature wasn’t part of her plan and remained unperceived by her.
Waves pervade her dances - as line, pattern, gesture, and, in a deeper sense, as impetus. Even the pictures of Duncan in repose show her arranged in a series of serpentine curves - a single undulating line flowing through her head, torso, legs, like waves arrested. No wonder Rodin so admired her, and she him; it is in continuous curves that the viewer’s eye travels over his twined figures washing up out of the marble.
In The Three Graces (a solo she expanded into a trio for her pupils), the three women, arms wreathed around each other as in Botticelli’s Primavera, come toward the audience with light, pulsing steps so tiny that it takes them a long time, and a long swatch of the Schubert music, to reach the front of the stage. Once there, they break apart, make a few swirling, beckoning gestures to the space and each other, run to the back, and gently regroup in order to repeat their delicately tidal advance. In Water Study, another of Duncan’s Schubert pieces, the dancer gazes down and ripples her arms and wrists toward the floor, as if calming or imitating waves that are gradually becoming more powerful. In a solo like her wildly popular The Blue Danube, the phrases were built on the impetus of a wave of water: the rush forward, the slight suspended pause, the retreat as if being sucked backward. The wavelike pattern in space is amplified and given weight by its dynamic relation to the contour of the tide - never even, subject to growth and diminution.
These are the obvious examples, but in all of Duncan’s work, the rising and sinking, tension and relaxation, ebb and flow acknowledged gravity as a force to strive against.
This gave her dances, even the lightest and softest of them, a weight unlike that of ballet and a rhythmic physiognomy different from all other dancing contemporary with her.
Yet, despite her affirmation of gravity, she stressed the expansion rather than the contraction, the upward -gesture rather than the downward one, the lightening of weight rather than the fall. Her solos often suggested that the performer could overcome something - fear, grief, gravity - to enter an altered state.
She was in love with Darwin’s theory of evolution. One of the reasons she railed at ballet was that its gestures did not evolve naturally, as hers did, and her own work evolved during her lifetime to suit her aging body and battered optimism. She still performed some of her old solos after the tragic drowning of her two children in 1913 and the subsequent death of a third shortly after its birth; but the new ones she made were slow, dark, weighty - in some of them she barely moved - and the theories she had developed when she and the century were fresh expanded to fit them. In the poignant Mother, she didn’t so much stand for a chorus of sorrowing women as for every mother who has lost a child. Spurred on by the struggles of France during World War I, she danced the Marseillaise, making herself the heroic symbol of a multitude. In Russia, she danced the serf’s entry into freedom to Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, and made pieces for her young pupils set to revolutionary songs, like Warshavianka, in which her idea about undulating forces served to depict successive waves of patriots - a new one always there to take the flag from the hand of a fallen comrade. She added her contemporary Alexander Scriabin to the pantheon of composers who inspired her.
The scope and influence of Duncanism - as separate from Isadora’s own performing - are slippery things to assess. Duncan’s premature death, at fifty, happened in 1927, the year in which Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey presented their first certifiably “modern” dances in America. Mary Wigman, the leading force in Germany’s Ausdrucktanz, had founded a school and company two years earlier. Before the onslaught of the modernists, Duncanism without Duncan, as a theater art, retreated into a backwater, although revivals staged by such Duncanites as Maria-Theresa (Therese), one of Duncan’s six adopted daughters, and Julia Levien, pupil of another “daughter,” Irma, created a new stir of interest in the 1970’s when they coincided not only with the centenary of Duncan’s birth, but with a contemporary back-to-nature urge.
Duncan herself had imagined the continuity of her teaching on a lofty scale. Her interpretations of Nietzsche and Darwin had led her to a vision of the “dancer of the future,” as an emblem of an improved human species. It’s no wonder that she felt it her mission to found schools. She made no money from them. Indeed, the first of these, which she established at Grunewald, Germany, in 1904 when she was still in her twenties, was a constant drain on the revenues her then-flourishing career brought in.
Yet unresolved difficulties and inherent contradictions plagued the schools. They were grandiose in concept. Duncan had been inspired not only by Darwin and Nietzsche, but by reading Emile, by the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose glorying in nature, reverence for music, and impatience with civilization’s constraints endeared him to her. Rousseau had decreed that his imaginary pupil, Emile, must be with his tutor constantly, away from his parents and other influences, preferably in a pastoral place. In accord, Duncan founded a succession of schools that were like glorified orphanages or the state-supported ballet schools of Europe. No tuition. Parents, particularly working people or impoverished widows, were glad to give her their daughters - and it was always girls; a few boys came now and then, rarely stayed. Isadora thought in terms of women’s bodies and cheerfully ignored Rousseau’s opinion of women as second-class citizens, as she did Nietzsche’s and Darwin’s.
Duncan believed firmly in the power of beauty to mold character, but along with the Renaissance paintings, the Della Robbia plaques, the Donatello statues, and the Tanagra figurines that adorned her schools, there were also figures of Spartan girls engaged in strenuous exercise for the students to gaze upon. And, while she clearly agreed with Rousseau when he said of Emile’s physical regimen, “I would make him the rival of the roebuck, rather than the dancer of the opera,” her students were not little dilettantes.
A girl in training for the dance of the future had to do an hour of gymnastics every morning before breakfast, first running around the lawn in her little one-piece maillot if it was fair, then hanging on to a barre to do stretches, body bends, kneebends, leg swings - increasing the throw of the leg and the arch of the back until she could kick the back of her head. She had to do sit-ups, push-ups, and squat jumps. She had to learn to leap high over a taut rope and wide, across two ropes (“Let him learn to make jumps, now long, now high . . . ,” Rousseau had advised).
After the limbering-up, the schoolwork, the singing, the music theory, the extra sessions with a Swedish gymnastics instructor, the children had their dancing lesson - with Isadora (oh joy!) if she was not off touring, otherwise with Elizabeth Duncan or, later, with Irma or one of the older girls. They learned the simple, noble gestures Isadora favored. They learned to walk and run and leap with the wind behind them. They studied sequences like the “Tanagra Figures.” In pairs, they did polkas, mazurkas, gavottes, the Duncan waltz with its upward lilt. They were encouraged to work alone in those dance rhythms, making of them something looser and freer. They composed dances or learned ones from Isadora or Elizabeth.
But the schools were a quixotic venture. Duncan couldn’t, or wouldn’t, spend a lot of time in any of them. Giving systematic instruction warred with her dedication to the spontaneity of dancing. And, of course, she had to make money. Occasionally she would appear to inspire everyone; the rest of the time she contented herself with thinking of all those little girls growing up in beauty, with composing reams of exercises to send to Elizabeth. It was her sister who ran all Duncan’s schools except the one in Moscow - Elizabeth, a shadowy figure, whom Isadora loved and trusted; whom Irma in her memoirs put down as a martinet with a limp and no understanding of dance; whom others have remembered with admiration and some affection - one former student recalls that she was a beautiful waltzer despite her handicap.
Grunewald lasted about four years. Bellevue, founded in 1914 near Paris, had to be abandoned almost immediately when World War I began. The school Duncan established in Moscow in 1921 she left in the hands of Irma, while she herself danced to raise the funds that Lenin’s government had promised, but could not, in the end, provide. Many potential sponsors looked askance at Duncan’s life-style, and she forever scotched her chances of opening a school in America during her ill-starred American appearances in 1922 - heroic, but “. . . too obviously high in flesh” for some people’s tastes; lecturing audiences from the stage on the brave new world of Soviet Russia, accompanied by a belligerent and often drunken young husband, the poet Sergi Esenin. The schools that Elizabeth Duncan opened in her own name bounced back and forth between Germany and donated estates in Croton-on-Hudson, Yonkers, and Tarry town, New York. In retrospect, it seems as if, much of the time, the Duncan “school” was a migratory band of children floating through the cities of the world.
Even more damaging to the future of Duncan’s art than the schools’ instability was her vacillation as to what she was training the students to be. Were the schools primarily “schools of life,” as she said they were, or was she training dancers, as she sometimes seemed to be doing? During a four-year period that began in 1905, the Grunewald children appeared in over seventy performances, with and without Isadora. They were much admired:
They appear one after the other, from opposite sides of the stage, bare-armed, bare-legged, in zephyr waving tunics . . .
They move with seraphic lightness, deftness, grace, abandon, youth, and pleasure . . . They come on like rippling, light- tossed waves. It makes one happy - it makes one better - to see them.
But the loss of her own offspring turned Duncan’s interest in children into an obsession. After those tragedies, her thoughts became fixed on a vision of teaching endless waves of children who would grow up to teach other children. One summer, she and her Russian pupils taught five hundred workers’ children in Moscow’s Red Stadium; they can’t all have been beautiful, but the socialistic scale of the enterprise, their zeal, and her overwhelming loneliness sanctified them all. She resented it that her six best pupils, her adopted daughters, didn’t share her enthusiastic plans for them as teachers of future generations. They thought they had been trained to be dancers, and that’s what they wanted to be. It’s hard to tell from the admonishing letters she wrote them when, as young women, they embarked on a tour of America whether she was jealous of them, whether she doubted their talents, or whether she simply didn’t want them to grow up and leave her.
It’s ironic that a woman so excited about evolution should have created an art that survived her only in a relatively ossified form. She bred disciples who were unable or unwilling to allow themselves the kind of development she had allowed herself. Those who came into contact with her were happy to promulgate her aesthetic exactly as they remembered it. Her private tragedies, her roving, untidy life, her early death all conspired to fix her direct legacy primarily onto the kinds of pieces she made for students or the lighter solos she deemed suitable to teach young girls. Her six “daughters,” especially Anna, Irma, and Therese, received much praise from critics and spectators, but none surpassed her, or dreamed of it. In 1979 Therese (Maria-Theresa), in her eighties and still dancing, said fervently that to be a flame of her fire was almost honor enough.
The new image of woman-as-dancer that Duncan had invented for herself assumed other forms - shadowy, most of them, or diluted, though pervasive. During her lifetime there were professionals (or amateur professionals like Lady Constance Stewart-Richardson, wafting through London drawing rooms and onto American stages) who, arguably, imitated the Duncan look: the Wiesenthal sisters of Vienna; Orchidee, billed as a “child of nature,” who performed with Loi'e Fuller’s company in New York in 1909; and, particularly, the Canadian-born Maud Allan. When Duncan went to London in 1908, she found herself playing at the same time as Allan, whom much of London considered prettier and more musical than she. Allan, too, danced barefoot and in a Grecian tunic (except in her risqué Vision of Salomé); she danced to some of the same music Duncan used - Chopin piano pieces, Mendelssohn’s Spring Song; she claimed that she had been turned from a promising career as a pianist, around 1903, by the sight of Botticelli’s Primavera at the Uffizi (Gordon Craig made no bones of his opinion of Allan: “the first to try it & to find the robbery would pay”).
Beyond direct imitation, there was the Duncan contagion. She can’t, of course, be held responsible for all the pageants and Greek games in college theater and physical education departments, for the well-meaning girls in bare feet and bunchy tunics tripping over midwestern grass, flourishing the scarves, garlands, and sacrificial bowls that were, by 1914, indispensable in displays of “natural” or “interpretive” dancing. It is, nevertheless, true that her dancing embodied the ideals of spontaneity and self-expression that many progressive educators favored.
Duncan influenced people’s lives in ways she couldn’t have conceived. Her girlhood friend Florence Treadwell Boynton may not have been the only one to create a style of living that Isadora, tripping from one expensive hotel to another, only thought about. Letting her long red hair hang loose, discarding conventional dress and most cooked food, Mrs. Boynton moved herself, her lawyer husband, and her eight children into a fantasy of a Greek temple she had constructed in the Berkeley hills. There, with only roll-down canvas curtains to protect them from the elements, the family practiced dance as a life art. Florence Boynton’s daughter, Sulgwynn Quitzow, who until her death in 1983 at the age of eighty-two, was still at the Temple of the Wings, teaching Duncan dances to Bay Area girls, said of her mother’s extraordinary venture, “Isadora was building a temple in Greece, and my mother decided she wanted a temple here. I guess she [Isadora] was the only one Mama ever wanted to keep up with.”
Some of Duncan’s influence is tricky to pin down. For instance, Marie Rambert admitted to having imitated, out of admiration, Duncan’s “Danse des Scythes” from Iphigenia in her own early composition Dance of Warriors, but young Doris Humphrey, modernist-to-be, had not seen Duncan when she staged a Greek Sacrificial Dance and a dance set to Schubert’s Moment Musical in Chicago, shortly after 1914, for pupils of her former teacher, Mary Wood Hinman. In photos the girls seem cast in the image of Duncan - maidens in tunics lifting imaginary vessels or arranged in willowy lines, each girl’s hand on the shoulder of the girl in front, to flank a central figure who lifts both arms to the sky. But what Humphrey had been exposed to, through Hinman, were the plastique gestures and Eurthythmic studies of the Swiss composer and movement theorist Emile Jaques-Dal- croze. Dalcroze knew Duncan and admired her freedom and plasticity (while deploring her musical inexactness); in pictures, his skipping students could easily be mistaken for young Duncan dancers.
Duncan’s most potent influences may have been, indirectly, on twentieth-century ballet and on modern dance. Because of her enormous success on her several visits to Russia, “Duncanism” or dancing “a la Duncan” became part of the ballet world’s vocabulary. Lines were drawn among dancers and balletomanes: one faction admired her expressiveness, the other ridiculed the simplicity of her steps. Anna Pavlova, who found Duncan marvelous, studded the repertory for her constant tours with such bits of balletic Duncaniana as Mikhail Mordkin’s Bacchanale and Ivan Clustine’s Orpheus and Dionysius. (An extant film of one of Pavlova’s solos shows her swirling her arms, arching extravagantly, and running and skipping with little hint of balletic turnout.) The restless and innovative choreographer Alexander Gorsky grafted Duncanisms onto classical ballet, but the young Mikhail Fokine was influenced in a subtler sense. “Duncan proved,” he later said, “that all the primitive, plain, natural movements . . . are far better than all the richness of ballet technique, if to this technique must be sacrificed grace, beauty, expressiveness.” Some of his contemporaries claim that it was Duncan who inspired him to look at ancient art, to choreograph to the music of Chopin, to use the dancers’ arms and torsos in a freer way. Whether that is true or not, it is certain that she gave him a tremendous jolt into a path he may have been already groping for.
George Balanchine, who saw Duncan in Russia much later (1921) thought her “awful . . . unbelievable - a drunken fat woman who for hours was rolling around like a pig.” But Frederick Ashton, who saw her in London the same year, has written, “The way she used her hands and arms, the way she ran across a stage - these I have adopted in my own ballets.” Marie Rambert, who was to guide such British choreographers as Ashton and Antony Tudor, had worshiped Duncan and studied with Dalcroze at Hel- lerau.
In America Ted Shawn helped spread the notion that Duncan’s art had been a dead end, a matter of individual genius. It was he, he said, and his partner-wife, Ruth St. Denis, who had founded modern dance in America. What Shawn failed to mention were the ways in which he and St. Denis had been influenced by Duncan - he, in such flaming pieces as his Revolutionary Etude (1921) or the Primavera he created to Strauss music in 1917; she, in her Duncan-inspired, Dalcroze-based “music visualizations,” like a dance she performed to a Chopin prelude in December 1917 (one month after she and Duncan both danced in San Francisco) and two lovely solos, to Brahms’s Waltz No. 15, Opus 29, and Lizst’s Liebestraum (both in 1921). These last dances are, in their ebb and flow and simple presentation, different in style from St. Denis’s Orient-inspired vignettes, and quite Duncanesque.
Yet Duncan herself left something to choreographers of the next generation: the idea that the body itself, and not just the choreographic scenario, ought to reflect the creator’s private response to the world, and could be altered to do so. When the renegade Denishawn alumni Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman set out to present sterner truths than beauty, they worked them out on their own bodies. And in that, they were not like Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, they were like Isadora Duncan.
- Hits: 522
Texts / Walter Terry
The rebellion - Isadora Duncan
At the turn of the century, there were two young Americans who dreamed greater things for dancing than were to be found in the dances they saw about them. Their names were Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. Rejecting the weary ballet and what they felt was its emotional and spiritual emptiness, they claimed for their art values equivalent to those in the sister arts of music or drama, painting or literature. They were not concerned with steps as such, for they believed that the body, though trained, should be free to move expressively, free to communicate the profoundest thoughts and feelings of man.
“The highest intelligence in the freest body” was Isadora’s goal. As a child in San Francisco - she had been born there in 1878 - she rebelled against ballet instruction, certain that ballet technique was unbeautiful and quite against the laws of nature. Indeed, nature was her favorite teacher and again and again she pointed out in her writings that the seas provided her with her earliest dance inspiration, that she studied “the movements of flowers and the flight of bees and the charming graces of pigeons and other birds” and that “dance is the movements of the human body in harmony with the movements of the earth.” And Isadora’s closeness to nature was by no means a matter of self-delusion. Mary Fanton Roberts has written beautifully of Isadora and nature in such luminous phrases as “and the sea and the wind and the sky accepted her in a mysterious comradeship” and “always she seemed a part of the great fundamental splendor of nature.”
Isadora’s life - restive, flamboyant, unconventional, triumphant, tragic - was centered in Europe. As a girl, hounded by poverty, she had done some teaching in San Francisco and later in New York, performed in productions by Augustin Daly both in New York and on the road, danced to the music of Ethelbert Nevin in recitals given by the young composer and augmented her precarious livelihood with appearances in the salons of the wealthy. But America, she felt, did not appreciate her genius and so, with begged and borrowed money, she and her family left for Europe.
The Duncans - Isadora, her mother, her sister Elizabeth and her brother Raymond (her brother Augustin remained in America) - found England equally unresponsive. There were performances for society but little else, particularly in the way of money. Studies in France came next but Isadora’s first major contract was for Budapest and here, in 1903, she danced for a month with tremendous success. Isadora was on her way.
In the ensuing years, until her death by an automobile accident in 1927, she traveled across Europe, giving performances in the great cities, establishing her schools of the new and free dance and returning, on several occasions, to America, where her genius was at last recognized.
On her first visit to Russia in 1905, her vision of a free dance certainly influenced the young Fokine, for although he never divorced himself from the heritage of ballet itself, his plans for reform and Isadora’s messages of liberation had much in common.
And Isadora’s concept of dance came at a time when the art needed it most. She defied ballet convention and danced to the music of the great masters; she turned to ancient Greece not as a copyist but for inspiration; and she discovered that dancing was not predicated upon the movements of legs and arms but that it grew from an inner urge to action.
It was in Paris that she determined that the soul had its home in the solar plexus. As romantic as this may sound, she had found through her own instinct, or stumbled upon, a principle of movement which was to become a key element in the modern dance of the future. In her spirited autobiography My Life (Boni & Liveright, 1927), she wrote, “I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movements are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of the dance - it was from this discovery that was born the theory on which I founded my school.”
In her own time, her brilliant, often anguished, unorthodox life tended to obscure, in the minds of many, her history- making artistry. She bore children without benefit of wedlock, she later married a Russian poet and became a Soviet citizen, she let herself get fat, she sometimes drank too much, she reacted with lasting agony to the drowning of her two children and she met her death through strangulation as her scarf caught in the wheel of a moving auto.
But fat or slim, depressed or ecstatic, she lived through and for dance. And if she found her greatest happiness and success abroad, she never lost sight of her vision of America dancing. She saw “great strides, leaps and bounds, lifted forehead and farflung arms, dancing the language of our pioneers, the fortitude of our heroes, the justice, kindness, purity of our women and through it all the inspired love and tenderness of our mothers, that will be America dancing.”
Although she found inspiration in the spiritual purposes of the ancient Greek dance and was stimulated by the music of European composers, she was an American dancer of the present. She was stirred by the poetry of Walt Whitman, perhaps influenced by the teachings (which had drifted to America) of Francois Delsarte on meaningfulness of gesture and movement; her immediate dance heritage was the Irish jig her grandmother knew, the American Indian dances which her forebears had seen on the trek westward and the movements of nature which she observed as a child.
Isadora, with her genius for movement, pooled her heritage with her own dance discoveries and these were plentiful. Sometimes one thinks of her as a dancer of instinct, but extracting statements of principle from her scattered writings and her remarks to others, one discovers that Isadora was herself a discoverer of enormous perspicacity. In an era when the ballet had established the principle of defying gravity as a technical standard of dance execution, Isadora noted that “all movement on earth is governed by the law of gravitation, by attractions and repulsion, resistence and yielding; it is that which makes the rhythms of dance.”
She also resented imitation, and not merely for reasons of jealousy. “Others,” she said, “began to imitate me, not understanding that it was necessary to go back to a beginning, to find something in themselves first.” She went on to say that “the dances of no two persons should be alike” and “I shall not teach the children to imitate my movements - I shall help them develop those movements natural to them.”
Isadora, however, was not foolish enough to base her dance on the willingness of the spirit alone. She worked with the extension of movements from the solar plexus, she experimented successfully with sequential action in which one movement flowed into another, she recognized and used the force of gravity, she believed that “the teaching of sculpture and dance should go hand in hand” and she even remarked, noting that the body should be developed physically for dance use, that “gymnastics and dancing should go together.”
There is also a false notion that Isadora and her dancing children were mainly concerned with happy, pretty motions. Isadora’s sister-in-law, Margherita, has commented that as Isadora grew older and tragedy had touched her, ugliness, when necessary, as well as beauty entered her dancing. She herself said, “Don’t be merely graceful. Nobody is interested in a lot of graceful young girls. Unless your dancing springs from an inner emotion and expresses an idea, it will be meaningless.”
She danced to the music of Gluck and Schubert, Beethoven and Wagner and others of the great composers. She danced alone to symphonies almost as if she were a chorus in herself and, with passionate dedication, she gave dramatic form to the “Marseillaise” and the “Marche Slav,” creating two of her testaments to man’s battle for freedom. She danced on the great stages of the world and she danced in the moonlight in ancient Greek temples. She was an inspiration to painters and sculptors and she was a mother not only to her own children but to the hundreds of students who studied with her in whatever land she set up her studio or her temple of dancing.
When she died, her sister Elizabeth and some of the members of her adopted dancing family continued to teach her way of dancing, and although schools of Duncan dance still function and dancers of Duncan style still perform, it is the spirit of the inimitable Isadora itself which continues to exert the greatest influence on dance in America. She spent but few of her mature years in her native land, and so it was left to Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn to establish firmly a concept of the liberated dance in this nation, but as the decades pass, Isadora’s monumental achievements loom ever larger and the knowing dancer of today fully realizes that the pulse of her discoveries are echoed in his own motions.
- Hits: 441
Texts / Tamara Karsavina
Isadora Duncan and ballet
The great sensation caused in the artistic world by the first appearance of Isadora Duncan was still fresh when, in the spring of 1907, Fokine produced his Eunice, this time for inclusion in the repertoire.
Isadora had rapidly conquered the Petersburg theatrical world. There were, of course, always the reactionary balletomanes, to whom the idea of a barefoot dancer seemed to deny the first principles of what they held to be sacred in art. This, however, was far from being the general opinion, and the feeling of a desire for novelty was in the air. Certainly the stories of Isadora’s private life, and the fact that she wore Greek costume in private life played no small part in her success, but looking back now over a number of years we can discount these facts.
I remember that the first time I saw her dance I fell completely under her sway. It never occurred to me that there was the slightest hostility between her art and ours. There seemed room for both, and each had much that it could learn to advantage from the other.
Later, in Paris, I viewed her from a more critical angle, because she had developed her now well known theories and explanations of her art. I could no more
see her as an individual artist, but as a militant doctrinaire, and moreover I could feel many discrepancies between her ideals and her actual performances, though her theories were for the most part nebulous, and had little real connection with actual dancing on the stage.
She had all the sentimentality of the New Englander, so incompatible with the role of a revolutionary.
“ It is in the unopened flower that 1 find the inspiration for the new dance . . . dancing must be something so big and so beautiful that the beholder says to himself, ‘ I see before me the movements of the soul, the soul of an opening flower.’ ”
In her strictures on ballet, which she termed a “false and artificial art,” Duncan blindly attacked the essential element of all stage art - artificiality. Like a child who knows the alphabet but cannot yet read a book, in her limited sectarian vision, she laid down the principle that the art of dancing must return to its natural state, its very alphabet. Whoever said that nature never produced a symphony by Beethoven or a landscape by Ruysdael answered her arguments with finality. However, a great artist can be an indifferent theorist, and the perfectly genuine impulsiveness of her bodily movements should have been sufficient reason for her art, unaided by far-fetched arguments.
Her art was personal by its very nature, and could only have remained so. Through my own experience I realised that teaching is not the conveying of your personal knowledge to the pupil, neither is it to model the pupil after your own individual shape. Teaching of art can only be based on what the consecutive achievement of the ages has built up - technique, in fact.
Duncan’s thesis was completely overpowered when Fokine, equipped with all the technique of balletic form, made Eunice as a direct tribute to her, with a far greater range of movements than those at the command of Duncan or her pupils. It was possible for us with our training to have danced as she did, but she, with her very limited vocabulary, could not have emulated us. She had created no new art. Duncanism was but a part of the art to which we had the key. All the amateurs, who to-day seek a short cut to success as dancers, and seek to express themselves by prancing about in Greek costume, are the result of these mistaken doctrines.
My admiration for the artist herself has not diminished in spite of my critical attitude. I have retained two vivid impressions of that season that to me sum up both the shortcomings and the sublime qualities of that remarkable artist.
As was her custom, before the curtain rose on her dances to the music of Tannhäuser, she addressed the public to explain her interpretation, and she told them that she considered that the climax of the Venusberg music was too mighty for expression by the dance, and that a darkened stage and the spectator’s imagination could alone supply the necessary intensity of feeling.
But when she interpreted the Elysian Fields, then her artistic means were not only adequate, but raised to the same level of supreme and absolute beauty as the music of Gluck itself. She moved with those wonderful steps of hers with a simplicity and detachment that could only come through the intuition of genius itself. She seemed to float, a complete vision of peace and harmony, that very embodiment of the classical spirit that was her ideal.
In truth, Eunice was a compromise between our tradition and the Hellenic revival embodied by Isadora. The leading part, taken by Kshessinskaya on the first night, displayed in its texture an almost complete vocabulary of classical ballet. Pavlova, looking as a figure out of a Pompeian frieze, from her first appearance to the end, was consistent and exquisite; she infused a definite sense of style into Eunice. She and the whole of the corps de ballet had bare feet or make-belief ones. Tights were not to be discarded; ten toes pencilled in had to suffice to the illusion. After the first night, Kshessinskaya gave up her part to Pavlova, and I replaced the latter.
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Texts / Elizabeth Kendall
Europe and Isadora
The small group of society women gathered uneasily at the Hudson Theater on Thursday afternoon, March 22, 1906. They had come to see a young “Temple Dancer” called Ruth St. Denis, in a private matinee - on the recommendation of their adventurous friend Mrs. Rouland (wife of the painter), who had rescued this original and mystic act from vaudeville. The theater lobby was darkened for the occasion; real Hindus were gliding about inside it and incense was in the air. The curtain rose; a girl in veils appeared, set down her sacrificial tray, and rippled her arms like smoke. In the second number the girl, now arrayed in dirty turban and ragged dress, impersonated a waiflike snake charmer in an Indian street bazaar, filled with gesticulating Hindus. But the third piece, Radha, was the prize. The stage was transformed into a gold-encrusted shrine, whose doors opened to reveal the goddess sitting on a pedestal, covered in jewels, with a bare midriff, brown stain on her skin, and bells on her ankles. She bowed to her crouching devotees, she twirled, she made extravagant gestures with significant objects - a small bowl from which she drank, a garland of flowers she pressed to her breast. The dance mounted to a frenzy as the goddess whirled ecstatically and finally fell, spent, in a symbolic faint. At the end of the performance the ladies went to their waiting hansom cabs, still in awe, according to next day’s newspapers, of what they had seen.
Ruth St. Denis’ Radha became a cult item in restricted aesthetic circles of New York. The Evening Sun mentioned her in a gossip column, called “Matinee Girls,” in which one of the girls resolves:
We shall mold our hands until they are wedge-shaped, dye our fingertips with henna, and hire a Nautch girl to teach us Delsarte.
The other girl answers:
From what I’ve heard about Loie Fuller, Radha must be the most original of all.
Original was a new word of praise; it applied to unknown matters like Eastern decoration, and self-expression. When Ruth Dennis emerged from David Belasco’s stage in her own spectacle - as Ruth St. Denis - she found herself a part of a new thing just barely discernible, a fad of expressive dance.
The most famous new dancer, and the one who had first gone to Europe, was Loie Fuller. Europe was where Ruth St. Denis knew she must go as the next step in her career - and she did, in the summer of 1906, to London, to Paris, and to Berlin, where her Oriental dances were much acclaimed. And she was not unique. Before she arrived, not only Loie Fuller but Isadora Duncan and Maud Allan, both Americans, had made names for themselves. (Maud Allan, born in Canada, had moved to San Francisco at an early age.) Over the two and a half years Ruth St. Denis stayed in Europe, solo dancing grew even more popular, and by the fall of 1908 she, Maud Allan, and Isadora were playing in three London theaters at the same time - with enough audience to go around.
There are ways in which these several American girls with their original dances constitute a movement, since all of them were products of America’s naive dreams about art, and of American dance training, however haphazard. Europe produced nothing like them until the next generation. On the other hand, Europe recognized what they were doing; without the excitement in Europe about new forms in all the arts, Fuller, Allan, Duncan, and St. Denis would never have lasted. In Europe each was taken up and patronized by artists and poets and intellectuals on a scale undreamed of in America. They were thought to be not just new kinds of artists but new kinds of personalities. Each of the four had brought her mother with her, yet American-style they, the girls, seemed to be in command. Their brashness, their cheerfulness, attracted fatherly Europeans who “adopted” them.
It was a strange and marvelous meeting: they found in Europe the approval of an old, refined, and self-aware culture; Europe found in them a pre-civilized freshness. Moreover, each of them embodied some features of Art Nouveau, then at its height. Curling lines, organic spirals and curves so beloved of artists then, appeared in their dances, and so did glimpses of the current imagery of fauns and nymphs side by side with Salomes, Cleopatras, Belles Dames Sans Merci. Because these American girls came from a country which all but ignored the lure of the femme, they could play at being erotic with no deadliness attached. They were child-women with a pagan innocence and power - and they puzzled and fascinated Europeans. Images in all the arts anticipated them and then reflected them: the poems of Yeats and Mallarmé, the paintings of the Fauves, the statues of Rodin. They stepped into the scene, and as if by a trick of ancestry their heritage was suddenly revealed.
Loie Fuller was the first, and she came to Paris from America in 1892, as if from another planet. By sheer doggedness she got herself onto the stage of the Folies Bergères, where she became a sensation with her Fire Dance, her Lily Dance, her Butterfly Dance, and her famous Serpentine - skirt dances glorified by her own lighting inventions and silk manipulations. Miss Fuller was a native of small-town Illinois who had made her way through the whole spectrum of nineteenth-century American theater. She was basically an all-purpose soubrette like the famous Little Lotta Crabtree, although she had begun as a child temperance lecturer exhibiting colored charts of the liver. She had played the boy hero in Little Jack Sheppard opposite the great comedian Nat Goodwin, she had toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, appeared in Aladdin’s Lamp (a faerie extravaganza like The Black Crook), and written and mounted her own play, Larks. It was while rehearsing in a comedy, Quack, M.D., that she accidentally discovered her dance - or so says the legend. Offstage one day a beam of sunlight caught a piece of silk she was draping on herself and in the mirror she was transformed. Being of a scientific turn of mind, she began to experiment with ways to move the silk around in the sunlight, and she perfected a number of motions - twirls, waltz steps, little skips - that made the silk swirl.
Loie recognized she had found something resembling the new aesthetic costumes on European stages (Ellen Terry’s Greek gowns, Sarah Bernhardt’s Oriental) as well as the dress-reform ideals in this country. Loie was a genius at picking up things in the air. She decided her new trick was “artistic” and belonged in Europe - near Sarah Bernhardt, whom she admired extravagantly. It was with this flimsy conviction that she went to Paris. She didn’t know anything about culture; she hadn’t been to a museum, she didn’t know statues were single items made by sculptors - she thought they were made en masse in factories. But the quickness and shrewdness bred in her by America’s rough and ready theater became her guide - she sensed what her audience of that moment wanted to see, and she sensed correctly. Europe proclaimed her a wizard of light, color, motion, and impressionism. The millionaire collector Camille Groult (of the flour and meat-paste fortune) showed her his Watteau pastels, his Turner canvases, his preserved butterfly wings - and told her that she was also part of his collection. Everyone from Dumas-fils and Anatole France to Rodin and Mallarme became her admirer; their serious opinion of her art inspired her to keep on perfecting it. It was she who first lit herself from beneath the stage, through frosted glass panels; she and her electricians made the secret chemical dyes that gave her lights their shimmering, mother-of-pearl, rainbow hues. Special sticks that she wielded under the fabric became the instruments of awesome motions: in the Lily Dance she spun the white silk into a moving spiral; in the Fire Dance she whipped the yards of translucent stuff, lit rose and vermilion, around her shadowy form. Everyone said she had captured Nature by technical means - its plantlike and flamelike curls and spirals, its tendrily lines that united everything and wrapped around everything and linked everything in endless growth and decay. Almost by chance Loie became a potent symbol of the age, an age when electricity was new and glorious, and colors were resplendent - and both were used by artists in their creation of a grand artificial version of organic nature.
What Loie had done theatrically was to abstract the idea of the 1880s and 90s spectacle-extravaganza, with their trompe-l’oeil marvels, their ballerinas, and their cloud machines, into a solo dance spectacle. A decade later Ruth St. Denis would abstract romantic-historical drama in similar fashion. However, underneath the silk, Loie was using dance motions of an earlier tradition—music-hall skirt-dance motions. Her music was nothing like Debussy’s or Richard Strauss’s modern tone- washes; rather it w7as straightforward Delibes pizzicati, or Johann Strauss waltzes. In two film fragments of Fuller performing, it is apparent that she constructed her dances in short sections: she would undulate the arms, for instance; still undulating them she would start to twirl, then she would supplement the twirls with a low dip backward and serpentine arm movements. Through all this, the moving silk gave an illusion of daring musicality. But the dance made no attempt to mirror the melodic rise and fall of a particular piece of music; it proceeded by accumulated gestures, and it could fit almost any music. There is no denying that Loie possessed dance instincts, and that she was sincerely attached to her new kind of spectacle. What she had found, though, was actually more an idea than a new method. It was ordinary dancing concealed and surrounded by veils, and since Art Nouveau audiences loved things like veils and women’s hair- flowing textured matter associated with skin—they didn’t miss choreography. Loie’s audience was all the more intrigued with her moving body for intuiting it through the silk. They never tired of watching her demonstrate over and over the mysterious, self-renewing, glorious, and terrible motion so essential to their modern aesthetic.
In 1896, four years after she made her debut as an unknown at the Folies Bergères, Loie returned in triumph to New York’s Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, the house that imported the best foreign acts—at twice the salary of American headliners. The newspapers were impressed by her French aura and her dances retitled in French La Nuit, Le Feu, Le Firmament, Le Lys de Nile. Also impressed were two young ballet girls, Ruth Dennis and Isadora Duncan, who could not help hearing of La Loie Fuller on her first homecoming tour. Perhaps they saw her at that time. Four years later both of them encountered her at the great Paris Exposition of 1900, that supreme manifestation of Art Nouveau, where Loie had her own theater- - a low, cavelike structure graced by a giant statue of herself and swirling drapes. Ruth Dennis was in Paris with the Belasco company of Zaza; Isadora by then had cut herself adrift from American theater and joined the Bohemian artists of London and Paris. Loie Fuller was not the sole reason that either St. Denis or Duncan went to Europe, but her career had bloomed at a time when they were only obscure chorines with inchoate theatrical ambitions. Loie made everyone aware that dancing was more than trick steps and jollity, that it could call forth the deeper sentiments that usually belonged to modern painting, music, and drama.
It is clear that Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan both stemmed from Loie Fuller, though each took off in a separate direction. Ruth St. Denis explored the mood part of dancing—she made dance scenes, with literal costumes and stage sets where Loie’s had been abstract. Meanwhile Isadora identified what Loie had implied about the body itself as a means of expression, with or without veils. Loie’s dancing had come out of the theater she knew—and that was all she knew.
Both Isadora and Ruth St. Denis were something else before they were theater dancers; both of them carried compulsions from their lives into their theater careers—similar compulsions, but worked out in different environments. Isadora and Ruth were approximately the same age, born around 1878. Both grew up in poor families, on the fringes of society, and both were indoctrinated into dress reform and Delsarte and defiant feminism. However, Ruth Dennis was essentially a Protestant child and Isadora, through her mother, a lapsed Roman Catholic; Ruth grew up on the East Coast; Isadora in California, in the lively, wicked, hedonistic, and above all theatrical city of San Francisco. The key to their samenesses and their differences may have been the grief they each inherited for a world their mothers had lost before they were born. However, whereas Mrs. Dennis’ rightful milieu consisted of women doctors and health reform, Mrs. Duncan’s was one of culture and elegance.
Mary Dora Grey Duncan came from a wealthy Irish-Catholic family of St. Louis, a city that boasted old enough cosmopolitan blood—French, German, Irish—to educate its Catholic young boldly and liberally. Even the girls were allowed to read French novels and learn not just pretty pieces on the piano but the literature of the instrument. Mary Grey married a San Franciscan, a banker-gambler-poet, Joseph Duncan. When this husband abandoned her and her four children, Mrs. Duncan became a piano teacher and also, like Mrs. Dennis, something of a classic non-conformist. But instead of clutching her religion to her, she rejected it and turned instead to the theories of the Irish agnostic Robert Ingersoll. He justified her worship of art and culture.
Ingersoll was a splendid and lugubrious orator who travelled around America preaching his Gospel of Humanity and providing an umbrella for all kinds of quarrels with conventional God-fearing beliefs. Ingersoll did not believe in God, but he did believe in human kindness and in a sweetened sensuality. He worshipped women and the feminine aura; he thought life should be lived fully on this earth, not in heaven, and that some pagan religions hadn’t been all wrong. Even though his main arguments weren’t aesthetic, Ingersoll’s theology supported Americans’ very new curiosity about art and the artistic part of a person.
The four Duncan children mouthed Ingersoll; they could also recite the Romantic poets: Keats and Shelley and Robert Burns, who conjured up lost pagan sensations, and Walt Whitman, who connected these to the American landscape. Whitman was beloved of the youngest Duncan, Isadora; her favorite poem all her life was his “Song of the Open Road,” about the joys of travelling light and the desire to embrace everyone else travelling too. Whitman taught the importance of those surges of feeling inside a person, the rhythmic rise and fall of nearly inexpressible emotion: “You air that serves me with breath to speak! / You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!” These rhythms of the romantic soul were heard by the Duncans not just in poetry but in the piano music their mother played for them—Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Schubert; rubatos, crescendos, gusts of melody.
The miracle of Isadora’s childhood is that this rich mixture of oratory and melody was experienced by her physically, because it mingled in her childhood with certain physical attitudes she was being taught—among them dress reform, Delsarte, and a California worship of the outdoors. Californians were proud of their giant landscape, their Pacific Ocean, their redwoods. In the years of Isadora’s childhood, California artists and writers like Jack London, Bret Harte, and Frank Norris were finding that they could transfer the pagan ethos of ancient Greece to their own wilderness. Isadora’s father was a poet of their set. He may have belonged to the Bohemian Club, a group of gentlemen who put the landscape literally to use every year in a theatrical revel on a natural woodland stage called The Grove. The most memorable of these was a masque, in 1892, called The Hamadryads, wherein the actors played spirits coming out of the trees. The Grove plays may have impressed Isadora early on with the thought that theater could invoke powerful ancient spirits. She knew about these plays through her special friend, the poetess Ina Coolbrith, who was also the Oakland librarian and guided Isadora’s reading.
It could have been Ina Coolbrith, or Mrs. Duncan, or Isadora’s sister Elizabeth who also taught Isadora about uncorseted, free-flowing clothes—dress reform. Aesthetic dress was almost a uniform of San Francisco artists— and Greek and Pre-Raphaelite costumes certainly fit the Duncans’ view of themselves as an artistic family and as artistic Californians. Ruth Dennis’ dress reform was an ideology; Isadora’s was an aesthetic of the “natural.” Mrs. Duncan made sure that a historic example of Nature-worship, Botticelli’s Primavera, hung in a prominent place in whatever boardinghouse the family was just then occupying. It was also a model for Isadora’s clothes and later her costumes. Dress-reform rhetoric shows up constantly in Isadora’s later articles and speeches, but it was always connected to the unique California way of seeing Nature. Unhampered bodies and “natural” rhythms were synonymous to Isadora—and somewhere within the combination was “true dance.” “What is ‘true dance’ in opposition to what might be named ‘false dance’?” Isadora asked in an article she wrote around 1905:
The true dance is appropriate to the most beautiful human form; the false dance is the opposite of this definition —that is, that movement which conforms to a deformed human body. First, draw me the form of a woman as it is in Nature, and now draw me the form of a woman in a modern corset and the satin slippers used by our modern dancers. To the first all the rhythmic movements that run through Nature would be possible. ... To the second figure these movements would be impossible on account of the rhythm being broken and stopped at the extremities.
The “corset” of “our modern dancers” and the corsets of conventional dress were both odious to Isadora. Yet no matter how fervently she claimed that her own body remained “as in Nature,” as a child she did study dancing systematically. First of all she had learned the Irish jigs and reels of her grandparents when she was a baby. Then, when she was about five or six, her sister Elizabeth came home to Isadora’s family from the grandparents who had raised her. Elizabeth had become a professional dancing teacher, with a school where well-bred children of the city learned the dances they were expected to know in the 1880s and 90s, character dances like mazurkas, czardases, schottisches, varsoviennes, an occasional daring waltz. These were rhythmically complex and expressive in their own way. Such dancing schools as Elizabeth’s did not count as academies because they had no overall logic in the teaching. However, training for advanced students was challenging; random ballet steps were taught along with the character figures; “pas de bourrée,” “sissonnes,” “assemblés,” and the like might be worked into advanced routines at amateur exhibitions. By the 1890s some of those dancing schools had already incorporated Delsarte exercises—which Isadora clearly learned at an early age. She had rapidly become her sister’s best pupil and helper. If her mother and the whole California milieu had given her the image of an ideal pagan person, it was her dancing lessons that would enable her to be that, or anything else she fancied, on a stage.
What actually got her on the stage was San Francisco’s own rich theatrical environment. The young Isadora was not an isolated girl on a farm like Ruth Dennis, but a precocious urban child with three older siblings, Elizabeth, Augustin, Raymond, who adored theater. In the seventies and eighties the city was at its most theatrically alive; great actors of the day all played there: Joseph Jefferson, Edwin Booth, Helena Modjeska, Nance O’Neil, Sarah Bernhardt on her first American tour. Besides these stars the city boasted a rich array of variety shows, of 5-10-15 cent melodramas (the eternal Uncle Tom’s Cabin), of 25 cent operas (favorites were Faust and Lohengrin), and frequent visiting concert musicians—singers, violinists, and solo pianists. The Duncans breathed in all these theatrical strains through the city’s very air, and through the enthusiasms of a sister of their mother, beautiful tragic Aunt Augusta, who was stage-struck. The Duncans’ back yard became the scene of amateur theatricals—imitations of melodramas and comedies on the real stage; these were so popular that the Duncan children took off on tour up and down the California coast. It was an obvious thing to do in the open-ended theater world of the Far West; on such mule-back and stagecoach expeditions David Belasco, Lotta Crabtree, David Warfield, and Blanche Bates too learned their trade. In the Duncan troupe Isadora, then twelve years old, danced; Augustin and Raymond recited, and all took part in a short comedy.
This format appears to have been a tiny variety show with a “forward,” an “olio” for specialties (the dances), and an “afterpiece” burlesque. In 1889, when the dancing soubrette Lotta Crabtree was still at the height of her career, Isadora might have imitated her. Minstrel-like routines pleased country audiences more than Delsarte posing, and Isadora possessed the prerequisites for skirt dancing—a repertoire of jigs, reels, and character steps and an appetite for showing off. It is logical to think her first performing included some kind of fast musical dancing, if only because her later dances show such ease with old dance forms and their rhythms. She had heard these rhythms constantly in her mother’s piano pieces, mazurkas, polonaises, tanz-stücke; she had danced them in Elizabeth’s lessons, if not actually on these small California tours—and so fixed them forever in her body. Unlike Ruth Dennis, whose youthful knowledge of dancing came from the one or two stage spectacles she had seen and the exercises in Delsarte manuals, Isadora lived among people who were doing theater, no matter how amateurish, and dance too, no matter how conventional. Her early dancing gave her the means to work with movement itself: where it was going, its starts, its crescendos, its natural closings. Ruth Dennis would learn from Belasco to objectify a scene, with herself in it gesturing expressively. Isadora could objectify the very movements. From her earlier, less conscious experience she knew more clearly than Ruth St. Denis what her gestures were and what they implied. Isadora didn’t see herself inside a tableau, but it inside her; in her mature dances she was the equivalent of the scenery, the object of the lights, the sole source of shifting rhythms and paths across the space. Isadora’s awareness of gestures-plus-steps developed so much beyond either Loie Fuller’s or Ruth St. Denis’ that she can be called a choreographer at a time when that word wasn’t in use.
However, before she emerged as herself, Isadora, like Ruth St. Denis, served some time in New York’s commercial theaters and New York’s aesthetic salons. In 1896, when Isadora was nineteen, she and her mother headed East, to find audiences, or just to find a job. This was the time when Broadway was consolidating its sway over all of American theater through the touring circuits, and local theater life, as in San Francisco, was slowly dying out. In Chicago, Isadora inter cepted producer Augustin Daly (the same who was to hire Ruth Dennis two years later for The Runaway Girl). He gave her a chorus role in The Geisha, New York, 1896, then a gypsy dance in Meg Merrilees, 1897, and the fairy dance in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1897. But Isadora never felt as easy as Ruth Dennis in the commercial theater; she says in My Life that she wandered alone backstage and read Marcus Aurelius.
In 1897, years sooner than Ruth Dennis, Isadora retired from Broadway “to compose her own dances in her little Greek tunic.” Between her 1897 decision and the Duncans’ 1889 California tour, a mere eight years, Isadora had embraced the artistic and buried all trace of the music hall. She now became a salon soloist on the order of Mrs. Genevieve Stebbins in New York and Henrietta Knapp Russell in Newport and London. Her new repertory combined gestural illustrations of poetic texts spoken by her brother—a selection from The Rubaiyat—with some short dances to artistic music like Ethelbert Nevin’s “Song of Narcissus,” and additional numbers called “Spirit of Spring” and “A Dance of Mirth.”
No one knows what she really did in those early concerts, but her programming closely resembled that suggested in Delsarte manuals. Scores of these were available in the 1890s, guides for visualizing poems or poetic ideas. One typical manual, Delsartean Pantomimes, by Mrs. J. W. Shoemaker, 1891, supplied musical accompaniments in addition to the texts and the gestures—the whole was designed for “home, school and church entertainments.” The book’s opening page proclaimed: “Association’s mystic power combines / Internal passion with external signs”; inside was a text for every kind of “passion”—a faerie, “Paradise and the Peri”; a comedy, “The Bachelor Brides”; an adventure, “Paul Revere’s Ride”; an idyll, “The Voice of Spring”; a dark selection, Poe’s “The Raven”; and an Eastern romance, “Queen Vashti’s Lament.” Gestures for the texts were diagrammed line by line; these gestures were quite sophisticated both rhythmically and metaphorically, and they were entertaining too. Home, school, and church audiences were no doubt charmed by any young girl in a Greek gown as she described wide flowing circles in the air and addressed Spring:
I come, I come, ye have called me long
I come o’er the mountains with light and song!
Delsarte, though, meant more to its practitioners than charm: these gestures implied their own dynamic flow which complemented the rise and fall of the words. Delsarte expertise represented experience in the connections between “heard” rhythms and pantomimic gestures— a sensory cross-over that Isadora already understood well, partly through her Delsarte work. Young Miss Duncan, interviewed in New York by the Herald Tribune, called Delsarte “the master of principles of flexibility of muscles and lightness of the body.”
In America in the late nineties Isadora was no more than a skilled Delsartean—at least on the surface. Inside she had the makings of a dancer, but it would take Europe to bring it out of her. The Duncans moved to London in 1900. There, confronted as Loie Fuller had been by new experiences both visual and musical, Isadora devised the kind of art she is remembered for. She and her brother Raymond haunted museums and met as many artists and art specialists as they could find. The experience of seeing the real Elgin Marbles and real Renaissance canvases, plus the idea of her various English protectors that she use this art, and better music, to initiate her dances, transformed her repertory. In London’s New Gallery in 1900 she appeared in dances to Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” (costumed in pastel gauze after her beloved Primavera), three Chopin Preludes, and a minuet from Gluck’s Orfeo. In another New Gallery concert she mimed or danced several paintings, another Botticelli (La Belle Simonetta), a De Predis (Ange Jonant de la Viol), a Titian (Bacchus and Ariadne), and a contemporary neo-classical Orpheus Returning from the Shades, by Sir William Richmond.
What is interesting is not just that she accepted the source material suggested by her English patrons, but that she solved the artistic tests they had put to her—in ways significant to her future work. Working with these paintings, she found motifs and actual movements she would use throughout her career. Certain themes appeared again and again in her dances: the legend of Orpheus and the Furies was one; the Primavera tableau with its pregnant Flora (goddess-mother of Spring) and the Three Graces was another. And not only did she repeat themes, she wove the same motions again and again into different dances. London programs show that as early as 1900 she was finding those essential motions which formed her language, which she would fit together differently in each dance, and which she would also use as the basis of her teaching.
Isadora’s dance language had originated in Delsarte gestures. But in Europe, after days and days of all but living in museums with Raymond and coming to feel at home with classical statues—the Elgin Marbles, the Tanagra Figurines, the Venuses and Amazons and Winged Victories—she had learned the physical truths the Greeks had known: the way a body finds its own effortless, asymmetrical balance; the way a marble Venus, for example, stands into one hip with the opposite shoulder sloping down. Their gestures of repose Isadora had already made her own in performance. Now in Renaissance art she experienced a new dimension and she began to show the movements of several figures within a space. She added to her language those gestures of surprise or suspended motion one sees in Renaissance canvases—the effects of figures on each other. One of the clearest signals she took is the stylization of “I am being pursued”—a nymph pursued by a satyr, a Diana chased by Acteon, Ariadne surprised by Bacchus.. . . The gesture of this appears again and again in Duncan dances: the dancer in a sideways lunge, her hands fending off the pursuer as she looks back over her shoulder. The pursuer is seen in the same dances (mimed also by the solo dancer): he lunges forward and reaches out toward the imaginary pursued. Gestures like these existed in Delsarte too; but Duncan’s versions were broader—they were no longer gestures but motions because they led to other motions. Their purpose was not to transmit a mimed message but to show an action. It is extraordinary that a young dancer decided that by herself she could offer an audience not just the pantomimic intentions of one figure but the flow of question-response among several figures inside the formal space of a painting-frame or a stage.
One is reminded of Walt Whitman, and his constant desire through poetry to take other identities into his own body. One also thinks of Rodin and his great works, with two or three figures sculpted in a single gesture, or with thousands of them merging together in the massive bronze door called Gates of Hell—which apparently influenced Isadora verv much. Isadora watched Rodin at work. Her contact with him and other modern French artists, Matisse, Maurice Denis, and Emile Bourdelle, who revered classical proportions but transformed them for the present, was probably as important to her as her own study of the antique originals. Rodin took the serene classical poses and twisted them, arced them, forced them to anguish or ecstasy, broke them with his bare hands—almost set them in motion. It is likely that Isadora, watching him, boldly decided that she could go beyond him or any other visual artist, because she could make statues travel, cover ground, move in a dance. There is no doubt that the young Isadora harbored a monstrous boldness inside her person, and that she knew it. An invitation she sent out to a private concert in those early years in France, 1902 or 1903, is almost self-mocking:
Miss Duncan will dance to the sound of harp and flute in her studio next Thursday evening, and if you feel that seeing this small person dancing against the waves of an overpowering destiny is of some benefit to you, why—come along !
Some of this boldness is essential to choreography—especially the kind worked out by these American women, from the inside out, starting with their own bodies. A vision of one’s body as the center of the universe—or the stage—generates absolute clarity in the position of that body and the intent of its gesture. In those early years of Isadora’s dancing, she trusted that her body would tell her what she needed to know. Those were the years when she stood “quite still for hours, her two hands folded between her breasts, covering the solar plexus, that ‘central spring of all movement. . . ”
It must not be forgotten that the solar plexus was the area most maligned by corsets and most championed by dress reformers. Whether or not Isadora remembered her childhood pride in her own unconstrained waist and ribs, she certainly felt this and continued to feel it. The solar plexus became the starting point of motion for a Duncan dancer. In the Duncan exercises and dances that have survived, it is the solar plexus—the lower ribs right above the stomach—that animates the dancer’s body. In the light expansive leaps onto one leg it is the lifted ribs that buoy the dancer; it is the ribs also that contract and coil in to send her forward again into a leap, a skip, a run. In short, the solar plexus responds to the music in Duncan work. This was Isadora’s great discovery: the expressive upper body - from Delsarte, from Greek sculpture, from Renaissance painting, from modern art - combined with the ebb and flow of musical melody in the feet. No one else had articulated that connection; no one had “travelled” those so familiar gestures. In Isadora’s dances the feet describe the rhythmical patterns of the music, waltz, march, mazurka; the ribs give expansiveness to the musical phrase, more depth, more impact, more space—and the head and arms gently acquiesce. Isadora incorporated a new upper- body space, and along with it the air above the stage, into dance.
Isadora’s art also grew through the music she was more and more emboldened to use. No dancer before her had ever interpreted music written not for dance but for concerts. In her early years Isadora had followed Delsartean and Loie Fuller models, using Strauss waltzes and idyllic airs as a generalized background to the gestures. Her dances in 1900 to Chopin Preludes in London meant a new departure, but probably not a firm decision about music.
It is possible that she was pushed toward using classical music by the example of another American girl dancer, Maud Allan, who made her debut in a solo concert in Vienna in 1903. Allan, essentially a San Franciscan like Isadora, had come to Europe not as a dancer but as a young prodigy at the piano. Friends, though, convinced Miss Allan that her beauty, her classic jaw line, clear light eyes, and masses of brown hair, would be wasted if she simply played the music—she must dance it. She did. In her first program, wearing a Greek tunic like Isadora’s, she “visualized” selections from Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Isadora, dancing in Budapest, very near Vienna, may well have heard about the content of this performance. It was only then in 1903 that she herself began to use all the music in Gluck’s operas instead of just the dance divertissements; and only in 1904 did Isadora dance her first Beethoven in public. By now she was famous all over Europe, and in the summer of 1904 she interpreted the dances in Wagner’s operas at the Bayreuth Festival, by special invitation of the master’s widow, Cosima Wagner.
By this time Isadora had found the elements of her art: its musical patterns, its gestures, its three-dimensional melody. Her dances were rhythmic statements that complemented the music: questions and answers and repeats and surprise thoughts paced according to the musical forms. They existed in formal space. Loie Fuller’s earlier dances were two-dimensional—a literal translation onto the stage of Art Nou- veau’s moving ornamental line. But Isadora’s dances had become not mere pictures but structures of motion.
The earliest Duncan dance that survives is a short Chopin Prelude she made in 1904, which builds phrase by phrase on the gentle crescendo of the music. The dancer comes forward toward the audience; she runs to one side of the stage, then to the other; at a note of anguish in the music, she turns away, first to one back corner of the stage, then to the other. As she runs, she allows her upper body to bend and her arms to trail, but she never loses her clear path on the stage. At the music’s final swell she turns to the audience, opens up her arms in a wide circle, and as her hands reach her sides, she lifts her face to the sky almost lazily. This was her complete acquiescence to the dynamics of the dance and music. In order that the dancing be seen for itself, Isadora was now performing in a light silk tunic, abstracted from the costumes Botticelli and Titian had put on their nymphs and goddesses; it was gathered underneath the breasts and at the hips, and slit at the front of the thighs to give free play to the legs. For scenery she used long neutral blue-gray curtains that hung behind the grand piano. She paid close attention to the lights (according to the recollection of Ruth St. Denis and others), dancing among simulations of shadows on the stage, and subtle color- changes, sometimes amber, sometimes rose. However, the lighting was never a character in the dance as it was for Loie Fuller. For Isadora, the single dancer was the spectacle; she alone was the music, the scenery, the other imaginary people onstage. Not until the next generation of American dancers, not until Martha Graham began fiercely to pursue formal choreography, would such a range of expression be discovered by a solo dancer.
When Ruth St. Denis arrived in Europe in 1906, both Isadora’s art and her own had moved so far beyond their common Delsarte origins that they were barely comparable. Ruth did have scenery onstage, and other characters (her Hindus), and elaborate costumes. Her dances, though, were actually miniature dramas made out of dance motions—with ritual replacing dramatic suspense. Unlike Isadora, Ruth hadn’t come to Europe to find new sources for her art; she had enough sources in her new-found Eastern legends and her inherited American stage techniques. She came to Europe to find new audiences for her Incense, The Cobras and the splendid Radha, and to win Europe’s artistic seal of approval—and she did. Germany, with its appetite for artistic massiveness, best appreciated her extravagant decor and the fully orchestrated Lakme music she danced to. Richard Strauss had already constructed a whole opera, Salomé, around one Oriental dancer, and he was in the midst of creating Elektra. On the surface, Radha looked like an addition to this gallery of goddess-queens.
However, Ruth St. Denis herself, the last of these four American art-dancers to arrive in Europe, was untouched by the ferment of modern culture there. Of course she was moved to be thought an artist in a community of artistic colleagues. But her own cultural identity left her no room for aesthetic discoveries. In picture galleries she saw only “Spotted things, rosy-fleshed and stippled ladies, or hospital scenes —painted with alarming realism—very obstetrical.” Her experience was utterly unlike Isadora’s, and she found nothing that reminded her of her own art. The music of Strauss, she conceded, was grand and visionary but full of “curious dissonances,” and a Wagner opera did not inspire her. She marveled at how the audience could sit still for such long musical expositions; as a commercial artist she felt Wagner’s timing was off. Ruth’s own sense of timing, nurtured on Belasco’s stage, remained the same throughout her nearly three years in Europe. She didn’t change anything in her dances, except costumes, which she was eternally tinkering with anyway. In London, 1908, she added two new dances to her repertory, a Nautch and a Yogi. Both of these, though, had been in her mind since before she came to Europe. The earthy nautch and the ascetic yogi were two facets of Ruth’s private dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh. The costumes as usual reflected the estates of the characters: the one figure all aglow with emerald skirt and gold sari, the other humble in rough girdle and one string of prayer beads. These two new dance “scenes” combined with her other vignettes made a full and varied East Indian Suite, which Ruth presented in her 1908 London season.
In London in the fall of 1908, while Ruth was playing the small select La Scala Theater, Maud Allan was filling the Palace Theater with her notorious new Salomé and Isadora was dancing Orpheus, accompanied by some of her tiny German girl pupils, at the Duke of York Theater. By this time, each of the three had learned whatever she could from Europe and from the others. In Europe dancing was becoming the respected equal of music, of art, of literature. The Russian Ballet was poised on the horizon, ready to burst on Paris the following spring, and these American girls who preceded it had grown famous. After London, Isadora left for her first season in America performing as a serious artist. Ruth and her family went back to Germany for one more round of tours, climaxed by an offer from the citizecns of Weimar to build her a theater, if she would stay in Germany for five more years. She could not. She and her mother missed home; Ruth missed the jokes of American theater people and the moral scruples of American artists. She missed being in a theatrical company. Loie Fuller, Maud Allan, and Isadora Duncan now belonged more to Europe’s art than to America’s. But Ruth St. Denis belonged to the theater that had produced her. She was the only one of the four who could go home and play vaudeville; she was the only one who wanted to go home. So, after one last turn around the British Isles in the summer of 1909, the Dennises sailed gratefully for New York. And so it was Ruth St. Denis’ love of the grand gesture, her consummate, humorous ease on the professional stage, that became the starting point for a modern dance art in America.
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Texts / Michel Fokine
Isadora, beauty and expressiveness
I consider the greatest manifestations of recent times to be the separate and so dissimilar achievements of Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller and Ruth St. Denis.
Duncan has reminded us of the beauty of simple movements. Loie Fuller introduced the effect of lights and shadows, of the combination of the dance with floating veils. Ruth St. Denis has acquainted us with the dances of the East.
I wish to talk about Isadora Duncan in some detail. She was the greatest American gift to the art of the dance. Duncan proved that all the primitive, plain, natural movements - a simple step, run, turn on both feet, small jump on one foot - are far better than all the richness of ballet technique, if to this technique must be sacrificed grace, expressiveness and beauty…
It is true that one should not sacrifice beauty or grace to the execution of technical difficulties. The error is in the supposition that technical difficulties could not be executed with grace, as if beauty and expressiveness may be associated only with simple movements.
Not only in the dance, but in all art forms, the pursuit of perfection should not lead to complication of form, overlooking the purpose for which the art form exists. One must be reminded of this. Duncan reminded us: Do not forget that beauty and expressiveness are of the greatest importance.