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Articles / Rayner Heppenstall





Rayner Heppenstall


Apology for dancing.  The sexual idiom




I never saw Isadora Duncan dance. That, I believe, may well be my best qualification for writing about her. For it seems that nobody who did see her was able to tell about her sanely. I know the music she interpreted. There are hundreds of photographs and drawings of her interpreting that music. Her autobiography is there, and her many articles on the Art of the Dance, for anybody to read. There are the many writings of those who saw and knew her, varying in waftiness and hysteria, from those of Mary Desti and Sewell Stokes to the brief obituary panegyric of Max Eastman. Above all, there are the many new schools of dancing which derived their forms and their energy from Isadora and which are, for the present day, much more important than she.


   These I have watched and read, heard and seen, and I have seen Nicolas Legat (who was asked, in 1905, to join Isadora) frisk about with imaginary skirts, lift up swooning arms and speak the word "pornographique" most expressively. Evidently, if I had seen Isadora Duncan dance, there would have been no chance of critical sanity. With such a woman, you must either be outraged, or laugh, or fall cataclysmically in love; and find yourself in Jericho, anyway. I fancy I should have fallen in love. With such a woman and therefore with the art of such a woman. ... It was all one. The art was the woman. It was the embellishment and justification of her extraordinary womanhood.


   And the woman—which is to say, the little girl—was born under Aphrodite. She says, into the bargain: If people ask me when I began to dance I reply, "In my mother's womb, probably as a result of the oysters and champagne—the food of Aphrodite."


   She was born, too, beside the sea, and her 'first idea of movement, of the dance, certainly came from the rhythm of the waves'—from which Aphrodite rose. Her antecedents were just what they should have been: American Rationalism, of the plains and the skyscrapers, the America of Walt Whitman, entangled round a hot core of renegade Irish Catholicism. The family was poor. There were three brothers and sisters, Augustin, Elizabeth and Raymond. The mother was a grass widow. Conditions which make, altogether, for an oddly passionate family unity. . . . And the mother played Schubert and Chopin, and they read romantic poetry.


   Isadora danced, as we say, from the cradle. Growing up, there was local enthusiasm and misfortunes, provincial tournees, Augustin Daly, New York, and then the whole family betook itself to Europe, on a cattle-boat, to London, first, with Chelsea garrets and all the proper appurtenances of struggling art. Days spent in the British Museum, copying figures from the Grecian urns, from which Raymond Duncan eventually worked out a system of eight positions as seemingly fundamental as the five positions of Ballet. . . . Encounters, gradually, with the great: with Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Ellen Terry, Sir Henry Irving.... A tour with Sir Frank Benson playing the first fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for it "seemed that theatre managers were unable to understand.. .."


   In fact, at that time, it was difficult for me to understand why, when I had awakened a frenzy of enthusiasm and admiration in such men as Andrew Lang, Watts, Sir Edwin Arnold, Austin Dobson, Charles Halle—in all the painters and poets whom I had met in London—the theatre managers remained unmoved, as if the message of my Art were too spiritual for their gross materialistic comprehension.


   Thence to Paris, to similar unremunerative or insufficiently remunerative frenzies of enthusiasm and admiration. . . . And Isadora, though fluttered by the great Rodin's sculpturous advances, tried herself out, there, with remarkably elaborate deliberation, for so young a virgin, on two lovers, both of whom, however, were scared and fled.


   Off to Germany, then, to Berlin, and to Vienna, with Loie Fuller; to Hungary, where the first more or less satisfactory lover was found, in a young actor, Romeo; and back to Germany, to Munich, to start the legend of "die gottliche, heilige Isadora"; away to Florence, back to Berlin and its pseudo-Hellenism, away to Venice. . . . And then to Greece, the Glory that was Greece, the home of sea-born Aphrodite and the kin of Aphrodite, Apollo, Dionysus, greater than Apollo, and the haven of Isadora's most expansive visions and yearnings. . . .


   I urge a high admiration for the energy and consistency with which Isadora sustained the phantasy of that Grecian excursion (with the presence of the family, who must have been rather nice, though they were evident humbugs, to keep up the necessary semblance of a sense of humour). She was a whole woman, most whole, perhaps, in her grand-manner follies and vulgarities, and she responded wholly to her blood's images of Aphrodite and Apollo, Dionysus, Minerva, Zeus. The pictures of her, with arms straining aloft, at the Parthenon, are never altogether cheap, however ridiculous they may seem. Stupidly, perhaps, and certainly with a great deal of confusion, she was submitting herself with all the profundity of her womanhood, to a real if forgotten splendour. She was seeking contact, in the deep passivity of racial experience, with the energies that had produced, as well as some of the greatest art, the richest and most satisfying of all our mythologies. But Isadora Duncan was the complete eclectic. She had no intellectual control over her experience, to keep it, in a possible metaphor, from evaporating. And a new phantasy presented itself, as the old one came to a circumstantial end. Isadora studied Gliick, read Kant (just as though an Isadora might have something to do with Pure Reason) and Nietzsche, who drew the diffuse and incoherent mass of Grecian images to the focus of the single myth of Dionysus; and then went off to Bayreuth, to replace the satin slipper with the transparent tunic, in Wagner's heavily languorous Venusberg.


   It would be difficult to find two divinities more essentially remote from each other than the Hellenic Aphrodite and Wagner's sonorously lavish Teuton Venus; but the name, the cognate persons of Love Incarnate in Woman's Form, was enough for Isadora, and she shifted her allegiance with no great effort. Her own erotic state changed as easily. In Bayreuth, she was adored by Heinrich Thode, with a cerebral passion to which her response, as she records it, is illuminating.


The rehearsal at Bayreuth began. With Thode I sat in the darkened theatre and listened to the first notes of the Prelude of Parsifal. The feeling of delight through'all my nerves became so poignant that the slightest touch of his arm sent such thrills of ecstasy through me that I turned sick and faint, with the sweet, gnawing, painful pleasure. It revolved in my head like a thousand whirls of myriad lights. It throbbed in my throat with such joy that I wanted to cry out. Often I felt his slight hand pressed over my lips to silence the sighs and little groans that I could not control. It was as if every nerve in my body arrived at that climax of love which is generally limited to the instant; and hummed with such insistence that I hardly knew whether it was utter joy or horrible suffering. My state partook of both, and I longed to cry out with Amfortas, to shriek with Kundry.


Each night Thode came to Philip's Ruhe. He never caressed me as a lover, never sought even to undo my tunic or touch my breasts or my body in any way, although he knew that every pulse of it belonged only to him. Emotions I had not known to exist awoke under the gaze of his eyes. Sensations so ecstatic and terrible that I often felt the pleasure was killing me, and fainted away, to awaken again to the light of those wonderful eyes. He so completely possessed my soul that it seemed it was only possible to gaze into his eyes and long for death. For there was not, as in earthly love, any satisfaction or rest, but always this delirious thirst for a point that I required.


I completely lost my appetite for food, and even for sleep. Only the music of Parsifal brought me to the point where I dissolved into tears and wept, and that seemed to give some relief from this exquisite and terrible state of loving which I had entered.


   The obvious comment, I suppose, is that Heinrich Thode's behaviour, in keeping the proudly sensual Isadora, for so long, in that feverishly and pervertedly heady state of being, was almost unbelievably naughty: excusable, if at all, only on the ground that Thode was, at the time, working on his St. Francis and, quite evidently, needing his inspiration for Santa Clara. More interesting, though, is the fact that Isadora could suffer this state, gladly, for so long, and that she could still write it up with such evident relish, twenty years after. Isadora Duncan was a powerful and rich being, if ever any woman was, but her power and her richness were essentially passive. Her essential nature was rather to draw in, to absorb and assimilate—a kind of passional as well as intellectual Eclecticism—than to expand, to give out abundantly, as her extravagance and her thoroughly uncontrolled dancing seem to show. The catalogue of her lovers is not, in itself, uninteresting. But the significant thing is the infinite variety of her total response to them. For each of her lovers, she changed colour; she changed form, completely. She was altogether fluid and able to be transformed by any powerful man's will, transformed wholly. Yet she was choosing her submissions. Each submission was a manifestation of the passive female power. She was absorbing and assimilating the rich wills of her men.


   At the same time, there is a curious unreality about all her accounts. I have spoken of phantasies. I should have spoken rather of the forms of one great polymorphous phantasy: which was Isadora Duncan's most substantial reality. Her nature never took form. It was as vast and changing and as finally unchangeable as the sea. It was a phantasy which Isadora sustained throughout her life, which endures in her legend and which she herself never understood at all. Even after the death of her children and after a run of loves which would have served to mature any half-dozen normal women, there is still, to the end, an extraordinarily adolescent flavour about Isadora's erotic nature and understanding. Her lovers, certainly, were never real men. From Romeo to Sergei Essenin, from Gordon Craig to the inexhaustible spring of wealth, to Lohengrin, and from Walter Rummel to the last stevedore, they were all visions and phantasies themselves and fuel to feed the one great phantasy. Isadora Duncan was a woman of amazingly rich and open erotic nature. She was also, very definitely, a sensationist. She was also an exemplarily glamorous mother. She was also an exhibitionist in the grand manner. In her schools, where the bodies of young girls were to be wrought to a beauty the world had not known, there was also something of Sappho and the Isle of Lesbos. But it is the phantasy which dominates. The phantasy embraces and assimilates all these things. They are facets, only of the phantasy.


   And Isadora's life was Phantasy throughout. It never came to any true form at all, though Isadora was a whole being, and responded wholly, in each one of her phases. Her transformations were whole transformations. But the whole pattern of her life is as extravagant, as flamboyant, as lawless, as its substance, its single incidents. If it flowered, its flowers were of nothing more substantial than the stuff of methyl flames, wavering, disappearing in the light, evanescent in the haze through which Isadora looked out on the world and never able to achieve, or even to conceive, the peace, the stillness, into which life must subside when it will form into the round assurance of bloomed fruit. Evidently, Isadora Duncan was a beautiful woman, but even her own physical woman's beauty seems unformed, hazy, fluid: the kind of beauty that is frail in all its heavy lushness, changing from moment to moment and open, vulnerable, to every brief mood.


   What has all this to do with the Dance, though? Evidently, a great deal. . . . Quite evidently in Isadora's own case and quite as much, if less evidently, with every form of the Dance. . . . Isadora's dancing is the restless physical movement of her phantasy. But a phantasy is not only a fluid, a formless thing, rejecting clarity. It is also a private thing. It is also an internal thing. As soon as it loses its private nature, by formulation and communication, and becomes externalised and takes form, it ceases to be a phantasy. It becomes a myth. And a myth is a verbal entity. The communication of phantasies, their translation into Myth, is the origin of Literature. The Dance can have nothing to do with phantasies. It can have nothing to do with anything private and internal. Nor can it have any honest commerce with verbal entities. And the Dance's end is always to be precise in its forms. Its desire is Clarity. Isadora Duncan was not concerned to dance, not concerned with any clarity of plastic forms. She was concerned with the Dance only as part of her primarily sexual phantasy.


   She was concerned, also, as she thought, with Expression. She thought she was expressing herself, her fluid self, in the Heraclitean flux of restless half-forms. But the Dance cannot express a phantasy. Its first end is not Expression at all, or expression only of itself, of certain general qualities of style and of a passionate clarification. She thought she was recreating, for her self-expression, the forms of the Greek Dance. But forms of the Dance have force only for the community in which and by which they were evolved and created. They themselves become phantasy and formless to an age in which they need to be recreated, nostalgically, yearningly, from museum images. She thought, after reading Nietzsche, that her art was Dionysian. But the Dance of Dionysus, before and above everything else, was a free expression of the ecstasy of the whole community, not an exhibition, to the rest of the community, of one member's private ecstasy. Its forms are valid only as communal ritualia. In the rhythmical movements which Isadora Duncan executed in public, she was not even articulating, expressing, communicating a phantasy. A phantasy is not capable of communication, except by translation into myth and by relation with precise forms. She was only exhibiting signs of the ecstasy she felt in her private contemplation of the phantasy. Which, of course, excited the onlookers enormously. . . . They wanted to share the ecstasy itself.


   Isadora's Art was, in effect, then, merely an art of sexual display, and I would stress the "merely." Isadora was not conscious of the fact. Nor, I suppose, were most of the spectators. She and they thought they were enjoying a spiritual experience. Perhaps they were, but it was only in the mass stimulation of private phantasies. There was no communication, or no communication in terms exact enough to be terms of art. Isadora thought she served all the gods, both ancient and modern: Apollo and Dionysus, the power-gods of European Royalty, the freedom-gods of America and the compassion-gods of Revolutionary Russia. In reality, she remained faithful to her stars. She served Aphrodite only. Her art was aphrodisiac.


   But all art is aphrodisiac, surely? No, all art is antiaphrodisiac. All art engages sexual impulses (if only by deliberately eliminating them). It may even be that art is greater or lesser art according, precisely, to the strength and range of sexual impulses that it engages. But its function, as art, is to neutralise, to release, its engagements. In a Freudian term, art is always Sublimation. The need of the artist is to bring some intolerable pressure of passional experience—which will always be experience sexually charged, if not itself primarily sexual, since the passional being is primarily sexual—to the condition that I tried to describe, after Walter Pater, as the Condition of Music. A configuration of sexually charged experience is brought to the condition in which it can be contemplated as pure form, and a Catharsis is effected, a purgation of precisely those impulses or passions most strenuously engaged. The apparent process is usually a substitution of symbols for the passional realities, hypnotic and magical symbols to which the passional charge can be transferred, leaving no loose unresolved emotion, and which can be contemplated as formalised outward entities.


   This is the mechanism of dreams according, more or less, to Freud. It is also the mechanism by which myths are produced, out of the intolerable pressure of primitive man's passional experience, out of pure erotic Phantasy. Initiation, the adventure of virginity, becomes an adventure, a dark and difficult entry, to the jewelled cave, ablaze with light, the Trophonian cave, Aladdin's cave; and modern man will endorse the myth's compulsion, its relation to his own phantasy. This is art, which transforms a surplus of sexual impulses into aesthetic contemplation. The materials of art may, however, be used in a contrary way. Stories, novels, pseudo-myths, are written and published, in vast quantities, weekly, whose sole function is in the stimulation of jaded or repressed sexual impulses. There are pictures, sometimes very finely painted pictures, whose intention and effect is the stimulation of sexual impulses, where these are jaded or repressed. There is the music of Wagner and Scriabin. But that which excites, instead of transforming and releasing, is Pornography, not Art, according, precisely, to the extent of its capacity for excitation. And it derives from feeble or stifled impulses, which need aggravation, instead of over-powerful impulses, which need redirection and release. This distinction between Art and Pornography is not an academic one; and it need not be stressed, I hope, that it is a distinction of which the censor, who bans James Joyce and encourages Ethel M. Dell, is not aware. Nor is it, of course, a distinction which disallows Pornography under all circumstances.


   All this shows up more clearly in the Dance than elsewhere. I have already said something, in dealing with Tradition, about what I am calling the Sexual Idiom of Ballet. I pointed out, for instance, that a woman on her points, "because of change in significant line and stress and action, ceases to be significantly a woman. She becomes an idealised and stylised creature of the Theatre." And there is a kind of eternal virginity about her. She is inaccessible. She remains unravished. Or, in another light, another metaphor, I said:


Major works of art, in any medium, are epicene. The Condition of Music is a Neutralisation. And this shows clearer ... in Ballet, because the elements, the artistic material, is human bodies. In Ballet, the human organism is not only producer and consumer, but the goods, also, and aesthetic goods, like the angels, have no sex. . .. Aggressive masculinity or aggressive feminity is as destructive of the essential stylistic conditions of Ballet as flaunted inversion is. ... Appeal, of any kind, ... is out of place. Style—with Ripeness—is All.


And Style, in human movement, is fundamentally that substitution of symbols for realities, the production of ideal forms out of the natural animal movements of the human body. To dance, to move flauntingly and with potent rhythmical compulsion, is to project a state of organic excitement which, by the nature of the organism, is necessarily sexual or sexually charged. Ballet, by the force and technique of Tradition, by its intricate channels of convention, makes these states of organic excitement impersonal and transforms them, through its precise plastic forms, to states of artistic creation, the vicarious excitement of onlookers to states of aesthetic contemplation. Ballet is supremely the negation of Phantasy. Ballet is altogether concrete, outward, precise and sheer.


   But Isadora Duncan would have none of these precise forms, this transformation. She wished to retain, as valuable in itself, the primary state of excitement, the personal ecstasy, and exhibit her state—communicating nothing but the excitation itself and perhaps something, vaguely, of its quality, its general tone—in movements which, she clamoured, must be free, their only semblance of form proceeding from the actual phase of her master phantasy. Look at the countless drawings and photographs of her… She leaps along, knees thrusting upward in an agitation of the loins, head either plunging down to knees or flung back in taunting pride or turned in the glad terror of amorous flight. In her more serious dances, her arms cease to float caressingly but strain upward, trembling, in the infinity of desire or are flung wide in the infinite welcome of the matriarchal bosom, or are turned in, hands pressed over breast in spiritual hurt. Or she glides onward, in a tranced lento cantabile, in the plangent dream of fulfilment. And always, to end the exhibition, she strains herself upward, again, at the heavens, the hazy Cosmos, the ether streaming behind the stars. Or she falls in ecstatic swoon to the floor and lies panting, in a flaccid lush supinity. None of these movements is precise, sharp, clean, bright. There is no control. There is no line. Everything is fluid, formless, natural, free, without style, melting away, "with its own excitation, momently to mist." The only dancing is the dancing of a mist of loose drifting emotion. It was not an exhibition of dancing. It was a display of Womanhood, of the female principle as a hovering gaseous abstraction, as Womanhood might be before it crystallised into functions and social forms, seeking, swooning into, and yet resisting forms.


   And that is what Isadora was concerned with, not the Dance. This is not authoritative. I did not see Isadora dance. The material is there for anybody's reconsideration. This case is an imaginative reconstruction, only, not dogmatic statement. It is so overwhelmingly evident, though. With the amazing physical and passional energy that she had, she wished to create, not new forms for the Dance, but new glamours for Womanhood; not finer art for the Theatre, but finer theatrical means for heightening the Female Mystery. She was not a dancer, but a sort of prophet. She thought she was both. She thought the Dancer was the greatest prophet. She speaks, always the "message" of her Art, and she speaks of her Art as "spiritual." She was concerned with the inward ineffable content. She was the glamorous matriarch, affirming, in herself, the glory of the primeval womb. She was, in fact, a bit of a feminist, a good deal of a suffragette. She wasted a lot of enthusiasm, for instance, on Emancipation, on "the right of women to bear children outside marriage," and so on. All of which, evidently, has rather more to do with Mrs. Pankhurst and the Masculine Protest than with dancing (or, for that matter, with children). . . . But Isadora was of her generation, and her generation acclaimed her. She attracted to herself all the frustrations, yearnings, hysterias, of her generation. Many were found to acknowledge her prophetic nature. And that is where she ceases to be a great woman, an amazing femme fatale, a cause celebre, a case, and becomes a nuisance. For, since her death, in the Dance, the Prophetic Nature has acquired an alarming popularity.


   Isadora Duncan was-so-the female counterpart of David Herbert Lawrence, in Literature. Whether she was as great a person, it is difficult to say. Also, Lawrence often attempted art, as well as grim and cosmic Pornography. And it is certain that Isadora's work was inferior, as well as less durable. Lawrence used a medium which forced him to some precision. In Isadora's medium, of free movement, there was no range of such precise symbols as words to limit the glamorous-ineffable-vague. But the similarity between the two cases is close.


I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit… For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breasts, covering the solar plexus. My mother often became alarmed to see me remain for such long intervals quite motionless as if in a trance- but I was seeking, and finally discovered, the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversions of movement 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. The ballet school taught the pupils that this spring was found in the centre of the back at the base of the spine. From this axis, says the ballet master, arms, legs, and trunk must move freely, giving the result of an articulated puppet. This method produces an artificial mechanical movement not worthy of the soul. I, on the contrary, sought the source of the spiritual expression to flow into the channels of the body, filling it with vibrating light- the centrifugal force reflecting the spirit's vision. After many months, when I had learned to concentrate all my force to this one Centre, I found that thereafter when I listened to music the rays and vibrations of the music streamed to this one fount of light within me - there they reflected themselves in Spiritual Vision, not the brain's mirror, but the soul's, and from this vision I could express them in Dance.


   This is Isadora (wherever she borrowed her terms) finding her way to the deep centre, the core, the dark source of all being, which Lawrence, also, demanded that we seek and live by. Both these modern prophets had the most unflinching belief in the positive power of the solar plexus and the unabateable flame in the womb. Each of them was concerned, above all, to assert the ideal ultimate of his own sexual principle, though both, sexually, were unhappy and forced to retreat into a phantasy: Isadora the matriarch (would-be) and Lawrence the would-be patriarch, the Masculine Protest and the Oedipus Complex. Both travelled over the world, endlessly seeking self-fulfilment in alien images of the self-ideal. Both found their only conceivable images in dead races, in museums: Isadora among the monuments of the Glory that was Greece, and Lawrence, with his wider field of reference, among the Etruscans.


   Both, in their questing, were anarchists, preachers of chaos, of a return to the gaseous mindlessness of the world's uncreated state. Both were anti-social. Both hated the conditions which had produced them and sought, not to change Civilisation's forms, but to escape into the primeval womb of Civilisation. Yet both returned to their place of birth. Lawrence came, at the end, to know that the only place of his salvation was his place of birth. He could not altogether desert the womb. And, after embracing every revolution and aristocratic counter-revolution in the world of her time and of the old world, Isadora yearned back to her origin and clamoured for the Dance of America.


In one of his moments of prophetic love for America, Walt Whitman said, "I hear America singing," and I can imagine the mighty song . . . from the surge of the Pacific, over the plains, the Voices rising of the vast Choral of children, youths, men and women singing Democracy. ... I, too, had a Vision: the Vision of America dancing a dance that would be the worthy expression of the song. ... It would have nothing to do with the sensual lilting of the Jazz rhythm: ... no rhythm from the waist down; but from the solar plexus, the temporal home of the soul, upwards to the Star-Spangled Banner of the sky which arches over that great stretch of land from the Pacific, over the Plains, over the Sierra Nevadas, over the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic.


I pray you, Young American Composer, create the music for the dance that shall express the America of Walt Whitman, the America of Abraham Lincoln. ... It is too mighty for the ears of most. But some day it will gush forth from the great stretches of earth, rain down from the vast sky spaces of stars, and the American will be expressed in some mighty music that will shape its chaos to Harmony.


And this dance will have nothing in it either of the servile coquetry of the ballet or the sensual convulsion of the South African negro. It will be clean. 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.


Why should our children bend the knee in that fastidious and servile dance, the Minuet, or twirl in the mazes of the false sentimentality of the Waltz? Rather let them come forth with great strides, leaps and bounds, with lifted foreheads and far-spread 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.


When the American children dance in this way, it will make of them Beautiful Beings worthy of the name of Democracy.


That will be America dancing.


   It will, indeed. It does seem, often, as though America has no antiseptic, at all, against the Bigger and Better, the Louder and Funnier. The important point is, though, that Isadora's Vision is paralleled with visions of New Britain, everywhere in Lawrence, till Mellors, Lady Chatterley's game-keeper lover, put the British Proletariat into scarlet tights, that would show the curve of leaping buttocks and the endless rippling of male muscle. But was it not, in both cases, personal regression to the womb? Salvation in the Derbyshire game-keeper, mastering the British Aristocracy, was the vision of David Herbert Lawrence, envisaging, from the womb, his own rebirth among his own people. And Isadora's was the Dance of America. America Dancing was the vision of Isadora Duncan Reborn. The two of them embodied, finally, the whole regressive lassitude of their generation.


   They were types of the lassitude. Their generation found a focus in them, for all its own regressive phantasies, and yearned to them, with their greater fullness and courage and heaviness. Both attracted to themselves great numbers of hysterical people. Both lived in a haze of adulation. Both were hunted down, at first, as pornographers (which they were, but in my special sense, only). Both have subsequently become text-books of sexual behaviour, Mrs. Grundies of the days before the Deluge. The similarity extends into the minutest details of the legend. Lawrence is remembered as one who healed the commonplace. People have rhapsodised on his way of washing dishes. Isadora, according to Sewell Stokes, was lovely, perhaps most lovely, when she snored, and Mary Desti sees her getting drunk as a lovely slow flowering into heavenly beatitude and beneficence, expanding, "like a flower, showering love on the whole world."


   Both, in fact, were more significant, finally, as persons than as artists. Both were archetypal persons, incarnating and thereby alleviating major dissatisfactions of their age. Lawrence is the more compelling. And the cause is almost wholly in his medium. I do not know—nobody will ever know—whether Isadora Duncan may not have had as delicate sensibility, as great a spiritual nature, as D. H. Lawrence. Perhaps she had. But the significant thing is that the use of words, symbols more or less exact, forced Lawrence to clarification of his vision and phantasy and spiritual perception. Whatever the value of his message, he did "put it across." But what has a message to do with the Dance? What has physical movement to do with expressing the spiritual? If "spiritual" means anything, it can only be used of dancing which is as formally clear as Music must always be, of bodily movement which has attained the final clarity of spirit. Spiritual values are the gradual distillation of a long process of Tradition. Isadora Duncan wanted to manufacture them impromptu, out of brief ecstasies, trailing clouds of loose emotional glory. She was striving to recreate the Light that Never Was through a body that all too substantially is.


   In their negative significance, also, in the efficiency of their anti-Traditionalism, Lawrence and Isadora are set apart by the nature of their media. Lawrence rejected the Intellect. Isadora rejected Ballet. And, in the two fields of Literature and the Dance, the two things are cognate. Ballet, as pure technique and as pure stylistic employment of technique, is very like what pure Intelligence is in Literature, what pure syntactical and metrical logic and form are in the making of Literature. Lawrence, in rejecting Intellect, used Intellect. He denounced pure Intelligence, renounced its possibilities for evil, in the most admirable employment and enjoyment of pure Intelligence. Finally, he did great service to Intellect, enriching it, and so to Literature, as a whole and with all it touches. Isadora could use no such means. She denounced Ballet, verbally, and danced her own way. If she had mastered Ballet, as Lawrence mastered pure Intelligence, she could have enriched it and done service to the Dance as a whole. Merely rejecting Ballet, she remains irrelevant to the Dance, except in negative senses.


   But perhaps we should look more closely at Isadora's relations with Ballet. The actual detail of Isadora's life has not been retraced beyond the return from the Grecian excursion to Bayreuth. Apart from the first Russian excursion, the direct confronting of Ballet, it is not necessary to retrace it any further. On the one hand, it is fairly familiar: the various lovers, the death of the children, the pitiful long mother-lover relation with the adolescent hooligan and rare poet, Sergei Essenin, the defection and final timely-tragic true femme-fatale death with her dancing shawl. On the other hand, it is irrelevant. In 1905, when she first went to Russia, Isadora Duncan was as nearly formed as she ever would be: which is to say, she was entered into the thick of her phantasy. And her art did not change, afterwards, so far as one can see. She relinquished it and returned to it, only, grew fat and grew thin, abandoned to it one new grief or joy and another and all the final lassitude. And she tried, continually, to form great schools, which never took the form she wanted them to. Contact with Isadora seemed to be enough to set her pupils off, having discovered  their solar plexus, to vaunt  their own  prophetic natures and spiritual missions. And that is all. But the direct confronting of Ballet is important, to an Apology for Dancing. Isadora  Duncan's objections to  Ballet are  pattern-objections for nearly all the modern world. This whole chapter should be read as a general defence of the Dance against the "spiritual" dancers, the inward dancers, the free, the natural, the prophetic and the aesthetic dancers, the personal phantasists and exhibitionists. We can look at Isadora's protest against Ballet, and then we can come, casually enough, to those mushroom forms of the Dance which were fertilised by her or in any of many ways reflect her




   The arrival in St. Petersburg was well timed. On January 5th, 1905, Nicolas II, cowering in the Winter Palace, permitted his guard to shoot down a mass of workers who had gathered without weapons, in the square below, to petition His Imperial Majesty for bread. Isadora Duncan arrived at dawn the following day, and was greeted by a long procession of coffin-bearers, up so early to bury their comrades before the disaffected city was awake. Isadora wept, in the black Russian dawn. If she had not seen it, she says, all her life would have been different. There, before  this  seemingly  endless  procession,  this  tragedy,  she vowed herself and her art to the service of the people and the down-trodden. Ah, how small and useless now seemed all her personal loves and sufferings! How useless even her art, unless it could help this. ... So Isadora Duncan drove on to her palatial suite at the Europa and cried herself to sleep. Soon her room was filled with flowers. Two nights later, she appeared before the elite of St. Petersburg, in the Salle des Nobles, and was acclaimed by the Grand Duke Michel. Kchessinskaya called on her, to welcome her, on behalf of the Russian Imperial Ballet, and then Pavlova. Isadora was ravished by the artistry of these two heavenly beings, creatures of the Classical Tradition, the Dancer at his highest pure glamour. Then Pavlova took her to supper, after Giselle, with Bakst, Benois, Diaghilev and all the elect spirits of the Russian Intelligentsia. And Isadora (forgetting everything but her line of talk) proceeded to inveigh against Ballet.


   She wanted Nature. She wanted the surge and lapping of the waves. She wanted the sapling trees, swaying in the breeze. She wanted to express—to be—these. She believed that the dawn and the sunset and the infinite wastes of the stars were lovelier, more rich in significance, than the choregraphic forms of Ballet. And so they are. In themselves they are more beautiful and more richly significant—at any rate, more impressive—than anything to be seen in a theatre. But that is hardly the point. To strive to recreate them, in human movement, in the Theatre, is not greatly different from wanting to recreate oak panelling in glazed wallpaper, silk hats in ash-trays or votive candles in the glowing of electric-light bulbs. The beauty of any natural happening or natural thing is its identity, its particularity, its unique and inimitable quality. And in its native context. . . . We don't want a classical Adagio on the high hill. We don't want the movement of lapping waves in the Theatre. In the Theatre, the theatrical—and only the theatrical—is natural. If you wish to reject the theatrical, then you must reject the Theatre. That is what Isadora did not understand. It is what the innumerable schools of free, soulful, natural and prophetic dancing do not understand. It is also, I am afraid, what a good many contemporary choregraphers, within Ballet, do not understand. They want to run everything into a formless whole. They want to run together the natural glamours of the Open Air (the poetical glamour of situation) and the artificial glamours of the Theatre and make themselves one comprehensive Fairyland.


   So, while enjoying in the highest degree the glamours of the Theatre, Isadora Duncan was able to turn out this line of talk. She was able to say that


The school of the ballet to-day, vainly striving against the natural laws of gravitation or the natural will of the individual, and working in discord in its form and movement with the form and movement of nature, produces a sterile movement which gives no birth to future movements, but dies as it is made.


The expression of the modern school of ballet, wherein each action is an end, and no movement, pose or rhythm is successive or can be made to evolve succeeding action, is an expression of degeneration, of living death. All the movements of our modern ballet school are sterile movements because they are unnatural: their purpose is to create the delusion that the law of gravitation does not exist for them.


And so on.. .. And finally this . . .


To those who nevertheless still enjoy the movements, for historical or choreographic or whatever other reasons, to those I answer: They see no farther than the skirts and tricots. But look—under the skirts, under the tricots are dancing deformed muscles. Look still farther—underneath the muscles are deformed bones. A deformed skeleton is dancing before you. This deformation through incorrect dress and incorrect movement is the result of the training necessary to the ballet.


The ballet condemns itself by enforcing the deformation of the beautiful woman's body! No historical, no choreographic reasons can prevail against that!


It is the mission of all art to express the highest and most beautiful ideals of man. What ideals does the ballet express?


No, the dance was once the most noble of all arts; and it shall be again. From the great depths to which it has fallen, it shall be raised. The dancer of the future shall attain so great a height that all other arts shall be helped thereby.


To express what is the most moral, healthful and beautiful in art—this is the mission of the dancer and to this I dedicate my life.


   When, in fact, they were not merely temperamental, Isadora's objections to Ballet were moral, not aesthetic. At her most serious (getting out of her phantasy), she was concerned with what is humane, what ought to be, what improves and uplifts, in the most obvious senses; and, if you have moralistic feelings first, whether particularly, about dancing, or generally, about living, then you must, ultimately, reject Ballet and follow on from Isadora. If you are concerned, however, with beauty and sheerness and the subduing power of movement that is superhuman enough to be slightly terrifying, then Ballet will seem to you the only dancing. Supposing Isadora—on "deformation"—to be right in more than an infinitesimal degree (which, of course, she is not), it will seem to you proper that human bodies should sweat and ache, in the Classroom, and even become, for ordinary human purposes, constricted, reduced, perhaps, even ugly, so long as movement in the Theatre is more beautiful, sheer and compulsive. Reverting, again, to Tradition. ... A definitely "immoral" aspect is heightened in all art—in all life, for that matter- by the strong operation of Tradition. Tradition is something, always, of its own nature, to be struggled against. That is a large part of its function.



Isadora Duncan in "La Marseillaise" (1915). "The school of the ballet of today, vainly striving against the natural laws of gravitation or the natural will of the individual, and working in discord in its form and movement with the form and movement of nature, produces a sterile movement which gives no birth to future movements but dies as it is made." (Duncan) "When, in fact, they were not merely temperamental, Isadora's objections to Ballet were moral, not aesthetic ... if you have moralistic feelings first, whether particularly about dancing, or generally, about living, then you must, ultimately reject Ballet and follow on from Isadora. If you are concerned, however, with beauty and sheerness and the subduing power of movement that is superhuman enough to be slightly terrifying, then Ballet will seem to you the only dancing." (Heppenstall)


The value of Tradition is fundamentally in the rich and fruitful conflicts and tensions set up between itself and the free human being. That is why continuous Religious Tradition, for instance, is spiritually necessary. And when either side yields or is violated, life becomes very poor and weak. By a violation of Tradition, we get Hollywood ethics and the welter of nasty Nonconformist sects. On the other hand, when the free individual life lets Tradition drain off all its energies, we get the hideous spectacle presented, almost unanimously, by the older generation in polite society. We get the incredible symbolic figure-it still exists, though!-of the withered old lady, with her scrutinising lorgnette. In Religion, we get a self-contained and inwardly sufficient churchy pietism which must certainly be as distasteful to God as it is to the unwithered creature. We get the Royal Academy. We get the verse of Mr. Alfred Noyes. And these things, also, have their equivalents in the Dance.


But, even in purely physical terms, there is no strong beauty without strong tensions and conflicts. The leaping of a powerful animal is beautiful, but it is a beauty which soon reduces, when repeatedly presented, in different sets of conditions, to a commonplace. Its trajectory, for instance, is not much different from that of an alighting bird, a javelin or a cannon-ball. I think the loveliest single movement I ever saw- certainly the most "unnatural," certainly terrible, certainly immoral- was that of a chained and ravenous animal. The chain being equated, I suppose, with Tradition. On a very hot day, in the Schwarzwald, it was a lean and exasperated Great Dane, sheltering and sweltering in the barn-door of an inn, with its unusually long chain coiled by it. As two of us, tired and thirsty, came up to the inn (we had not seen the dog), it came out at us with a terrific howl, four or five yards out, two or three yards up, was caught and swung round in mid-air, at the length of its chain, and dragged back, by the tremendous recoil of its own power, with an amazing luscious planetary curve, crashing and shrieking against the barnwall, making the whole building and the baked earth shudder. No doubt, it was painful for the dog. It was also frightening for two human beings. But the pain and the fright did not last long. The moment's grip and rip of terrible beauty is indestructible.


   Or is that only "the curious local callousness of the artist"? Am I, in any case, taking too much trouble over Isadora? Was she not just a rather silly, rather vulgar, rather adorable woman, possessed of enormous energy? She is dead and done with. Let her rest. And so on. ... But Isadora Duncan's importance for the present situation in the Dance cannot be exaggerated. It is not so much her direct influence, though the young Michel Fokine was given a tremendous initial impetus by her theories. It is rather that the same vicious demands of the age which brought her to the surface are also dominating Ballet, independently. Ballet people, when they speak of her now, and of her successors, laugh at her and at them, heartily enough. But it remains fact that, for the most part, they themselves are demanding, from the Dance, just the same kinds—and sometimes, even, inferior kinds—of extrinsic and illegitimate satisfactions. Pure Style is at a discount, everywhere, in Ballet no less than in the innumerable kinds of Free Dancing. ... In the meantime, the schools of Free Dancing   themselves   are   numerous   enough and   dangerous enough. Every small-town teacher of dancing has her own particular brand of Freedom. And I believe that there are even more small-town teachers of dancing in America than in this country.


America, certainly, produced Ted Shawn, and, if you do still think that Ballet is cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd and bound up with dead conventions, or suspect that Free Dancing may be either dancing or free; if you believe that Sturm und Drang is nobler than Moonlight and Muslin, or can argue that self-expression is different from exhibitionism; if, in fact, you would assert the claims of the Soul . . . then you should not miss the earliest opportunity that presents itself of watching this gentleman dance. Ted Shawn and his Ensemble of Men Dancers, done up in jock straps and shaven chests, almost fulfil, I should imagine, Isadora's vision of America Dancing. It is true that these limber lads, when they came to London, did not impress the Great British as they have impressed the Great American Public, so that to be heartily rude about them is unnecessary, as well as not cricket. But what our surprisingly sceptical critics did not well understand is that the perspiration of these young huskies is the ultimate essence of all Freedom in the Dance. If you want precision, speed and beautiful line—which is to say, if you will have dancing—then you must get it through all the rigours of the classical Ballet technique. Reject these, in favour of no matter what Romanticism, and, finally you will get Mr. Shawn, standing up and lying down, suffering, agonising inwardly, sweating, with cumulative profusion, for twenty minutes or so, to communicate, through his eyes and hair, the intestinal passion of a spurious John Brown in the face of an altogether non-existent or at least invisible Glory. Even within the apparent confines of Ballet, sweat down a monster like Union Pacific, and you will get something like Mr. Shawn's March of the Proletariat, repeated later, with the addition of hats and an impression of clothes, as Cutting the Sugar Cane.


   That dancing is no concern of the Ted Shawns of this world is shown clearest, perhaps, in the one important Ballet movement these dancers have adopted: a leaping circle of grands jetes—in which, however, the arms, pressed romantically back, behind the face (which they should frame), would break the heart of the most indifferent sculptor, let alone any Master of Ballet. And this, I suppose, is what all criticism of Free Dancers reduces to; that they do not dance. But let me not be thought to be blind to admirable effort. I have the greatest respect for the work of Margaret Morris, for instance, though she derives from Isadora more directly than any other school. Her remedial work, her work in athletic training, is, some of it, excellent. And I should be happy to see her courses substituted in public elementary schools, for the physical jerks—all too literally, jerks—of the present Government syllabuses. More than that… Isadora Duncan was partly right in her argument that the Ballet training has a tendency to deform, at least, the bodies of children. A too early start in Ballet is vicious, in the case of all but the strongest children. Yet, if we are to have great dancers, there must be some training from the earliest years. And, if a national scheme were worked out, incorporating a good deal of Margaret Morris's work, there would, at the school-leaving age, be such a wealth of material for the true schools of the Dance as has never been dreamt of. Even Dalcroze Eurhythmies has its pedagogic justification. Only, these kinds of work, in practice, are useless for the Theatre.


   And the work of Kurt Jooss—to some extent, also, that of the Central Europeans proper—escapes most of my criticisms of Free Dancing. The Jooss Dancers are fundamentally concerned to evolve a technique for the Theatre, not to exhibit themselves. Though there is not the cumulative force of centuries of Tradition, yet there is, here, something of the impersonality of Ballet itself. The basic argument against Kurt Jooss is, simply, that he has not made up his mind whether it is Drama or the Dance that he is concerned with. And that is an argument against most specifically modern work in the World of Ballet, too. . . .


   A certain Impersonality—which means, in essence, Responsibility—must also be allowed to such as La Argentina (Antonia Merce), though they dance alone and are celebrated, primarily, as unique theatrical personalities. Dancers of markedly national character cannot be accused of exhibitionism. However individual their techique, they have, behind them, a Tradition older than that of true Ballet, which preserves their work from the indulgence of private Phantasy. Argentina is quite spurious, in some senses. The work she arranges to the music of Granados, Albeniz, de Falla (themselves rather spurious composers), is not nearly what it pretends to be. But she has, I think, a finer sense of the Theatre than any other dancer I have seen. Her personality has been worth all that miraculously careful stage-management. And her tricks cannot cover over that impressive strangeness of the forms of the Spanish Dance, which consists in an intricate fusion of Eastern and Western characteristics: the incoiling cas-tafiet-hypnotic incantatory structure of the Eastern Dance overlaid, as it seems, with the flaunting outwardness of the West, of the Bases of Ballet, with the two interplaying as intimately as the elements of a split personality. Still, failing a real Flamenco on his native heath, I prefer my Spanish entirely Westernised and stylised, in Ballet, where it entered in Petipa's hey-day and where, more recently, it has found a new importance as the evident basis of Massine's peculiar heroic manner.


   But then the whole simple truth about Free Dancing, is that there can be no such thing as Free Dancing. The human body is one mass of resistances, which are only partially broken down by a life's devotion to sustained principles of muscular technique. The Dancer must always be concerned, supremely, with muscle, not soul, not expression, not literary significance. Let me repeat the most fundamental grounds of my position.


   Man, in his natural state, plainly, is a thoroughly unsatisfactory piece of work: in form, in moving, far from express and admirable, as a rule, and much less like an angel, in action, then a well-bred whippet is. ... And Ballet, fundamentally, is an attempt to defeat this fact, to reveal Man as, also, "an infinite reservoir of possibilities," which, however, needs Tradition and Organisation, as the commoner kind of reservoir needs filters and drain-pipes. ... It is a struggle between a wastefully complex muscular system, designed for a limited range of animal acts and offices, and the economy, the simplicity, in line and mass, of the postures and movements—the Physical Ideas—to which his body, as a material of Art, aspires. And the result is not a triumph of Mind over Matter, but the emergence of non-cerebral Matter into such a condition of subtlety and sensibility that it can itself be called Mind.


   For all Art, all Creation, is the end of a powerful and sustained love-pact between the Artist and his Material: his words, his musical tones, his pigments. There is courtship, long and difficult and delicate wooing, and the final-seeming creative act of love, which is never final. It shows clearest, perhaps, in Sculpture. The sculptor has to know every grain, every fibre, every substantial principle—the textures, the hot and cold, the humidities, the masses, the qualities of biting back on the chisel: all the resistances and all the potentialities—of the single block of wood or stone, before he can be fully ready and fit for the fruitful act of loving rape which satisfies himself and fulfils the material. It is the pattern of sexual love. It is the pattern of religious experience, where the soul is possessed and enjoyed and fulfilled by God.


   The Dancer is hermaphrodite, in this. He commits rape and begets lovely forms in his own body, with continual increase of power. His material, the field of his creative experience, is his own muscular and nervous being. And his fulfilment is in the externalised joy of movement, the release, the building up of inherent tensions into a powerful system of release. This is the only true freedom. It is the kind of joy and freedom we call dancing. Not the joy of an inward, an unprotected ecstasy, which can only be communicated through erotic empathy and sympathy between the Dancer and the onlooker.... This is not Freedom. It may be a good kind of licence, but Freedom is a more difficult thing. It has to be achieved, as the end-product of a long and usually painful process. ...



















Legacy / Excerpts






Sachs, Curt: Europe since Antiquity. Isadora Duncan


Monday the 22nd. . Isadora Duncan Pundect
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