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Texts / Elizabeth Kendall

 

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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Tuesday the 19th. . Isadora Duncan Pundect
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