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Eva Palmer-Sikelianos


Eva Palmer-Sikelianos (1874-1952). American scholar and hellenist, working on the ancient Greek drama and Byzantine music. She organized, together with her husband, renowned Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos, the two Delphic Feasts and she directed several Greek dramas


Text from her autobiography Upward panic, edited by John Anton, Philadelphia, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1963.



  Isadora, the meteor, blazed through the world of her time as the personification of Greece. But she herself disclaimed this.

  Toward the end of her first visit to Greece, she went one night to the Acropolis alone. She felt it was for the last time. Her dreams had burst like a glorious bubble, and the realization swept over her that she and her people were moderns, and nothing else; perhaps more nearly related to the red-Indians, or to the Scotch-Irish than to the Greeks; and the remembered chords of Isolde's death-song were what consoled her.

  This was at the beginning of her career. Toward the end of her book she describes her own amusement when people called her dancing Greek. She tells how, to her, the adventures of her grandparents were the origin of it when they crossed the American plains in a covered wagon, and when, in the midst of a battle with the Indians, her own father was born.

  This Pioneer spirit, together with the gestures of the Red-Skins, crept, she says, into the Irish jigs, and Irish songs which her grandmother taught her; and to this also, through another grandfather, was added a touch of Yankee Doodle, during the Civil War. These elements she considers the real foundation of her dance.


  Nevertheless, consciously or unconsciously, Isadora fooled us all. When Mrs. Pat Campbell said to me: "Oh, there's a new dancer! But I will not tell you her name because you would go off your head about her," she went on to tell me that it was like a Greek vase come to life. Mrs. Campbell said nothing, thought nothing, none of us did, about Irish jigs, or American Indian gestures, or Yankee Doodle. That was in London, shortly after Mrs. Campbell had discovered Isadora dancing one day in St. James' Park. We all saw her afterwards: Her "Narcissus" and "Ophelia", her "Water Nymphs", and her truly beautiful "Death and the Maiden"; Mendelssohn's "Spring Song", Chopin waltzes, Glück's "Orphée", etc., etc., and we all felt that the shackles of the world were loosened, that liberation was ahead of us all.

  But it was liberation in terms of Greek vases, not of Irish jigs. And this impression went on for years, in fact forever, while Isadora lived. What she did was always connected with Greek vases and Greek bas-reliefs; and only gradually, after a number of years of unquestioning gratitude for what she brought us, one began to date the vases which were evoked by her dancing. As familiarity with these increased, it became evident that the strong invocation of Isadora's art brought to life a period which was not archaic Greece, not classic Greece, but Greece in a later decadent period. In fact, what we were seeing and raving over was Hellenistic bas-relief, or a Southern Italian vase come to life.


  "My arms are never still," she wrote, "but continually waving about in soft undulations." This was true. Her arms were beautiful, and the soft undulations were infinitely charming to a world which knew only the tiresome stiffness of the ballet; but there is not a single example of any work of Greek art before the fourth century which resembles Isadora's dancing.

  It was always flowing. Even in powerful dances like her "Marche Slave" and her Chopin "Polonaise", the lines of her body went into curves. She always faced her audience frankly, head and chest in the same direction. There was never the powerful accent of a strong angle, and never the isolating effect of keeping the head in profile with the chest "en face" which is characteristic of archaic Greek art. Even in moving around the outside circle of the stage, it was always straight ahead, more like a child running, with none of the pause and power which are added by what I have called the Apollonian movement in the dance.


  But Isadora was right. With the means at her disposal, especially with the music she had, anything else but what she actually did would have been highly inappropriate. And so the more recent schools of dancing, which are still circumscribed by the same limitations to which Isadora was subject, but which nevertheless adopted a series of strained and angular poses, give one the impression of mechanical dolls compared to the inspired creations of Isadora.


  As far as I know, the type of movement I am referring to as Apollonian was used first, in modern times, by Mounet Sully in his performance of Oedipe Roi. Isadora has described it. Her ecstatic eulogy expresses what all Paris was feeling. She and Raymond had secured seats in the very top gallery of the huge old Trocadero, but they did not expect what was ahead of them. Up in the tribunes, they caught their breath and grew pale: never, in any country, not even antiquity, had there been such a voice. But to her, the supreme moment was when Mounet Sully danced: "the great heroic figure dancing." And she then realized that the great revelation of art had been given to her. From that moment she knew her way.


  After that day, Isadora and Raymond, with the inspiration they had received from the great French actor, seem to have gone ahead in different ways. To Isadora it proved to be a powerful, fruitful, but rather indefinite influence. She caught the spirit of its greatness, and went ahead according to the way she felt it. But Raymond saw the applicability in the theatre of these ancient Greek poses, which he had himself been copying in the Louvre; and later, when he formed classes of his own, he taught angular movements copied from archaic vases.

  Since then many others have done this, but the results are not inspiring because, in order to manifest their full power, these highly accented movements require the inspiration and the basic rhythm of language. These innovators forget that all through Oedipe Roi Mounet Sully was using his gorgeous voice which, Isadora thought, had not been excelled even in the greatest days of Sophocles. And they forget his stupendous silences.


  Isadora was wiser. She let the ascendancy of Mounet Sully's genius engulf her. She did not try to copy him, or to copy a Greek vase, or anything else. The path she followed was inside herself.


  She has described her search for that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement: how she would stand still for hours, her hands folded between her breasts, covering the solar plexus; the alarm of her mother to see her motionless for so long, as in a trance, while she sought, and finally discovered, what she calls the creator of power, the unity from which all diversions of movement are born; and how, after many months, when she had learned how to concentrate all her force on this Centre, she found, in listening to music, that the rays and vibrations of the music streamed to this one fount of light within her, and how a presence of mighty power seemed to be reaching through her whole body, trying to find an outlet for this listening. And Stanislawsky quotes what she once said to visitors who had crowded to her dressing-room: that she could not dance that way, that she must have time, before going on the stage, to place a motor in her soul, and that only when that motor began to work her whole body would move independently of her will.


  All this was true. Often I have seen Isadora stand quite motionless before large audiences for quite a long spell, with her hands over her solar plexus, in the manner she describes. Then, when she gave the sign for starting, she really had "placed a motor in her soul," and from then on her dancing gave the impression of being involuntary on her part. It was purely Dionysian: that was why the world was at her feet.


  In the preface to the quite thrilling book called Isadora Duncan's Russian Days by Irma Duncan and Allen Ross MacDougall, the authors have written: "Unthinking people were confused about Isadora Duncan; so she seemed to them extraordinary and inconstant. They did not, or could not understand that, in her body, hazard had united two different people: the woman and the artist." This is true. But, apart from the contradictions and inconsistencies to which they here refer, there was another which, as far as I know, has not been spoken of or even noticed. One may throw light on it by a reference to the men whom she called her masters. They were Whitman, Beethoven, Wagner and Nietzsche. Taking each one of these separately, it is clear that Whitman chose expression in words, and his medium was adequate; Beethoven chose expression in music, and his medium was adequate; Wagner chose a combination of these two arts which was satisfactory to himself and his followers; but Nietzsche attempted a reconstruction of ancient Greek drama in terms of Beethoven and Wagner, and the result for himself was madness, and for the world more misunderstanding of this master's purpose.

  Of all four of these great men, the one nearest to Isadora's spirit was Nietzsche. Both he and she were predominantly Dionysian in spirit, and both were facing the same problem which remained insoluble to both. Nietzsche imagined millions prostrated in the dust to the music of Beethoven's "Hymn to Joy," and called it Greek drama. Isadora, following him, was passionately attached to all of Beethoven, especially to the Ninth Symphony. She attempted practically, just as he had attempted imaginatively, to fuse Beethoven's music with a huge dancing chorus; and so his gallant ship and hers both foundered on the same reef.


  From the moment when Walter Damrosch had the remarkable inspiration to invite her to dance with his orchestra, (and those were perhaps the happiest days of her life) to the very end in Russia, where she often nearly starved in order to have an orchestra play for her, especially when she was dancing for the very poor to whom she always strove to give the very best, to her the richest possibility in life was fulfilled in dancing with a great orchestra. Her constant dream was to get the masses in all countries to dance:


  I see America dancing, standing 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 with a crown of a million stars.


  The hyperbole is at least frank, but it does express her ever dominant passion:


  I want to dance for the masses..., and I want to dance for them for nothing." From the beginning I conceived the dance as a chorus or community expression... I so ardently hoped to create an orchestra of dancers that, in my imagination, they already existed."


  Ever and forever in all countries, she wanted to make all the children dance. This was her truest, most constant longing. Her dream of having them all dance the Ninth Symphony haunted her during the whole of her life. But poor Isadora knew to her sorrow that orchestras are an expensive luxury. A very little straight reasoning would have convinced her that her two ideals do not dwell in the same promised land. Orchestras cannot play on the highest point of the Rockies, or even in fields, or in any place out of doors where workmen are apt to gather.

  A violin will not recover from a thunder-storm with the elasticity of a human body; it is eminently an indoor testimony of man's aspirations, and its range is properly limited to small concert halls. But workmen carry about with them the greatest of all orchestras: their human voices. Why did Isadora never discover this? She seemed always on the verge of it. Twice it was actually in her hands. Yet she died without ever looking Apollo, the Sun, in the face.


  Her first chance was in the beginning of her career. She and her family were sitting in the theatre of Dionysos. They heard


  "a shrill boy's voice soaring into the night with that pathetic unearthly quality which only boys' voices have. Suddenly it was joined by another voice and another. They were singing some old Greek songs of the country. We sat enraptured. Raymond said: "This must be the tone of the boys' voices of the old Greek chorus."


  Raymond was right. But none of them knew how this discovery could be used. After that, out of many street urchins, they collected ten; and, with the help of a Greek seminarist, they fitted, or tried to, Aeschylean words to some Greek popular, and also some ecclesiastical, songs. Penelope was there at the time, and she told me afterwards, in Neuilly, of the agonizing efforts which she and the seminarist made to square the words of The Suppliants to these chosen tunes.

  Penelope was very young at the time, but she was right in feeling that they were putting the cart before the horse: the music being the cart. None of them guessed, though Penelope knew it well later, that instead of resorting to the barbaric and completely unGreek make-shift of patching together an ancient tragic chorus and peasant tunes composed for other and altogether different words, they should have studied the Greek musical system still surviving in those songs which had caught their attention, and then composed music of their own.

  The upshot of it was that they took these unfortunate boys to Germany to form a chorus for The Suppliants. Isadora described these performances. In Vienna, in Munich and Berlin they received her chorus coldly, and interrupted her speeches about the reconstruction of Greek choruses, with shouts demanding the Beautiful Blue Danube, which always brought down the house. In one of these speeches which she quotes, we gather, through her truly Duncanesque medley of German and English, that the ten boys remained motionless on the stage and sang, while she herself impersonated the fifty Danaides; and she apologized to her audience: she was "furchtbar traurig" that she was only one, but "patience, Geduld" and she would soon found a school and transform herself into "fifty kleine Mädchen." But the cries redoubled for the Schöne Blaue Donau.


  If, instead of these rather pitiful performances, Isadora had let Aeschylus alone, if she had allowed her ten Greek boys to sing the songs they knew, and had taught them to express what they were singing in movement, with herself as chorus-leader, Koryphaios, she would have had a true beginning for a Greek chorus; and her audiences would then not have shouted for the Blue Danube. Moreover, at that time, she had Penelope with her for about a year.

  But she never knew through her whole life that her sister-in-law was the personification of Greek music. Perhaps Penelope never sang for her because she sang for very few people. But if Isadora had had the slightest inkling of what Penelope really was, she would have followed, at least in sympathy, the necessary course: of learning the Method which underlies what those Greek boys were singing that night in the Theatre of Dionysos.

  And later Penelope herself would have been well able to show her the only possibility left us of producing The Suppliants or any other Greek play with approximate accuracy, at least in spirit: not by attempting to fit ancient words to existing popular songs, but by making these ancient words the basis for new Greek melodies composed in a Method which the Greeks always have used.


  Isadora's second chance was in Russia, just before she left there, toward the end of her life:


  During her visits to the Sports Arena, Isadora noticed that the children, like their older comrades, the soldiers, always marched to and from the grounds to the tune or revolutionary songs sung in ch0rus. The thought came to her that she might compose dances to the tunes, and have the children dance to them, just as she had taught them to dance the Internationale, singing at the same time the words which their movements expressed.


  One afternoon, in a burst of inspiration, she accordingly composed seven dances to the various revolutionary songs sung daily by the soldiers and children... These dances... which the girls of Isadora have since danced all over Russia, across Siberia, and in the larger towns of China, are amazing in their effect on the audience. (Of course they are!) Quite apart from their revolutionary significance, they are all imbued with real plastic beauty. Several of them... are choreographic chefs-d'oeuvres. They rank with the great dancer's greatest compositions.


  I never saw these Russian revolutionary dances; but I can say confidently that they were, in the method followed, the only truly Greek things which Isadora ever created; and also the only things which showed the way to a unification of her two contradictory ideals. Here, at last, after all her striving, she had a method, she had a chorus, she had what she had longed for: "an orchestra of dancers." Nevertheless, very shortly after this, in Nice, she was again dreaming of instrumental orchestras, and actually making desperate efforts to obtain a pianist for a new start for her school.

   The magnificent impetus which she had inspired in the very end of her stay in Russia, and almost by chance, seems to have made no impression on her at all. She slipped back again immediately to her old dependence on orchestras and pianists: Glück again, Chopin, Beethoven, Wagner, who had all forced her, quite against their own intention, back to the dance as "Thing-in-itself."


  I never knew Isadora well. Once I met her in Paris in the early days: and once when she was dancing in Bayreuth. Then, later, the following incident occurred, which I record as a slight addition to the Isadoriana. It was after the loss of her children. She was passing through Athens, and I went to see her to express, or try to, what the whole world was feeling. She asked me to lunch with her, and during lunch she told me the prelude to the tragedy. She had been on tour in Russia, and all the way she kept seeing funerals, children's funerals, which often blocked her way.

  She arrived back in Paris, and there, on entering her bed-room, which she had left in the hands of an interior decorator to have it made over, but without giving any detailed orders, she found that he had painted all the wood-work black; and that on two doors, which were just opposite her bed, he had painted on each a white cross. On the day of the tragedy, she went out of the house to say good-bye to her children who were starting off with their governess on an excursion. They were already inside the fatal automobile, and the window-glass was closed. She went quite close, and Deirdre put her lips to the glass to kiss her; at that moment Isadora felt that the sea was between them, and that the child was drowning.


  "But why," I said, "when you had so many premonitions, did you not realize that you were being warned?"


  "Oh," she said, "I told the doctor, and he said that my nerves were unbalanced, and advised me to take some pills, which I did."


  After this conversation, Isadora admired extravagantly an Indian moon-stone that I was wearing on a pendant, round my neck. It was a very large cabochon, and had, under the moonlight colour, a bright sun-ray. I had worn it for many years, and it was a gift from my mother; but I felt that at that moment, if anything could make Isadora any happier, it was right for her to have it. So I gave her my stone.


  After about a year or so I received a telegram from her that she was returning to Athens specially to see me. She was wearing my stone when I saw her, but she took it off immediately and said she had come from Paris to give it back to me.


  "Never," she said, "in my life have I had such terrible luck as with this stone."


  I listened to this statement with a sort of shock, because I knew nothing about her life in the meantime. It was hard to imagine any worse misfortune than she had suffered in the loss of her two children before I gave her my stone. But afterwards, when I read her tragic account of the loss of her third baby, I understood what she meant.


  "Your stone," she went on, "is alive. It hates me and brings me only evil. It will bring evil to everybody but you. It has forced me to bring it back to you."


  "My soul was like a battle-field where Apollo, Dionysos, Christ, Nietzsche and Richard Wagner disputed the ground."


  Poor divided Isadora! But neither she, nor anyone else, has seen that these many ethical divergences that wrenched her in different ways all sprang from a primal split whose centre was not the often remarked inconsistency between her life and her art, but a deep-seated inconstancy in her art itself. Isadora, as artist, was completely sincere. She never deviated from the ideal which she herself had conceived as a child; and she suffered many hardships, often with heroic fortitude in the face of material temptations, to keep her ideal pure. And keep it she did until her death. There is therefore no question of conscious moral weakness in the split I am referring to. She did not know it herself, and she is therefore immune from responsibility in regard to it.


  Isadora was not merely a dancer, and this she knew well herself. "What a mistake to call me a dancer!" She was a revolutionist, a reformer: not in politics, but in the specific weight of human beings; she was against the downward tendency and physical lethargy of bodies; and her dearest wish for the world was that she might bring her message, not to the few but to millions; not to the rich, but to the poor. And here was the psychic bond between Isadora and her Greek manifestation in dancing. It was fatal that her outward expression resembled a Greek bas-relief, and not an Irish jig, because Greek dancing is the upward dancing of the world; and because the Greeks alone made dancing not the specialty of a few but the universal accomplishment of a nation. That was her dream, and she could no more fail to turn toward Greece with her body, whatever her mind may have been prattling about Irish jigs, than a bird can avoid flying in the air instead of walking on the earth.


  Along side of this she was passionately devoted to the vast swelling resonance of great orchestras: "I am the magnetic centre to convey the emotional expression of the orchestra. From my soul sprang fiery rays to connect me with my trembling vibrating orchestra."


  Here is the original clash, the primal split of which Isadora herself was unconscious. If she had been concerned primarily with her personal success as a dancer she had her chance after her first appearance with Walter Damrosch. She had created a new form of art; the world was interested; she herself was ecstatically happy in feeling herself, as she says, the magnetic centre of her vibrating orchestra. With a little clever management she could have gone on in the way as a soloist for the rest of her life; from city to city, from one orchestra to another, producing new interpretations of orchestral works.

  But Isadora was not a soloist: "What a mistake to call me a dancer!" She was first of all a revolutionist against the lethargy of bodies. She dreamed of schools, of nations dancing. The orchestra of musicians was not enough for her; she wanted also an orchestra of dancers: and she wanted to dance for and with the poor.


  There is complete physical incompatibility between orchestras and large-scale activity in dancing. There is first and always will be the economic obstacle from which she suffered all her life: orchestras are and will be expensive. They are cumbersome, and have to arranged for beforehand, with seats, housing facilities, with fixed dates, and what-not, thus destroying the natural spontaneity of dancing, and orchestras are normally connected with enclosed spaces, whereas the education of the masses will ultimately gravitate, in any climate, toward the open air.


  Build for them, she said, a great Amphitheatre, the only democratic form of theatre, where everyone has an equal view, no boxes or balconies and - look at the gallery up there - do you think it is right to put human beings on the ceiling, like flies, and then ask them to appreciate Art and Music?


  But a true Amphitheatre precludes a place for hiding an orchestra. It asks only for human beings expressing simultaneously, with all their faculties, the meaning, the melody, and the movement. Its raison d'être is poetry. Everything else is out of place. Poetry, music and gymnastics, Plato's triad, with the gorgeous sound of men's voices, far surpassing any instruments ever invented, these are the foundation of the education of millions, for which Isadora so passionately longed. But she was far from it.

  Like Nietzsche, she was trying to make living values fit into formulas which were too small. The result, for him, was madness; and for her, it was profound inconsistency in her very essence, which was her art, and this automatically caused division in her mind and life. This is why Isadora's art was Hellenistic in character. In archaic Greece there was no such thing as dancing by itself. This only developed later, and was encouraged, not in religious functions, but rather in drinking parties, such as Plato described in the Symposium.


  If Isadora could have seen the way to true liberation of the masses, and been able to throw into it her wonderful vitality, to see the human race caught up little by little in ever broadening melody and rhythm and movement; to see her own ideal of America come true, her own ideal of Russia come true; to see her own followers, not as what she called "[My] imitators who had all become saccharine and sweet syrup, promulgating that part of my work which they are pleased to call 'harmonious and beautiful!' but omitting anything the sterner, omitting, in fact, the mainspring and real meaning": but strong supporters and inventors themselves, because their basis would have been strong: would not her personal life have assumed a noble consistency if she had walked on this rock foundation of Greek education?


  And when the great tragedy was stalking her, would she not have trusted her own premonitions, and, instead of taking pills for her nerves, would she not have grasped Deirdre from the fatal death-trap when, with the child's kiss through the window-pane, she felt the sea rolling between them?





Saturday the 24th. . Isadora Duncan Pundect
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