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Articles / Margot Fonteyn



Margot Fonteyn
Dance experimental


     People called her a great artist—a Greek goddess— but she was nothing of the kind. She was something quite different from anyone or anything else.

Gordon Craig


      Isadora Duncan is more difficult to describe, explain, categorize, or summarize than any other dancer, even the mysterious Nijinsky. She does not lit into any category because she was a poet of motion. A poet uses the words we all know and, following his own inspira­tion, creates a language personal only to him. That is what Isadora did with human move­ment. In a way, ridiculous as it sounds, she was not interested in what goes by the name of "dancing.” Dancing has rules. It has steps, movements of the legs, hopping, changing weight; even the most primitive dances are composed of certain repetitions which, no mat­ter how simple, constitute steps. When it comes to folk dancing, the steps begin to exist for their own sake, but Isadora had not the least interest in such distinctions, and the most highly developed technique of all, that of ballet, she abhorred.

     We make the mistake of thinking of her in terms of theatre because dance now is exclusively a matter of entertainment. Whether presented on a stage or enjoyed spontaneously in a nightclub, it belongs to our leisure hours, certainly not to our religious life or material survival. Isadora tried to return dance to its original spiritual purpose, but to dis­seminate it through the then available channels. I doubt that she was ever fully aware of this conflict. She would dance as readily in a salon or garden as on a stage; the location was of minor importance because she was not a theatre artist except in the sense that temples or churches in early history were the "theatres” of community life. But that was long before the modern stage, framed in its proscenium arch, created its own rules for making a genu­ine truth out of artificiality by means of technique and art.

     In the modem sense of theatre Isadora was an amateur. She saw nothing incongruous in explaining with words what she had tried to express in her dance if she thought the audience had not grasped her message. It did not bother her that theatre convention expects the performance to stand or fall on its own merit, and explanations to be confined to the program notes—she was on a different track altogether. Her theatre should have been a temple, as she sought the ''divine expression of the human spirit” and what she called the truth of my being.”

     This truth was compounded more of emotion than anything else; instinct was her guide, while logic and reason were but passing visitors. She wanted to become nature itself, to be the sky, the waves, the breeze, not to transmute them by any known formula of art. So she had to invent her own formula. She had to find how she herself would run or skip if joy motivated that reaction, how she herself would bow down if sorrow crushed her; then she used those movements and gestures as her dance steps. Such people as Isadora—one of a kind—seem to appear in the world without rhyme or reason. It is possible that we are aware of them only when their appearance coincides with a period that is ready for them, as was her case. It is possible that twenty years earlier or later no one would have been interested in her message—or perhaps she herself would have communicated it in a different way; who can tell? In any event, she was born at the right time, in 1878, and California was probably the best place for her to grow up because both the climate and the intellectual atmosphere induced a certain freedom of movement and thought.

     Isadora’s father deserted the family early on. and her mother struggled to support the four children, two sons and two daughters, by teaching music. Of the four, Isadora was the one who gained most from the combination of a Scottish father and Irish mother; she had beauty of face and form, inherent musicality, a generous heart, and all the compelling charm of the Irish that makes others follow wherever they lead. As a child she had no hesi­tation in teaching her younger playmates to dance, regardless of the fact that she knew next to nothing about it herself. Later on it was only natural that the whole family would be swept off to Chicago, New York, and Europe in pursuit of Isadora’s compulsion to dance in her own way. She believed that Hellenic Greece held the key to that secret of movement she desired, so, as soon as her initial impact on Europe had brought in a small nest egg of money, the Duncan family continued via Venice, and thence, following ecstatically but in considerable discomfort the route of Ulysses, to Athens. It was 1903. Isadora had reached the age of twenty­five without encountering love. She did not need it—her vitality and emotions were entirely absorbed in her quest.

      Their first Athenian dawn found all five Duncans ascending the Acropolis and beholding with mystical reverence the overwhelming and lofty perfection of the Parthenon. They had, in Isadora’s words, " gained that secret middle place from which radiates in vast circles all knowledge and beauty.” Now her task was to capture that beauty.

      For the last jour months each day I have stood before this miracle of perfection wrought of human hands . . . and I did not dare move, for I realized that of all the movements my body had made none was worthy to be made before a Doric Temple. And as I stood thus I realized that I must find a dance whose effect was to be worthy of this Temple— or never dance again. . . . For many days no movement came to me. Ami then one day came the thought: These columns which seem so straight and still are not really straight, each one is curving gently from the base to the height, each one is in flowing movement, never resting, and the movement of each is in harmony with the others. And as I thought this my emus rose slowly towards the Temple and I leaned forward— and then I knew I had found my dame, and it was a Prayer.

      Out of such immature ecstasy Isadora created her dance; it cannot be repeated or imitated or taught, for, of all her pupils, only those she kept with her and inspired herself learned anything—and then, human as she was above all else, when they grew up to be successful on their own account and show some independence, she was not too pleased!

      In their first euphoric days on the Acropolis the Duncan family, as of one mind, had decided to honour the ancient Greeks by building an arts commune where they would live the homespun life, with their heads in lofty thought and their feet in sandals. They threw themselves into this extraordinary and hopeless project with typical fervour, scour­ing the region until they came upon a hill at Kopanos, declared by Isadora’s brother Raymond, as he cast his staff to the ground, to be the chosen site. Raymond drew' up ambitious plans to include a house, a small temple, a Greek theatre, a library, and various outbuildings; sheep were to graze on the slopes. Isadora bought the hill at considerable ex­pense and likewise the special stone, transported by donkey, to construct substantial walls for the house, which was modelled on Agamemnon’s ancient palace at Mycenae—nothing less.

      The house was completed—it is now being restored as a Duncan museum—but the rest of the scheme was doomed from the start. For one thing, it became far more costly than anticipated and, in any case, Isadora was to find out that she was the last person in the world for the truly simple life. When she discovered love and luxury, she took to them both fervently, often, near the end of her short life, spending her last penny on a  bottle of the best champagne. Raymond was the true ascetic in the family; to the end of his days he wore robes, a beard, long hair, sandals—and, I suspect, a serious mien.

       It gradually became clear that the Duncans' dream of re­living the artistic glories of ancient Greece could not materialize. Isadora’s savings began to run low and the modern Athenians showed no enthusiasm for being swept back to their golden past by a family of eccentric Americans—the big hit of her performances was her Viennese waltz. Discouraged, she went alone at midnight to dance in the ruins of the Dionysus
Theatre and then, ever restless—but secretly relieved?—she headed for Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, and Russia. She found romance, riches, fame, and tragedy.

      She was nothing if not a bundle of contradictions. Without ever relinquishing her belief in the Greek dance of temple and arena, she also wanted to be a theatre star—she was happy to be applauded and acclaimed. She was eager to succeed as an artist, and indeed poets, musicians, painters, writers, sculptors, the theatre reformer Stanislavsky, and the designer Gordon Craig were devoted admirers—sometimes lovers. She bloomed in their company.

      In her muddle­headed, instinctive Irish way she tried to do the impossible and a lot of the time she succeeded. I don’t believe she fully understood what she was, or the true quality of her affinity with Greece. She was the mythological Mother Nature, the eternal woman. Her motivation, fixation, obsession was for children; through every crisis she clung to her dream of a school where a thousand children would live in joy and health in dance, and teach thousands more in ever­increasing numbers. She was not so much a liberated woman, in the rather narrow modern sense, as an all­embracing eternal earth mother. She was pure mother, not housewife. No one ever heard of Mother Nature having a husband, and no more could Isadora. In the end she married her wild Russian poet, Essenin, but not out of a sudden conversion to respectability; it was only because she saw in his curly golden head an image of her dead son as he would have grown up, and she could refuse him nothing, least of all the possibility of a passport to leave Russia with her.

     The bizarrely simple and avoidable accident that had drowned her two children, trapped in a car as it slipped into the Seme during a violent storm, was a catastrophic tragedy. It tore her soul, left her not a second without pain and sorrow, and destroyed her life. Neither dance, nor champagne, nor lovers gave her peace ever more, until one day a long scarf, thrown unthinkingly around her neck, caught in the wheel of her car—driven by a young man she had instinctively recognized as a messenger of the gods—and took her swiftly to that place where her innocent children awaited her.

     The measure of our inability to recognize basic truths of nature when we see them is that almost everything about Isadora’s turbulent life that seemed natural and logical to her was sensational or scandalous to the civilized world.
      Had Isadora as a young girl been able to see Anna Pavlova in her prime she would have understood that the technique of a highly trained ballet dancer is no more than absolute control of movement, the means by which the soul can be released and the spirit shine forth. But Isadora was a year or two older, and by the time she did see Pavlova she was so engrossed in earning the torch of natural dance that she could not equate hersell in any way with ballet. Yet I think it undeniable that in her free use of arm movements, Isadora influenced the ballet quite strongly. Oddly enough I cannot really see that she was the "Mother of Modern Dance,” as she is often called, except that by taking dance back to the beginning she made it easier for others to start out again in new directions. To have some understanding of how and why she was able, with little more than emotion and personality, to make such a deep impression on artists and intellectuals, one must look at the state of dance during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century—which roughly coincided with the first twenty of Isadora’s life.








Saturday the 24th. . Isadora Duncan Pundect
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