Articles /  John Martin
John Martin
Isadora Duncan and basic dance.
An outline for dancers Magriel, Paul (ed.):
Nijinsky, Pavlova, Duncan: Three lives in dance.
Da Capo Press,
     It is a curious thing that in all the reams that have been written about Isadora Duncan there is so little with any specific bearing upon her art. There are tributes aplenty, eulogies and poems, word-pictures of the personal states she inspired in her spectators, and romantics of all kinds frequently bordering on the fulsome, but virtually nothing is to be found that examines objectively what she did and sets it forth in orderly terms with reference to its permanent values and formulable principles. To all intents she might have been a transient phenomenon floating across time in her scarves to no more purpose than a meteor. Yet actually she is
greater now than she was while her comparatively short and stormy career was going on, and will become greater still as the inertia of mass thinking continues to dissolve with the passing of time and the import of her accomplishment becomes clearer.
     She herself saw but was, of course, never reconciled to the unavoidability of this time lapse. Of her countrymen she asked rhetorically from overseas when they would quit neglecting her, see the purpose of her work and make it possible for her to carry on; and she answered her own question with the prophecy that fifty years after her death they would build a monument to her. Less than fifteen of these years have yet gone by but the prophecy is already beginning to be fulfilled. The monument that is building, however is not the conventional tribute in stone which she foresaw, but a body of living dance freely acknowledging her as its source. It is still struggling as she struggled against indifference, to some extent, but what is more of a handicap, it is still working largely through intuition as she was forced to work, in spite of the fact that her very efforts have made this no longer a necessity.
     Isadora has left scattered through her brief writings a fully rounded theory of the dance which is generally not suspected, and it is time to add to the already crowded bookshelf devoted to her one volume which undertakes to look beyond personality and to order and elucidate this material. Such a task adequately performed would result in probably the greatest textbook of the dance ever written. It is not to be accom-plished, however, by him who writes as he runs.
It demands insight into an altogether intuitive mind pitting itself against respected inertias and entrenched bigotries; it further demands courage to read between the lines in order to see the things that Isadora herself did not know she saw, and to penetrate the surface limitations of a period as well as of an individual who, though she belongs among the great ones of the earth, had her prejudices and predilections, conscious and unconscious. It is a job for an intensely practical mind, able not only to extract the universal theory from a highly personal art, but, once that is done, to reparticularize it in terms of contem-porary practice.
     This would entail discoveries and adaptations that would surprise and shock Isadora herself, if she could learn of them, for great concepts frequently grow beyond the grasp of those who have earliest enunciated them. Take, for example, the way we talk today of democracy not only as a political and social philosophy, but also as an economic one, and compare it with the ideas of so notable a pioneering, democrat as Thomas Jefferson, who was not even in favor of universal male suffrage. Yet it is the same concept, acted upon by the changing demands of the times and by its own growth from within. Our textbook compiler must be able to establish as definite a nucleus of Isadora's fundamental concept and keep it clear through its various changes of aspect in her own and others' application of it. Especially must he be wary of the roseate mist that surrounded it in the days of its birth. Isadora "freed" the dance. From what? For what? From corsets and shoes, Minkus and Delibes, pointes and port de bras? For Chopin waltzes, Wagner operas and Chaikovsky symphonies in bare feet and Greek tunics? If she was only a creator of styles in movement, music and dress, she was of minor importance and only indifferently successful, for all these innovations are already obsolete. In that case, let us proceed with the erection of the dolorous marble monument of prophecy, a senti-mental monstrosity dictated by idolatry and memorialism and destined to make coming generations look on the legend of Isadora with something not far removed from con-tempt.
     Instinctively one knows in the face of what has happened in the dance itself of recent years that such a theory is false, but rationally there is no specific body of facts to build upon. Only our temerarious scribe can supply the means for doing justice to an artist of epochal importance and what is more to the point, for protecting her magnificent heritage. No mere scholiast will serve, adding a timorous footnote here and an apolo-getic paraphrase there. It must be someone who will vigorously dispel the clouds, reduce what he finds beneath them to the simplest fundamental terms, and boldly fill what gaps he uncovers.
     Let us see, in broad outline, what his textbook must include. In the first place, Isadora was not concerned with establishing a new school of dancing, called
the Duncan Dance, or what you will. She was tnilitantly opposed to schools, systems, and professionalism in general. What she was primarily concerned with can only be called basic dance- not a trade or a profession or even an art to begin with, but a biological function. She was not seeking to invent or devise anything, but only to discover the roots of that impulse toward movement as a response to every experience, which she felt in herself and which she was convinced was a universal endowment. Without benefit of formal psychology, she knew as no other dancer on record had known that spontaneous movement of the body is the first
reaction of all men to sensory or emotional stimuli. Though civilization tends to dull and to inhibit this tendency, it is still the fundamental reaction of men to the universe about them.
     A revival of the conscious use of this faculty would mean deepening and broadening the whole range of life. If the individual becomes aware of the world in which he lives through its direct effect upon his nerves and muscles, nature's fundamental perceptive mechanism, he has won his freedom from the arbitrary thou-shalts and shalt-nots which established social cults and creeds put upon him the moment he is old enough to be dominated. Only when he has developed the power to touch life at first hand does he begin to be aware of his inherent selfhood, and until he has become thus aware he cannot develop his true bent or resist the
forces that would conventionalize him into a mass product.
     This was and is a colossal concept, not only affecting the dance but virtually adding another dimension to life. It plays havoc with categories, upsets tradition, destroys rote and official revelation. Yet its theory has been eloquently enunciated both in words and in its own stuff of responsive movement by Isadora, it has been practiced by a generation of other dancers through a kind of subconscious transfer and advanced by them far beyond the rational grasp of its laws, and it is now quite possible for our textbook to present it in terms of a logical and workable technical procedure. All that is required, besides the qualities of insight, courage, and practicality already enu-merated, is a thorough knowledge of anatomy, psychology, esthetics and education!
     Isadora, however, without any scientific equipment whatever, has indicated all the true directions and many of the exact roads to be traveled. She has related how, once she had become convinced through her own experience that movement arose from a central inner source which she called the soul, she sought to find where in the body this source was located and how it was to be stirred to action. The word "soul" is likely to frighten us today, but if it is allowed to do so we will miss the whole point of Isadora's basic dance. For her it meant simply that correlative of the mind which produced, instead of intellectual concepts, quite irrational expressions of feeling. It was no more confined to a physical organ than the mind is confined to the brain, but she felt that it must have some correlative "habitation" in the body. For hours she stood before the mirror in a concentration that suggests the Orient, seeking this bodily center, and the conclusion of her quest was amazingly analytical. Through watching, apparently quite objectively, her emotional and motor impulses and relating them to each other, she discovered to her complete satisfaction that the solar plexus was the bodily habitation of the soul and the center in which inner impulse was translated into movement. If
we are to take her literally at her word and accept the fact that by these solitary experiments she was able actually to isolate internal nervous experience in this way, it is one of the most astounding accomplishments on record. But even if she began with a considerable basis of theory, her discovery remains remarkable for its soundness in relating emotion to visceral action and visceral action to outward movement. She had, however crudely and in whatever inaccurate and unscientific terminology, dis-covered the soul to be what less imaginative men have called the autonomic system.
     On this revolutionary principle she based all her practice and her teaching, and our textbook must do likewise until a greater researcher arises to supersede it. But a principle without a technique to make it operative is merely an abstraction, and here Isadora arrived at less tangible results. Her efforts, however, are a guide as well as a check upon more specific methods that may (and must) be devised by others.
     How to start the motor in the soul, as she once phrased the impulsion to move? Her own chief means was music—Wagner, Beethoven, all the great romanticists of the nineteenth century—music which stirred the emotions; but she knew that this was not the solution and said so. Nor was this the only means she employed. She surrounded her young pupils with paintings and sculpture to form their standards of action visually, and she turned them to the processes of nature for the same end. Presumably besides listening to music "with the soul" they were to be guided subconsciously by the ideal of living beauty which was held before their eyes.
     But most important of all her approaches to the subject were the experiments she made not with stimulation by other arts but directly with personal emotion. She has described her search for certain key movements which should arise out of elemental emotional experiences such as fear and love, and from which a whole series of develop-ing movement should flow as of its own volition. These experiments were important for several reasons, but to the present topic they are of especial significance. She has told us nothing at all about her mode of procedure in these experiments, but it can easily be supplied from the context, and in it lies
the answer to the problem. Here we find her deliberately invoking specific emotional states without music or any other external aid, and the only possible means that lay within herself was memory. In order to discover a "first movement" of fear from which a sequence of related and developing movements should proceed in natural order, a state resembling fear itself must be re-created to stimulate the impulses of suitable movement. This could only be done by recalling previous experiences of fear and allowing these memories freely to induce their own bodily and emotional states.
     Isadora made use of certain actual phrases of movement discovered by these experi-ments, but she did not carry the method itself through to its full development, and missed accordingly the basic technical process of her art. A colleague, however, did carry it through in another art and for slightly different ends. This was Constantin Stanislavsky of the Moscow Art Theater who demanded from his actors the same kind of emotional truth, arising from the same kind of inner impulsion, that Isadora demanded from herself and all dancers. His use of affective memory as the root of the actor's technique was more deliberate than Isadora's and consciously shaped into a clear-cut, teachable method for training actors.
     To reconcile the differences between an actor's technique and a dancer's need is the first major task of our textbook. The actor, at least as Stanislavsky saw him, works in terms of naturalism, while the dancer, in Isadora's sense of the word, deals in great abstractions of human experience; but it is the same truth that underlies both their arts, for they are in essence only one art in different guises. Already, however, consider-able experimentation has been done in adapting the principles of Stanislavsky to the problems of the dancer, and the textbook, therefore, need not be delayed for any pro-longed research along uncharted ways.
It is possible immediately to present an orderly method for starting Isadora's motor of the soul, avoiding all the pitfalls that threatened her and using ultimately the very principles that she found for herself without knowing she had done so. It need remain no longer a vague and inspirational process.
     But this is the beginning rather than the end of the problem. Even though it is pos-sible to produce technically by the conscious use of affective processes motor reactions that are honest and true, it does not necessarily follow that dance movement has been produced. Dance movement is not a mere succession of motions, however inspired, but exists in terms of sustained dynamic tone, just as song is not a mere succession of sounds but exists in terms of sustained vocal tone.
     It was music that supplied the necessary transforming element for Isadora. If it served first of all to lower the threshold of motor activation for her, it also provided a continuity of impulse. As long as its emotional qualities had power to stir her, she was provided with an impetus to evolve a continuum of movement, so to speak, of genuinely responsive character. She had learned to make herself so sensitive to this kind of impulsion that she could sustain movement with unfaltering emotional truth through entire symphonies. It was only under this form of stimulation, she declared, that she was able to rediscover "the natural cadences of human
movements," but obviously this did not satisfy her as a basic method, for instead of giving herself up to it indulgently and con-sidering the matter closed, she set about searching for tangible, controllable technical means. Significantly enough, in the two important phases of this search-the location of the ''central crater of motor power" and the evocation of "first movements"-she eschewed the use of music altogether.
     It is these experiments in the production of "first movements" that must here concern us once more. In them she was aiming not merely at the production without external stimulation of creative motor responses, but at the production of motor responses each of which should result in a sequence of movement unfolding along the line of its specific emotional origin. Such a sequence implies inherent continuity of tone as well as pro-gression in a consistent direction. It is a parallel in its own medium of the phrase in music and was probably being sought as such by Isadora. Certainly the example of music was not absent from her mind,
for though she worked in silence she declared that these movements "seemed to create themselves from the rhythm of some invisible music." A sequence of movement flowing as if of its own volition from a single emotional impulse is actually a motor phrase, the lowest common denominator of dance move-ment and the basic unit of composition. It is the transformation of the simple feeling-acting technique, which produces individual expressive motions known as gestures, into the broader and more intensive stuff which we call movement and of which art is made.
     Isadora apparently made no formal adaptation whatever of these extraordinary experiments to her teaching methods. There is an intuitive awareness of the character of the motor phrase, perhaps, in her insistence that the exercises of her young pupils always have an entity of their own and never lapse into isolated movements or mere muscular exertion. What she may have done in this field when she led her classes into improvisations it is impossible to tell, but certainly she left no definite instructions for teaching the individual discovery of "first movements" and the development of the motor phrase.
     Again our pedagogue must turn to Stanislavsky for general guidance if not for specific instructions. The method of improvisation is undoubtedly indicated here; first, for the gradual strengthening of the ability to sustain emotion, and second, for the recognition of the natural tendency of emotion thus sustained to feed upon itself, resulting, almost literally of its own volition, in invention and perception that the individual is unaware of possessing. Stanislavsky's practices along these lines are helpful but too literal on the one hand and too diffuse on the other, for the dancer must concentrate his responses into the motor field exclusively and must lift them completely out of the category of merely expressive gesture. This is a by no means impossible transition, but it increases immeasurably the dangers, which
already inhere in Stanislavsky's method, of auto-hypnosis and virtual nervous debauchery. It is extremely perilous ground on which our pedagogue treads here, and if he turns back fearing his responsibility, he need not consider himself cowardly. Many dancers have turned back here, for the work enters the rather despised field of pure self-expression, at best, and from there may easily wander off into pathological regions. If he is the true pedagogue that he must be to undertake such a textbook, however, he will know how to erect the necessary controls which the artist-dancer, who is not necessarily a pedagogue at all, will not know how
to erect. Actual experimentation has already been done in the dance field which eliminates these hazards and the chief task in so far as the textbook is concerned is to reduce the experimentation to orderly principles and teachable practices. A delicate job, if you will, but a perfectly feasible one, and without it there is no earthly way of insuring the translation of inner emotional impulsion directly into the stuff of the dance.
     Thus far the problem has been altogether a subcutaneous one, so to speak; but the instrument of the dance is the outward body, and its adjustment to the demands made upon it is quite as important as the demands themselves. The greatest potential singer in the world armed with the most magnificent songs can do nothing unless he has an adequate voice and complete control of it, and the dancer is in the same situation. He not only needs to know how to play his instrument, but he must also build it out of himself and keep it tuned at all times. It is not enough that the body which is his instrument is a healthy enough body to take him through his daily living without limitation or disturbance; the body of the dancer is no more the half-conscious vehicle that carries him about from home to business, fumbling with hats and coats, papers and carfare, than the singer's voice is the sound-making apparatus with which he orders his coffee and chats about the weather. The dancer's body is a totally sentient organism capable of encompassing movements far more extended in range and dynamism, speed, and elasticity, than those encountered in routine living. It makes no difference at all that in his dancing he is dealing with the impulses and experiences of nature, projecting only the passions of men, and not attempting acrobatic feats, contortions, or any movements that violate nature; he is nevertheless not dealing in naturalistic gestures and so-called life movements, for he is presenting an idealization, an interpretation, a concentration of life experience, which because it is less diffuse than actuality must be correspondingly more intense.
     How, then, to prepare the body for this larger-than-life function? Isadora was con-vinced that some form of gymnastic training was necessary before dance training as such could begin, but she is not specific about what it should consist of. There are certain things, however, that she knew it should not consist of, and these help to clear the ground. First, it must not be mere muscle development. The dancer is not a pro-fessional strong man whose business it is to flex
his biceps, lift weights, and put shot; neither his individual musculature nor his skills are ends in themselves and it is worse than useless to develop them as such. Worse because the body is a wonderfully efficient organism which, for the conservation of its energy, makes everything habitual as quickly as possible. In order to avoid sending every incoming impression through the whole taxing process of emotional awareness and conscious examination, it establishes short cuts at the first opportunity by which familiar stimuli can be shunted off immediately to familiar reactions practically automatically. Thus the exercises which through repetition
enlarge muscles soon become associated with no other function, and result in movement that is emotionally barren and the very reverse of expressive. The dancer's habit of moving must be made such that movement is never an end in itself but always the outward result of an inward awareness.
     It follows, then, that no series of set movements, whatever their virtues for muscle development, can be established as a training technique. It does not matter whether they are devised according to an impersonal, scientific plan, or are merely an adaptation of some individual artist's personal inspiration crystallized into a vocabulary. The dancer must be trained neither to make somebody else's movements nor to resort to mechanically contrived routines, but quite to the contrary every ounce of his energy must be directed to the task of moving in his own highly personal and essentially unique manner. Obviously, the exercises by which he builds his bodily technique must consist accordingly of movements drawn out of himself as responses to emotional stimuli, but calculated at the same time to extend his physical capacity along all the required gymnastic lines.
     Isadora met this problem in a way that is certainly too simple for the wider field of today, but that is nevertheless indicative of her intentions and perhaps even of a line of practical development. Her exercises (and there is no indication that the gymnastics that she advocated as pre-dance training were given to her young pupils through any other channel) consisted of movement processes common to everybody in the round of ordinary experience- walking, running, skipping, leaping, and the like. In making use of these materials she was assuredly putting nothing arbitrary or external upon the pupils, but was taking advantage of natural and, indeed, inevitable motor patterns of their own as a basis for operation. Though they were far too habitual even in young children to be considered as inherently creative movement, she actually reoriented them so that they were in large measure creatively produced. Whether or not this was possible with any but young children, or even invariably with them, is open to question, but it was definitely accomplished in many cases. To see such elementary movements as these performed in this way is to realize how little elaboration and extravagance of movement are necessary to command attention, to achieve a transfer of emotional experience and to provide genuine artistic satisfaction, when there is a complete unison of inward prompting and outward manifestation.
     Because Isadora's dance was simple in its gymnastic demands, she was undoubtedly able to develop all the needed strength, elasticity and endurance under cover of these natural movements. But for increased requirements along these lines, her method (or at least this aspect of it) remains substantially sound with only a corresponding increase in dimensions. Actually the different types of movement of which the body is capable are remarkably few; tension and relaxation, flexion and extension, rotation, torsion and transfer of weight come pretty close to covering the entire range in broad terms. If our inspired pedagogue will only devise themes for improvisation with emotional demands designed explicitly to result in each of these necessary elements of movement and to bring into play in turn and in conjunction the various parts of the body, he can succeed in his more intensive medium as Isadora succeeded in her simple one. If he is really qualified to prepare this exemplary textbook, he can evolve a thorough and practicable method for the vigorous technical training of the dancer's body without resorting to a single superimposed routine or a solitary example of formal gymnastics. He will not, perhaps, produce acrobats thus, but he will produce dancers, provided always that
he has talent to work with.
     Another element in this pre-dance gymnastic training has to do with guarding the individuality of every dancer's style of movement. Isadora's use of natural movement for training purposes at least recognized the existence of the problem, but did not attempt to solve it, at its source. It is all very well to call walking, running and skipping natural but they are natural to the race rather than to the individual. Every individual will walk and run differently according to his bodily formations and those less tangible aspects of his personality which we call his temperament; what then is the natural way to walk? Is there some ideal racial
norm that must be discovered and imitated? If so, is this natural to the individual who, left to his own devices, will behave otherwise? If not, is whatever way the individual happens to walk natural to him even if it is perhaps caused by some muscular or nervous abnormality? Is deformity or eccentricity the same thing as individuality? If so, might it not be the better part of wisdom just to forget all about preserving individuality and begin superimposing harmonious routines that will obscure it?
     If we are to encourage the individual to move according to his particular endowments, it is incumbent upon us at the same time not to encourage him to emphasize his weaknesses to his ultimate destruction. First, obviously, we must help him to establish his norm. This will involve consideration of basic body mechanics, the correction of pos-tural misalignments and the removal of the psychic disturbances of which they are frequently the result. Here, again, our erudite pedagogue will have to call in an expert, for he has found the juncture of the dance with therapy of a closely related type. Much of the work will be done by methods curiously akin to that which lies at the center of Isadora's theory, for in making these postural and mechanical adjustments in the body, the most advanced practice makes use of mental imagery to produce reactions in deep muscles that are not under voluntary control. However, our textbook, being thorough and consistent, will inevitably demand not only theoretical quotations but also personal tuition from a "body mechanician"—a Mabel Elsworth Todd, for example, or a Lulu Sweigard or a Margaret Paulding, who stem from her teaching directly or indirectly —both for the establishment of the individual norm in the first place and for frequent periodic checks to make sure that it is being maintained. Until some such practice is instituted, talking about natural movement and the preservation of individuality is just so much loose and romantic verbiage. And that is exactly the stuff that our whole project is designed to destroy.
     Here, perhaps, would end the first volume of the textbook. By means strictly in accord with Isadora's theory but employing the best contemporary technical developments, it has produced a dancer. There is much more, indeed, to be treated of from the same source and in the same manner before the subject is finished. The dancer, once pro-duced, must learn to compose his dances, to choose his music, to design his costumes, and the basis of his procedure is admirably set forth in principle in Isadora's essays and autobiography. For all the Pre-Raphaelite sense of beauty that is commonly attributed to her, she has argued eloquently for
what is sometimes called ugliness, and her method of evolving form out of content is worthy of the deepest study; her restora-tion of the body from exile is still not understood or practiced as it should be; and even in her attitude to music, the least amenable of her theories, there are pregnant hints about modern music and the future in general.
     Our newly made dancer must have an insight into the rather profound esthetics of his great preceptor in order to allow her to lead him into paths which she herself never traveled. He will discover, for one thing, that her dance was lyric because all art is lyric in the beginning. The artist first gives expression to his personal emotions, even though he may couch them in heroic and impersonal terms. (Isadora "never once danced a solo," but "tried always to be the Chorus.") Next he materializes a protag-onist, a concentrated figure who dances with the chorus; and finally an antagonist emerges as well—and the theater is born. The lyric base has not been destroyed but augmented, and the contemporary trend of the dance toward the theater can find orderly principles for its procedure in Isadora's lyric precedent.
All that, however, is for Volume Two.