Introductory / Introduction
The Duncan phenomenon
The bibliography on Isadora Duncan is enormous, but the writing is almost entirely descriptive. It consists either of biographies recounting the events of her life, or of reviews and impressions of her performances, which inevitably have a large dose of subjectivity. My own position is that of sociologist and historian.
I see Isadora Duncan more as a social phenomenon. I am interested in finding out:
- What reasons led to her emergence and the emergence of other similar dancers at that time, even though these may not have made history?
- What factors shaped her thinking and generally her personality?
- How can society’s reception of her be explained? In particular: who formed her public, or rather, who formed her publics, since they consisted of specific and disparate groups? What did each of these groups find in her?
- What was Isadora’s “message”? What was the space she came to fill in the society of that time? How did she pass her message on to her public, and how did her public’s messages reach her?
Origin and development
- Middle-class family, artistically educated parents.
- She grew up in deprived circumstances, without a father.
- She left school before she had completed her elementary education.
- She taught herself French and German.
- She taught herself dance and music.
- She studied philosophy, theatre.
- She wore Greek chitons at a time when women usually wore corsets and several petticoats.
- She danced barefoot and half-naked, when serious stage dancing was synonymous with “tutu” and “pointes”.
- She was the first to use the musical works of great composers that had not been written for dancing.
- She appeared on stage alone; it was only later that her young pupils sometimes accompanied her.
- She used the simplest of costumes, with no scenery.
- She did not perform choreographies; she improvised, or rather gave a spontaneous interpretation of the music.
- She attempted to dance to Byzantine music, a practice so far ahead of her time that no one dared to follow it for a whole century afterwards.
- In spite of the sensual dimension of her dance, the most serious critics insisted that it was not provocative.
- Today’s choreographers have begun to take movements and gestures from everyday life. Isadora was ahead of them in this by about 80 years.
Her impact on society
What were the social groups that constituted her public?
- Royalty and heads of state
- Intellectuals and students
- The upper middle class (in Europe and America)
- Workers and farmers (in the Soviet Union)
A list of leaders of state who attended her performances:
- President Roosevelt of the USA,
- The King of Bulgaria, with whom she was said to have had an affair,
- King George I of Greece, who, when he heard of her triumphant performance at the Municipal Theatre in 1903, asked her to perform in the Royal Theatre, where he went with his entire family,
- Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who invited her to settle in Greece for the second time in 1920.
- The Empress of Germany Augusta Victoria, who saw one of her performances in Berlin and criticized her barefoot pupils,
- Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the Soviet Union, who showed more enthusiasm than all the others.
Sceptics will say that such enormous success could be due to the fact that Isadora offered a very daring spectacle, at the same time covering it with the alibi of avant-garde art. Men in the audience could, without pangs of conscience, feast their eyes on a statuesque body, whose nakedness was only minimally hidden by her classic chitons and expressive movements.
They should recognise however that Isadora Duncan’s success led to the appearance of many other dancers with equivalent physical advantages, more sensuous dancing and often more undisguised nudity. Ruth Saint Denis in America, Maud Allan in England, Adorée Vilani in France were among the best known. For many others, dance was nothing more than an excuse for moving their bodies provocatively, though few of them had more to show than their curves.
There was no lack of competition in this field, and Isadora Duncan would not have stood out if her body were the main attraction for audiences. Besides, she herself often refused to collaborate with impresarios who offered her tempting fees, if she suspected that they meant to present her as the “half-naked dancer”.
The reader might think that I sympathise with the established view that regards sensual dance as inferior. For instance, dancers of all other kinds (theatrical, folk, ballroom) unanimously look down at dancers of “Anatolian dance” (oriental, belly dance, dance of the seven veils, cabaret etc.). This is an unfair and superficial view that should somewhere else be objectively refuted. Sensual dance, in all its nuances, is equally serious, just as artistic and undoubtedly beautiful; it is socially useful, and historically older than other kinds of dance.
Revolutions - like all social phenomena - are a combination of two factors. On one hand the ripeness of circumstances, development to the point where radical change is necessary and feasible. On the other hand, the emergence of one or more people who sense the need for change, personify it and fight for it until they bring it about. We should see Isadora’s revolution in this way.
Isadora declared unequivocally that she supported the rights that should belong to every woman:
- To be married or not.
- To make love to whatever man she wished.
- To have children or not.
- To look after her children herself or not.
- To travel on her own.
- To express her political opinions.
Anyone with a knowledge of the conditions prevailing the start of the twentieth century will realise how explosive such opinions were then.
In spite of the fact that she was not interested in politics, Isadora had the instinct and the daring to follow whatever was most progressive in the ideas of her time. We should not be prejudiced by the picture we have today of the those political currents; the important thing is that she espoused the most avant-garde ideas at that time. It took a sharp instinct to choose them and particular courage to follow them.
In Greece, for example, she sided with Eleftherios Venezelos, who was then in conflict with the King. In Russia, at a time when almost all the Russian dancers and choreographers were leaving for Europe and America, she alone moved against the current: she sided with the Bolsheviks from the beginning and worked hard to help the Revolution with her dance. She supported her views not only with words, as usually happens in politics, but with harsh personal sacrifices: when Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky were living in the most luxurious hotels in Nice and Paris, she was touring the remotest areas of Soviet Russia in conditions of indescribable poverty.
Isadora and her brother Raymond were not the first to worship Greece. A hundred years before them, many eminent foreigners had fallen under the spell of the classical beauty of ancient Greece, and had remained faithful to it in spite of the bitterness the actual Greece soaked them with. Once again the Duncans went further than the others: they translated the Ancient World into everyday action, they tried it out on their bodies. They wore chitons and sandals that Raymond had made, they danced trying to bring to life the scenes on the ancient vases.
Most important of all, they actually came to live in Greece. We should not forget that many of the Greek-worshippers before them, starting with Winkelman, had never visited Greece even as sightseers. The Duncans came for the first time in 1903. It was Raymond who played the main part in this, returning at every opportunity for sixty years.
On two other occasions Isadora attempted to settle in the country, even though this would have amounted to sure professional suicide. What could an international personality expect from the Greece of 1903? A faraway country, small, poor, destroyed by wars and strife, where there were neither dance schools, nor professional dancers, nor even the conditions for the development of theatrical dance. Sikelianos’ efforts themselves twenty years later failed because Greece was too backward to accept them.
Nowadays, eating natural foods and generally living in harmony and contact with nature is something that is supported by ecologists, and it seems reasonable enough. One hundred whole years have passed however, since the days when Raymond Duncan recommended it. Only ten years ago, such ideas were still daring and generally unknown to many people. Imagine how avant-garde such ideas were then. The ecological movement was ninety years behind Raymond Duncan, and still has not fully caught up with him. For Duncan turned ecology into everyday action: he wove his own clothes on the loom, and he himself made the sandals that he wore, his furniture and his implements. Today’s “green” organisations would not dare to advise the public to follow him.
And as if this was not enough, the Duncans went even further. They discovered that there was an ecological kind of music, the “natural scales”, which had passed from ancient music into Byzantine hymns. Today’s ecologists have not yet suspected this, that there exists a kind of “ecology of music”. Isadora dared to dance to this music, and Raymond taught it for decades, but their efforts came to nothing because they were so far ahead of their time.
I mention Isadora more than Raymond because she is the one who became famous. Brother and sister were always close and one influenced the other, which is why we can talk of the “Duncan phenomenon” from a historical point of view. Raymond won no acclaim because he moved in duller spheres and was more down-to-earth. He too, however, was just as pioneering in his own way.
Suffice it to say that he engaged successfully in dramatic art, poetry, painting, weaving, sculpture, singing, sandal-making, building, wood-carving, as well as European and Byzantine music. He taught all these things - and perhaps others that I have missed - first in Athens and later, until his death in 1967, at the “Academy” he founded in Paris, occasionally giving shows in New York. It would be an omission not to mention (as a hint to the present situation in Kossovo) the fact that after the Greek army entered Albania in 1914, he went to Saranda and helped the locals cope with the misery left by the war. Conditions were so bad there that his wife Penelope, sister of the famous poet Angelos Sikelianos, fell ill and finally died. It is a great injustice that this great philhellene has not been honoured for his wide-ranging service to Greece.
There is little need to speak of the crucial importance that the emergence of Isadora Duncan had on the development of dance. She is undoubtedly the greatest dancer of the 20th century, if only because there is no book on dance history that does not devote several pages to her. Quite a few people would dispute, however, that she was the greatest figure of all. It is worth noting, though, who such people might be.
They are those who stick with whatever technique they were taught and feel the need to defend it. Those who do not have the wide culture or the discriminating sensitivity to see beyond the narrow frontiers of their particular kind of dance (be it ballet, modern, jazz, character etc.) and to appreciate dance as an art that encompasses all the planet and all ages. In this huge polymorphism, every partial technique appears insignificant, while Isadora’s “non-technique” aquires its greatness.
If dance à la Duncan did not spread as much as other schools or fashions it is due to the fact that it was vehicle for an anti-commercial outlook. It was not a “product” suitably “packaged” so that it would “sell”. It did not have “secrets”; it did not have preordained exercises, nor a framework that a dance teacher could declare to possess in order to attract pupils. Isadora’s dancing was based mainly on a deep understanding of dance, of the human body and its expressiveness, of a sense of theatre. Still more, her dance was the outcome of a world view, which is a feature no one could claim for some of the widespread techniques.
Some dance historians throw the blame on Isadora’s pupils, asserting that they were not equal to continuing her work. Others use the fact that the “Isadora school” has comparatively few representatives today as a criterion to show that her worth was limited.
I will be in the minority in asserting that Isadora’s contribution was not only enormous but also unique in the world history of dance. We should not confuse her with the other dancers, Nijinsky, Pavlova or Saint-Denis: Duncan was something more than a great dancer. We should distinguish her from the great choreographers, Fokine, Balanchine and Graham: Duncan created something more than choreographies.
Isadora Duncan was the greatest because she opened the way for the others we mentioned and for all the other dancers and choreographers. They all came after her, they were influenced by her, and they recognised it more or less. Before her there was only a sterile academic dance, which needed her contribution in order to become fertile again.
She was a complete dancer. The other great dancers dedicated their life to dance - she dedicated her dance to life. The others said a great many things by dancing, but outside dancing they had nothing to say. She, however, brought revolution to dance and to every other aspect of her life. She set dance on its feet and brought it face to face with the other arts. She stood as an equal with great artists and politicians, with philosophers and scholars, having her own point of view, a real dancer's point of view on art and life.
In the album Isadora Duncan and the artists we presented for the first time the impressions Isadora’s dance left on the artists and writers of her times. This website goes much further by presenting the complete picture her dance has left in all aspets of life, all countries and all periods.
This text appeared in Isadora Duncan and the artists (Athens, 2003) - it has been modified for this website.