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Articles / Dame Ninette de Valois
Dame Ninette de Valois
The flames of freedom.
Dame Ninette de Valois assesses the legacy
of Isadora Duncan,
who is the subject of a new play in London
The Sunday Telegraph,
     Isadora Duncan has had – and no one can deny it – a huge and entirely beneficial effect on classical ballet. She arrived on the scene at exactly the right moment. Classical ballet had got into an 18th-century groove. It was highly stylized, stiff and formal, almost ugly, and where it was poorly taught it was also boring – as indeed it was in England.
     Duncan arrived, and released it. You can see her legacy in every classical dancer today. Suddenly here was someone moving for the love of movement, and everyone, audiences, dancers, teachers felt uplifted by her naturalness. Some fell for it perhaps too heavily, and it had a bad influence in some quarters, but the truth is that somewhere deep down all intelligent members of the classical school were influenced in the best way by Isadora Duncan.
     This was even so in as different an arena as Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. By the time I joined Diaghilev in 1923, Duncan, though not yet dead, was already a legend; and even though many of his dancers had not seen her – some had not even heard of her – her much more plastic, relaxed influence was there in every one of them. Diaghilev himself would not have admitted it, because he was very conservative and saw influences in strictly classical terms. But this thing on the boarders of dance, very fascinating, very free, had crept into his company without him realizing it.
     What Duncan did not do was alter the classical technique, and those people who tried to claim that she did were talking nonsense. Isadora Duncan had no technique to pass on, no school as such; it was simply an approach. Where the classical style is a very careful development of foot technique, she did almost nothing with her feet, and she had neither a technical nor an academic system to pass on. What she did was to set free the upper body.
     She was a rebel - perhaps that was her Irish blood – and she objected strongly to the unnaturalness of the classical school of those days. But the beauty of the classical technique is that it is infinitely adaptable: you could put the classical school together with the Duncan approach and one enriched the other.
     Western European classical technique tends to be stronger from the waist down; the further east you go, the more they dance from the waist up. A great classical company’s character springs from its national dances. Little changes that you observe in the performances by different companies are entirely consistent with their country’s folk roots. English classical dancers, for instance, are at their best in quick work – we are famous worldwide for our good feet. And look at our national dances: we dance from the waist down. Duncan’s whole-body freedom sprung from Greece, which lies between west and east, and is neither one nor the other, but borrows from both.
     I felt exhilarated by her dancing, and although I never met her I saw her many times. As a child I was frequently taken by my mother, who adored her. She had three girls whom I particularly admired, very beautiful girls who moved wonderfully, and who did a pas de trois that I actually cribbed for a show of my own.
     Sadler’s Wells was not my first company. Ten years earlier, in 1922, when I was 24, I got a little group together to dance on the Gulliver circuit, the Palladium music halls, for eight weeks. And I remembered this pas de trois well enough to recreate it for my own programme.
     To this day I can faintly recall the steps.
     I often wonder why those three girls made such an impression on me – more, even, than Duncan herself. I suspect this was because she was no longer a young woman, well past her prime, and I was too young to register her properly. But she had a quality that knocked people sideways, and later, when I was a student, I would continue to attend her appearances. It is a pity that Isadora Duncan is remembered more for her rather sensational life than for what she gave to dance. The Duncan flame burns brightly still. We have swallowed it whole, and allowed it to influence classical ballet – which is the biggest tribute possible.
     “When She Danced,” by Martin Sherman, starring Vanessa Redgrave, previews at the Globe Theatre from Wednesday
     Dame Ninette de Valois (1898-2001), Irish dancer and choreographer, born Edris Stannus.


Saturday the 24th. . Isadora Duncan Pundect
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