Texts / Walter Terry


Walter Terry

The rebellion - Isadora Duncan


At the turn of the century, there were two young Americans who dreamed greater things for dancing than were to be found in the dances they saw about them. Their names were Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. Rejecting the weary ballet and what they felt was its emotional and spiritual emptiness, they claimed for their art values equivalent to those in the sister arts of music or drama, painting or literature. They were not concerned with steps as such, for they believed that the body, though trained, should be free to move expressively, free to communicate the profoundest thoughts and feelings of man.
    “The highest intelligence in the freest body” was Isadora’s goal. As a child in San Francisco - she had been born there in 1878 - she rebelled against ballet instruction, certain that ballet technique was unbeautiful and quite against the laws of nature. Indeed, nature was her favorite teacher and again and again she pointed out in her writings that the seas provided her with her earliest dance inspiration, that she studied “the movements of flowers and the flight of bees and the charming graces of pigeons and other birds” and that “dance is the movements of the human body in harmony with the movements of the earth.” And Isadora’s closeness to nature was by no means a matter of self-delusion. Mary Fanton Roberts has written beautifully of Isadora and nature in such luminous phrases as “and the sea and the wind and the sky accepted her in a mysterious comradeship” and “always she seemed a part of the great fundamental splendor of nature.”
     Isadora’s life - restive, flamboyant, unconventional, triumphant, tragic - was centered in Europe. As a girl, hounded by poverty, she had done some teaching in San Francisco and later in New York, performed in productions by Augustin Daly both in New York and on the road, danced to the music of Ethelbert Nevin in recitals given by the young composer and augmented her precarious livelihood with appearances in the salons of the wealthy. But America, she felt, did not appreciate her genius and so, with begged and borrowed money, she and her family left for Europe.
     The Duncans - Isadora, her mother, her sister Elizabeth and her brother Raymond (her brother Augustin remained in America) - found England equally unresponsive. There were performances for society but little else, particularly in the way of money. Studies in France came next but Isadora’s first major contract was for Budapest and here, in 1903, she danced for a month with tremendous success. Isadora was on her way.

     In the ensuing years, until her death by an automobile accident in 1927, she traveled across Europe, giving performances in the great cities, establishing her schools of the new and free dance and returning, on several occasions, to America, where her genius was at last recognized.
     On her first visit to Russia in 1905, her vision of a free dance certainly influenced the young Fokine, for although he never divorced himself from the heritage of ballet itself, his plans for reform and Isadora’s messages of liberation had much in common.
     And Isadora’s concept of dance came at a time when the art needed it most. She defied ballet convention and danced to the music of the great masters; she turned to ancient Greece not as a copyist but for inspiration; and she discovered that dancing was not predicated upon the movements of legs and arms but that it grew from an inner urge to action.
     It was in Paris that she determined that the soul had its home in the solar plexus. As romantic as this may sound, she had found through her own instinct, or stumbled upon, a principle of movement which was to become a key element in the modern dance of the future. In her spirited autobiography My Life (Boni & Liveright, 1927), she wrote, “I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movements are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of the dance - it was from this discovery that was born the theory on which I founded my school.”

    In her own time, her brilliant, often anguished, unorthodox life tended to obscure, in the minds of many, her history- making artistry. She bore children without benefit of wedlock, she later married a Russian poet and became a Soviet citizen, she let herself get fat, she sometimes drank too much, she reacted with lasting agony to the drowning of her two children and she met her death through strangulation as her scarf caught in the wheel of a moving auto.
     But fat or slim, depressed or ecstatic, she lived through and for dance. And if she found her greatest happiness and success abroad, she never lost sight of her vision of America dancing. She saw “great strides, leaps and bounds, lifted forehead and farflung arms, dancing the language of our pioneers, the fortitude of our heroes, the justice, kindness, purity of our women and through it all the inspired love and tenderness of our mothers, that will be America dancing.”
     Although she found inspiration in the spiritual purposes of the ancient Greek dance and was stimulated by the music of European composers, she was an American dancer of the present. She was stirred by the poetry of Walt Whitman, perhaps influenced by the teachings (which had drifted to America) of Francois Delsarte on meaningfulness of gesture and movement; her immediate dance heritage was the Irish jig her grandmother knew, the American Indian dances which her forebears had seen on the trek westward and the movements of nature which she observed as a child.
     Isadora, with her genius for movement, pooled her heritage with her own dance discoveries and these were plentiful. Sometimes one thinks of her as a dancer of instinct, but extracting statements of principle from her scattered writings and her remarks to others, one discovers that Isadora was herself a discoverer of enormous perspicacity. In an era when the ballet had established the principle of defying gravity as a technical standard of dance execution, Isadora noted that “all movement on earth is governed by the law of gravitation, by attractions and repulsion, resistence and yielding; it is that which makes the rhythms of dance.”
     She also resented imitation, and not merely for reasons of jealousy. “Others,” she said, “began to imitate me, not understanding that it was necessary to go back to a beginning, to find something in themselves first.” She went on to say that “the dances of no two persons should be alike” and “I shall not teach the children to imitate my movements - I shall help them develop those movements natural to them.”
      Isadora, however, was not foolish enough to base her dance on the willingness of the spirit alone. She worked with the extension of movements from the solar plexus, she experimented successfully with sequential action in which one movement flowed into another, she recognized and used the force of gravity, she believed that “the teaching of sculpture and dance should go hand in hand” and she even remarked, noting that the body should be developed physically for dance use, that “gymnastics and dancing should go together.”
      There is also a false notion that Isadora and her dancing children were mainly concerned with happy, pretty motions. Isadora’s sister-in-law, Margherita, has commented that as Isadora grew older and tragedy had touched her, ugliness, when necessary, as well as beauty entered her dancing. She herself said, “Don’t be merely graceful. Nobody is interested in a lot of graceful young girls. Unless your dancing springs from an inner emotion and expresses an idea, it will be meaningless.”
      She danced to the music of Gluck and Schubert, Beethoven and Wagner and others of the great composers. She danced alone to symphonies almost as if she were a chorus in herself and, with passionate dedication, she gave dramatic form to the “Marseillaise” and the “Marche Slav,” creating two of her testaments to man’s battle for freedom. She danced on the great stages of the world and she danced in the moonlight in ancient Greek temples. She was an inspiration to painters and sculptors and she was a mother not only to her own children but to the hundreds of students who studied with her in whatever land she set up her studio or her temple of dancing.
     When she died, her sister Elizabeth and some of the members of her adopted dancing family continued to teach her way of dancing, and although schools of Duncan dance still function and dancers of Duncan style still perform, it is the spirit of the inimitable Isadora itself which continues to exert the greatest influence on dance in America. She spent but few of her mature years in her native land, and so it was left to Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn to establish firmly a concept of the liberated dance in this nation, but as the decades pass, Isadora’s monumental achievements loom ever larger and the knowing dancer of today fully realizes that the pulse of her discoveries are echoed in his own motions.