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Articles / Emi Yagishta


Emi Yagishta
Isadora Duncan and her early career in England
Waseda University/ Japan Society for the Promotion of Science


     First I would like to say why I chose this topic. Even though many scholars/critics have written about Isadora Duncan, there is still a lack of  information about her early career in London. As a consequence, this period of her career has remained somewhat unclear in dance research.. Thus the merit of this study lies in the fact that materials which have remained unknown in the previous studies about Isadora Duncan will come in the fore  and thus will reveal more information about this period. With this aim, my research probes and adds new information about Isadora’s early career.

     My principal research questions are as follows:
a) Why did Isadora Duncan decide to go to London?
b) What kind of performances she showcased in London?
c) What did she study in London?
d) How did she create her own dance style?

     As a method, I used unpublished materials including Isadora’s brother Raymond’s memoir that were shown to me by descendants of Isadora Duncan. In addition to this, I used programs, historical newspapers and Isadora’s autobiography, My Life.

     Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco in the USA and after she grew up there, she moved to Chicago and New York. After completing her career in New York, she decided to move to London in 1899. In previous studies, other researchers mentioned that Isadora decided to go to London in 1899. However, when I checked a brochure of a performance recorded in 1898, a year before she had moved to London. This piece of information was stimulating because as I noticed that before she decided to move there, she danced in front of British audience. I present a glimpse of that performance before you. You could see that Isadora’s name in this brochure1 . Perhaps, this first performance had influenced her decision to move to London.

     In her autobiography, she wrote about the great dreams and expectations she had about moving to the British capital: 
“I dreamed of London, and the writers and painters one might meet there- George Meredith, Henry James, Watts, Swinburne, Burne-Jones, Whistler…These were magic names, and to speak the truth, in all my experience of New York I had found no intelligent sympathy or help for my ideas.”2

     As a child, she read several books written by English writers, including Dickens, Thackeray, and Shakespeare3  and she got acquainted with several English friends personally while she was there for her first performance. I assume that her performance was a great success, which might have influenced her decision for future settlement.

     When the Duncans arrived in London, they visited many touristic places and museums, and she audited one lecture on Venus and Adonis at the National Gallery. Especially, Isadora and Raymond were interested in the British Museum and spent lots of time to see Greek Sculptures. Isadora remembered those days like this:

  “We spent most of our time in the British Museum, where Raymond made sketches of all the Greek vases and bas-reliefs, and I tried to express them to whatever music seemed to me to be in harmony with the rhythms of the feet and Dionysiac set of the head, and the tossing of the thyrsis. We also spent hours every day in the British Museum Library, and we lunched in the refreshment room on a penny bun and café au lait.” 4

     After she saw real Greek sculptures in the British Museum, she got inspiration from them, especially from Greek vases and bas-reliefs. As a consequence, she started to study on Grecian dance. Raymond remembered those days like this.

    “Here in London became the real study of the dance. The British Museum was our master. I spent days making copies of the Greek vase painting while Isadora awaiting for seats when no one was present took on the poses of Greek bas-relief. Here commenced the first conception of conformity to a style which here was the Hellenic ideal. From this constant taking of attitudes before the sculpture Isadora acquires a new movement created by the rhythm of throwing herself into the attitude performed.” 5
     In this above comment, it is evident how Isadora and Raymond went to the British Museum and indulged themselves in European art and culture and started to study on their own arts. These studies have contributed significantly in reconfiguring aesthetics of Isadora’s dance by adding up some new expressions.


Aristocrat’s Salons and Performance with Benson’s Company

     When Isadora played at the Kensington Square Park, London, she met actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who introduced her to the London aristocracy. This made it possible for Isadora to dance privately at the homes of the bourgeoisies.
     To make a living on her own, Isadora took part in Benson’s Company’s performances in London. She danced the first fairy role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You could see Isadora’s name and role in this brochure.6 Besides, this performance, she took part in Tempest, Henri V, although she didn’t like these roles.7 This photo was taken in Feb, 1900, when Isadora took part in Benson’s Company, you could see Isadora in the middle of this photo.

(Life into Art, p.39)

     In her memoir, she didn’t write that she advertised her dance, but I found the advertisement in the historical newspaper as follows:

“The Dance Idylls of Isadora Duncan arranged for drawing rooms, garden, parties, &c. Town or country. For terms, particulars, &c., address Miss Duncan, care of Alfred Schuls-Curtius, 44 Piccadilly-circus, W.”8

      Looking at this advertisement, people from aristocratic class got interested and requested her to perform at their houses. As I will explain in a next section, this is how she got a chance to dance at the Gallery.


Performances at the New Gallery

     One of the friends of Ms. Campbell, Mrs. George Wyndham invited all artists and intellectuals in London to her house and arranged for Isadora to dance in her drawing room.9 In this gathering, Isadora met Charles Hallé,10 a director of New Gallery, and from his supports, her activities flourished.      

     Hallé taught Isadora on Burne-Jones, Rossetti, William Morris, all the school of Pre-Raphaelites, American painter, Whistler and poet, Tennyson.
     Moreover, Halle introduced painter William Blake Richmond, poet Andrew Lang, and composer Hubert Parry to Isadora. He asked them to support Isadora’s performances, and he held “Three Evenings with Isadora Duncan” at his New Gallery. In these performances, Richmond talked about the relationship between Dance and Paintings; Lang talked about Greek myth and Dance; and, Parry talked about Music and Dance. After their lectures, Isadora danced as a part of the Evenings.     

     These performances were patronized by the daughter of Queen Victoria, Helena, accompanied by support committee formed by prominent figures like  Countess Valda Gleichen, Countess Feodore Gleichen, painter Sir Wiliam Richmond, writer Henry James, poet Andrew Lang, composer Sir Hubert Parry, music critic Fuller Maitland etc.11
     According to Allan Ross Macdougall who wrote books on Isadora, the  first of these three performance was held in March 16th in 190012  However, the Morning Post in June 23rd in 1900 reported about “Three evenings with Isadora Duncan” like this. You could see that the date of the performance is June 28th, 1900.

埋め込み画像 1

     Moreover, when I checked Morning Post on June 28th in 1900, first performance would be held on June 28th at the New Gallery and Lang would talk about Greek Myth and Isadora would illustrate that in her dance.13 Therefore, I contend that Macdougall’s record must be erroneous. I bring to your notice that the other researchers, for example, Fredrika Blair14 and Peter Kurth15 followed previous research which is Macdougall’s record,16but I found that exact performance date from newspapers. Morning Post on June 27th also reported that Isadora Duncan’s Evenings would be held at the New Gallery as follows.

   “Mr. Andrew Lang had consented to open the recital tomorrow evening with a talk on the Greek classics that Miss Duncan will dance. Tickets for these evenings may be obtained by applying to Miss Duncan, 15, Kensington-court-place.“17

In this performance on 28th, Lang talked about Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, Isadora danced Lamentation for Adonis and other dances inspired by paintings.18 According to performance notice for the second performance, Parry talked about Music, Countess Valda Gleichen selected some music from Gluck’s Orpheus, and Isadora danced to Gluck and Chopin’s music.19
     The reason why she decided to use Chopin’s music was one of the committee members, music scholar and critic, John Alexander Fuller-Maitland who recommended Isadora that she should dance to good music like Chopin’s waltzes instead of dance to poem. Isadora followed his advice, and from this point, she began to respond to Chopin’s music. In Isadora’s memoir, she wrote about her performances at the New Gallery as follows.

     “I danced in the central court, round the fountain, surrounded by rare plants and flowers and banks of palms, and these functions were a great success. The newspapers were enthusiastic and Charles Halle was overjoyed at my success; everyone of note in London invited me to tea or dinner, and we had a short period during which fortune smiled upon us.”20

     In the third performance on July 6th,21 titled as Dance Idylls from fifteen century masters, Richmond lectured about Botticelli and La Primavera, after that Isadora showed her dances that were inspired by the paintings of Botticelli and Titian.22 Music was also from the fifteen century, and instruments were also from same century. According to Western Times on July 16th, these dances were critiqued to be “very artistic and exciting to the imagination was the effect of this revived Ancient art. The audience of this occasion (Dance Idylls from Fifteen Century Masters) seemed confined to those of the “highest cult.”23
     Evening Telegraph wrote: “She was particularly successful in reproducing the poise of the different figures in Botticelli’s “Primavera” though, curiously enough, she failed with the leading figure of Spring. Much better was her wonderful dance after “Bacchus and Ariadne” the grace and spirit of which must have been obvious even those wholly ignorant of the art of dancing”.24 This painting is Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian.

     Western Times reported: “Miss Duncan’s own costumes were entirely composed of diaphanous material,25 which allowed the graceful symmetry of her movements to be seen to perfection. She wore golden sandals on her feet. In the Bacchus and Ariadne dance, suggested by Giovanni Picchi,26 her dress was of red, garlanded with vine leaves.”27 You could see that Isadora might get inspiration from this Titian’s painting. Because the Bacchus in this painting wore red cape and a wreath made of vine leaves. In this report the reviewer also wrote that: “She wore golden sandals on her feet”, so from this, we need to think when she danced in London, she wore sandals. From these above archival sources, I bring to your attention that when Isadora was in London, she didn’t establish her typical style yet, which is dancing barefoot.

     In this photo28 Isadora is seen to dance Primavera, and we can see that she didn’t dance barefoot.


(Life into Art, p.37)

And this is the famous painting of Bottichelli’s Primavera.

     Compared to Isadora’s Primavera and Botticelli’s painting, Primavera, Isadora might have tried to depict the third lady from left in the painting. The lady is wearing a tunic with printed flowers and she is a symbol of spring. Isadora was also wearing a similar kind of costume and her stomach part is abundant like the third lady in the painting. On this performance, The Evening Telegraph reported as follows:

     “Miss Duncan took up a series of graceful poses like those of figures on a Greek vase, but passes from one to another so quickly that the succession of postures resolved itself into a dance. Miss Duncan has both the elevation and the muscular strength of the dancer, but she makes it her chief aim to develop the pictorial side of the dance, and leaves feats of limb to others.”29

     Isadora created her own dance inspired by Greek vases at the British Museum, Italian paintings at the New Gallery. So, drawing on ballet exercises learned in the USA and London, she created her own style. In her photo Primavera, I note that her arm and hand were very expressive and legs make little attitude, expressing how her dance was elegant and charming.



     In this presentation, I have attempted to throw light on Isadora’s early career. Drawing upon archival sources, I make it evident how Duncan’s early career in London was meaningful in establishing contacts with artists of repute and intellectuals who undeniably inspired her to create a new dance aesthetics. There she had an opportunity to learn real Greek arts, Italian paintings. These experiences pushed her to create her reshape her practice and help her to create new dance as an art form. I have demonstrated how her dance performances were well-received and earned great admirations from most several intellectuals and renowned artists of that time in London.


     I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the descendants of Isadora Duncan -- Ligoa Duncan, Michel Duncan, and Dorée Duncan -- for the help they have given me in my research. They have shown me unpublished materials, Raymond Duncan’s memoir.


  1. The brochure is on July 18th in 1898. The title of performance was The Story of Narcissus: Done into Dance by Isadora Duncan.
  2. My Life, p.37
  3. My Life, p.23
  4. My Life, p.44
  5. Memoire of Raymond, p.13
  6. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Royal Lyceum Theatre on Feb. 22-28 in 1900.
  7. Evening Telegraph, 6 Aug. 1900
  8. The Times, 26, 28, 30 Mar., 6 Apr.1900.
  9. My Life, p.48.
  10. He was an English painter and a director of the New Gallery. His German-born father was a famous pianist and conductor, Sir Chalres Hallé. (Seroff,p.42) 
  11. Morning Post, 23 Jun. 1900. Macdougall wrote painter, Lawrence Alma Tadema was also a member of committee.(Macdougall, p.53)
  12. Macdougall, p.54
  13. Morning Post, 28 Jun. 1900
  14. Blair, p.34.
  15. Kurth wrote that performance date was March 17th . (Kurth, p.60)However, no record that Isadora performed at New Gallery on March 17th. Blair wrote that “The first recital was reviewed the next day (March 17, 1900) in the London Times”(Blair, p.34) So, he followed her record.  
  16. According to Macdougall, he used The Times on March 17th in 1900, and it reported Isadora danced for poems of Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, Theokritos’s Idylls and Triumph of Daphnis, Mendelssohn’s Spring Song, Nevin’s Water Nymph.
(Macdougall, pp.54-55)
  17. Morning Post , 27 June 1900.
  18. Western Times, 16 July 1900.
  19. From a brochure of the New Gallery on July 3rd in 1900.
  20. My Life, p.49.
  21. From a brochure of the New Gallery on July 6th in 1900.
  22. According to Macdougall, there were eight dancers including Isadora, but three of them didn’t dance. However, all dancers showed dances that along the theme of dance. Isadora danced as a central figure of “Primavera” and one of her most loved students, Irma kept the costume that Isadora wore while dancing the “Primavera”. (ARM,p.56)
  23. Western Times , 16 July 1900,
  24. Evening Telegraph, 6 Aug. 1900.
  25. In her autobiography, Isadora wrote: “It was typical of an English well-bred
assembly that no one remarked that I danced in sandals and bare feet, and transparent veils, although this simple apparition made the klatch of Germany some years later. But the English are such an extremely polite people that no one even thought of remarking upon the originality of my costume and, alas!” (My Life, p.43)
  26. He was an Italian composer, organist of the early Baroque era.
  27. Western Times, 16 July 1900.
  28. According to Life into Art, this photo was taken in 1899, London, when she danced Primavera.
  29. Evening Telegraph, 6 Aug. 1900


Blair, Fredrika. Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman, Quill, 1986.
Duncan, Isadora. My Life, Livelight,1996.
Duncan, Dorée(ed.) Life into Art: Isadora Duncan and Her World, Norton, 1993.
Kurth, Peter. Isadora: A Sensational Life, Back Bay, 2001.
Macdougall, Allan Ross. Isadora: A Revolutionary in Art and Love, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1960.
Seroff, Victor. The Real Isadora: the Life of Isadora Duncan, Avon Books, 1972.

Evening Telegraph, 6 Aug. 1900.
Morning Post , 27 June 1900.
Morning Post, 28 Jun. 1900Morning Post, 23 Jun. 1900.
Times, 26, 28, 30 Mar., 6 Apr.1900.
Western Times, 16 July 1900.

The Story of Narcissus: Done into Dance by Isadora Duncan, Lowther Lodge, 18 July 1898.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Lyceum Theatre 22-28 Feb, 1900.
Evenings with Isadora Duncan, The New Gallery, 3 July, 1900.
Evenings with Isadora Duncan, The New Gallery, 6 July, 1900.





Saturday the 24th. . Isadora Duncan Pundect
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