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Isadora Duncan and 'The Dance'

By B. John Zavrel


 Isadora Duncan, 1915: 'REDEMPTION'


Exactly a hundred years ago, in 1903, Isadora Duncan gave a lecture in Berlin, titled "The Dance of the Future," which was published as a pamphlet; it became the manifesto of Modern Dance and a feminist classic:

"... The movement of the waves, of winds, of the earth is ever in the same lasting harmony. We do not stand on the beach and inquire of the ocean what was its movement of the past and what will be its movement of the future. We realize that the movement peculiar to its nature is eternal to its nature...

The primary or fundamental movements of the new school of the dance must have within them the seeds from which will evolve all other movements, each in turn to give birth to others in unending sequence of still higher and greater expression, thoughts and ideas ...

My intention is, in due time, to found a school, to build a theatre where a hundred little girls shall be trained in my art, which they in turn will better. In this school I shall not teach the children to imitate my movements, but to make their own, I shall not force them to study certain movements, I shall help them to develop those movements which are natural to them.

There will always be movements which are the perfect expression of that individual body and that individual soul: so we must not force it to make movements which are not natural to it but which belong to a school.

The dancer of the future will be one whose body and soul have grown so harmoniously together that the natural language of that soul will have become the movement of the body. The dancer will not belong to a nation but to all humanity. She will dance not in the form of a nymph, nor fairy, nor coquette but in the form of a woman in its greatest and purest expression. She will realize the mission of woman's body and the holiness of all its parts. She will dance the changing life of nature, showing how each part is transformed into the other. From all parts of her body shall shine radiant intelligence, bringing to the world the message of the thoughts and aspirations of thousands of women. She shall dance the freedom of women ...

This is the mission of the dancer of the future...she is coming the dancer of the future: the free spirit, who will inhabit the body of new women; more glorious than any woman that has yet been; more beautiful than...all women in past centuries: The highest intelligence in the freest body!"

Isadora's speech in 1903 received a great deal of publicity and there was an outpouring of support for her ideas. She had established the art of Modern Dance.


 Isadora with her pupils in her Paris apartment in 1910.


Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco on May 26, 1877, as the fourth child of Joseph Duncan and wife, Mary Isadora Grey. Her father, Thomas Grey was a native of Ireland.


Isadora arrives in Paris in 1900

A turning point in her life was in late summer of 1900, when on the urging of her brother Raymond, she and her mother joined him in Paris. At the time, the Universal Exposition was taking place there, and she saw there the works of the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin. They also visited the Comedie Francaise, where they saw a production of Sophocles' 'Oedipus Rex'. For Raymond and Isadora, the Greek tragedy held endless fascination. They went to the Louvre and began an exhaustive study of the antiquities there, as they had done a year earlier in London. The collection of tiny Tanagra figures of ordinary people performing ordinary motions particularly excited Isadora. Isolated, the act of fastening one's sandal strap or scarf had a special beauty.

Isadora's dance is often wrongly perceived as having no technique, as being simply the result of inspired improvisation. The fact is that Isadora had received traditional dance training, but she had questioned it. She retained much of her physical discipline of classical ballet, but she sought to use the resulting bodily strength to produce free, curvilinear movements emanating from the solar plexus:

"...I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement. For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breasts, covering the solar plexus...I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all doversitons of movement are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of the dance."


The relation of dance to music

Isadora also pondered the relation of dance to music. In the patterned choreography of ballet, the steps were set to music. In her own technique of dance composition, the movement grew out of emotions evoked by the music, or the movement evolved--beginning as emotions expressed by gestures in silence, for which she would then select music that illustrated those same emotions:

"...I on the contrary sought the source of the spiritual expression to flow into the channels of the body filling it with vibrating light--the centrifugal force reflecting the spirit's vision. After many months, when I had learned to concentrate all my force to this one Center I found that thereafter, when I listened to music the rays and vibrations of the music streamed to this one fount of light within me--there they reflected themselves in Spiritual Vision, not the brain's mirror; but the soul's, and from this vision I could express them in dance."


Isadora Duncan in 'MAZURKA, Chopin Opus 17, No.4' in 1915.


Building their own temple near Acropolis

In the fall of 1903, the entire Duncan family fulfilled their dream of visiting Greece. Her brother Raymond had already decided that all shoes were obnoxious and had begun making his own sandals. Isadora's dancing clothes were starting to influence her street clothes. Now they decided to adopt ancient Greek dress. They traveled to Greece on a fishing boat and continued on foot, then by train, finally arriving in Athens. Their explorations soon led them to a hilltop with an unobstructed view of the Acropolis. They purchased the site for a Duncan family temple 'Kopanos' and construction soon began.


The Greeks were charmed by these eccentric, earnest Americans, and even the King visited their temple. But Isadora and Raymond's time was spent chiefly in research. They were acquainted with Greek drama and poetry; sculpture and vase paintings had given them an image of the dance. But what about the music of the theatre of antiquity? They met the Sikelianos family--Philadelpheus, an archeologist; Angelo, a poet; and Penelope, a musicologist and singer, who became Raymond Duncan's wife.

In the mornings they danced and recited in the ruined Theatre of Dionysus, and in the evenings they went to sit in the moonlight, seeking guidance from the spirits. One night they heard young boys singing old Greek songs: the voices had just the tone needed to reproduce the lost music of Greek choruses. They selected a group of boys, and began training them. On the streght of the theory that many of the hymns of the early Christian Church were derived from the strophes of pagan hymns and chants, they searched manuscripts of Byzantine liturgical music to reconstitute the Chorus for Aeschylus' 'The Suppliants' and 'The Bacchae' of Euripides.


When they returned to Germany, she took the chorus boys with her. In Munich she met Siegfried Wagner, Richard Wagner's son. He encouraged his mother Cosima Wagner to invite Isadora to dance at Bayreuth. Since her arrival in Germany in 1902, Isadora had been studying German, and she was reading philosophy and literature, including the works of Kant and Nietzsche. From then on, she always kept a copy of Nietzsche's 'Thus Spake Zarathustra' with her.


 Isadora as PRIESTESS in 'Iphigenia in Tauris' by Gluck (1903)


Meeting Edward Gordon Craig

One day in December 1904, she met Edward Gordon Craig, who was an actor, designer, a director, and a graphic artist. Isadora invited Craig to her next recital--a Chopin program, performed in a simple setting designed by Raymond: blue-gray curtains hanging between wooden Greek columns. Craig describes his response:

"...I shall never forget the first time I saw her come on to an empty platform to dance. Berlin--the year 1904, the month December. Not on a theater stage was this performance given, but in a concert hall, and you may recall what the platforms were like in 1904.

She came through some little curtains which were not much taller than herself--she came through and walked down to where a musician, his back to us, was seated at a large piano--he had just finished playing a short prelude by Chopin when in she came, and in some five or six steps was standing at the piano, quite still--you might have counted five or eight, and then there sounded the voice of Chopin in a second prelude or etude--it was played through gently and came to an end--she had not moved at all. Then one step back or sideways, and the music began again as she went moving on before or after it. Only just moving--not pirouetting or doing any of the things which a Taglioni or a Fanny Elssler would have certainly done. SHe was speaking her own language, not echoing any ballet master, and so she came to move as no one had ever seen anyone move before.

The dance ended, she again stood quite still. No bowing, no smiling--nothing at all. Then again the music is off, and she runs from it--it runs after her then--for she has gone ahead of it.

How is it that we know she is speaking her own language? We know it, for we see her head, her hands, gently active, as are her feet, her whole person. And if she is speaking, what is it she is saying? No one would ever be able to report truly, yet no one present had a moment's doubt. Only this can we say--that she was telling to the air the very things we long to hear; and now we heard them, and this sent us all into an unusual state of joy, and I sat still and speechless."

Remarkable for its humble and sincere admiration, Craig's memory of Isadora's performance is also particularly interesting for its choice of words. Not only does he describe Isadora's innovative use of music but he refers to her speaking a language, as if she were an actor. When he saw her dance, Craig was not only a man in love with a woman. Of the many artists inspired by Isadora, Craig was perhaps the one who understood and appreciated most deeply what it was she was doing.


 Isadora as 'THE PRIESTESS' in 'Iphigenia in Tauris' by Gluck (1903)


Tour of the United States and meeting American Artists

In 1908, Isadora accepted a tour in the United States. It did not work our financially, but she stayed on for a while in New York, encouraged by the enthusiasm of the artistic community. The sculptor George Grey Barnard wanted her to pose for a monumental statue to be entitled "American Dancing', which was never completed. She also met such American painters and sculptors as Arthur Davies, George Bellows, Robert Henri, John Sloan, and Lorado Taft; the writers and poets Max Eastman, Percy MacKaye, William Vaughn Moody, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and the conductor Walter Damrosch.


It was at this time that Paris Singer, heir to the Singer sewing-machine fortune, fell passionately in love with Isadora. Eventually, he would become her lover, father of her son, and financial supporter, before she would finally end the relationship.


Isadora as Muse for de Segonzac, Rodin, Cocteau and others

By this time Isadora had become an icon for artists, especially in Paris. Many had first seen her in 1903, when she and Raymond had gone to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and distributed complimentary tickets to the students, and they had never missed a performance since. Her image followed them back to their studios. The painter and engraver Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac published his first Isadora portfolio in 1910, with a preface in verse by the poet Fernand Divoire. The same year Jean-Paul Lafitte published his studies with a preface by the art historian Elie Faure. Jose Clara and Jules Grandjouan were working on drawings which would contribute to their portfolios. Valentine Lecomte, who had begun sketching Isadora in 1903, continued to record her dances. Lecomte's work covers the entire span of Isadore's career and shows the changes in her art--from lyrical to dramatic and later, tragic.

In the United States, Abraham Walkowitz sketched her continuously from 1908. Even after her death he would return to her image in sketches that reflected his own changing style. There are no films of Isadora dancing, so Walkowitz's drawings (some 9,000 of them) are the closest we have to a moving image of Isadora. Viewed in succession, these deceptively simple line drawings convey the great muscular strength, the unusual suppleness, and the infinite subtle varety of her movements.


French sculptor Bourdelle and Isadora

The sculptor Emile-Antoine Bourdelle had met Isadora in 1903 at Rodin's picnic, but it was in 1909 that he first saw her dance on stage. The nymph who had been persuaded to take off her skirt and dance on the grass in her muslin petticoat had grown into the beautiful, tragic muse. Bourdelle had already been asked to decorate the facade of the planned Theatre des Champs-Elysees. When he saw Isadora, he realized that she was his muse: "To me it seemed that there, through her, was animated an ineffable frieze wherein divine frescoes slowly became human realities. Each leap, each attitude of the great artist remains in my memory like flashes of lightning." Bourdelle would return from the theatre and sketch for hours. His images of Isadora are the most varied, for they convey not only Isadora but the vast range of emotions she embodied.


 Color engravings of Isadora dancing "AIR GAI" from Gluck's 'Iphigenia in Aulis' by Mikhail Dobrov (1910), Bakhrushin State Theatre Museum, Moscow.


The years that followed brought the great tragedy of the death of her two children Deirdre and Patrick in a car accident, the death of her third child, breakup of her love-affair with Paris Singer, and the experiences during several years in the Soviet Union.


The tragic end of Isadora

Her death came suddenly and unexpectedly in 1927 in Nice. In the evening of September 14th, she went out for a drive with a young mechanic who sold Bugatti racing cars. Just as the car started, Isadora flung the end of her shawl over her shoulder. The long fringe caught in the spokes of the spinning rear wheel; the heavy silk tightened around the beautiful neck. She died instantly.

Her brother Raymond brought her body to Paris. Thousands of mourners, famous and unknown, had gathered at the cemetery gate. During the cremation, Marcellac sang Beethoven's 'in Questa Tomba Oscura', which Eleonora Duse had sung to comfort Isadora after the death of Deirdre and Patrick.

In a wisp of smoke rising into the autumn sky, the physical Isadora vanished. Her ashes were placed in a niche next to those of her beloved children. Golden leaves drifted softly from the shivering chestnut trees.

"DERNIERE VISION' (Last Vision), print of study of Isadora dancing drawn by Jose Clara after her death (Duncan collection).


Isadora's legacy

Today she stands silently beside all the performers who pause, before going on stage, to give their art and their bodies over to the power of their souls.

Isadora did not speak of 'Duncan Dance.' She spoke simply, with great reverence, of 'The Dance.' The art of the dance was sacred for her. She did not feel that her dances belonged to her, she felt that she belonged to the dance. Today, dancers who use her technique are called 'Duncan' dancers. Many women have faithfully preserved her choreography and their performances are of great historical value. But the truest Duncan dancers are those who have followed her teaching that the work of each dancer must be unique--those who have listened to their music with their souls and created their own dances.


After Isadora's death, her friend Christine Dallies found the following statement in her papers:

'...Since the invention of the radio, we know that we are surrounded by music and by voices which come to us from all parts of the world. Our ears cannot perceive these sounds which the radio easily transmits to us.

I do not doubt that someday someone will discover an instrument which will do for sight what radio does for hearing, and we will discover that we are surrounded, not only by sounds, but also and invisibly, to our eye, by the presence of all that is no longer. The music and the voices that we hear over the radio do not cease to exist but travel in space indefinitely and, in time, attain other stars: therefore gestures also travel endlessly in space.

So, each word we speak, each gesture we make continue in the ether on an immortal voyage.

In this survival only, I believe, and that is sufficient.'

* * * 

Article based on excerpts from the fascinating book on Isadora Duncan "LIFE INTO ART" by Doree Duncan, Carol Pratl and Cynthia Splatt.


* * *

In Toronto, Canada,

Paul James Dwyer and his dance company

"danse OREMUS danse"

keeps the tradition of the "Duncan Dance" alive


Please visit their web site at: www.danceoremusdanse.org



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Copyright 2002 West-Art

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, Politics and Science.

Nr. 86, Spring 2003