by Valerie Durham
From a lecture and demonstration by Valerie Durham at Mercy College, New York, in March 2006
Isadora Duncan, who would become known as the mother of modern dance, was born in 1877 in San Francisco, CA. It was an interesting time, when the influences Romanticism, Victorianism and Modernism overlapped between the mid-nineteenth century to early twentieth. And Isadora's contribution to the art of the dance was hugely influenced by her exposure to each of these artistic and social movements.
She had a very unusual childhood, especially growing up in the late 19th century. Her father and mother divorced at a young age, and as a result her father (a notorious fraudster, banker and publisher in the Bay area) was rarely in her life, and her mother, devastated by her father's betrayal, rejected both the concept of marriage and of religion (she had previously been a devote Catholic).
Isadora was raised in a very poor household where art and music were the gods, and from an extremely early age, her siblings and she listened to the great works of Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats or Burns. Her mother played Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart and Chopin.
Much of Isadora's days were spent running free in the outdoors (she says she always hated being in school), and this is where she found tremendous inspiration for the development of her art of dance, studying the movement of trees, wind, waves, birds and rain.
So Isadora's fundamental exposure to art and music in her formative years were definitely from Romantic era writers, artists and musicians. She also developed, from her mother's experience, a sense of rebelliousness against the Puritical and Victorian strictures regarding the role of women, marriage and child-bearing, fashion and education.
At Isadora's time, dance was seen only as a diversion or entertainment, not true art like painting, music or sculpture. The 3 “B”s of dance that existed at her time – Ballet, Ballroom and Burlesque – did not allow for expression of the human condition or exploration of a higher plane.
To rediscover dance as high art, Isadora did several ingenious things:
First, Isadora studied the ancient Greeks, who were the last culture to hold dance up as a high art form, alongside drama, music and poetry. Terpsichore was the muse of the dance; and the Greek Chorus danced in plays. Isadora studied Greek vases, friezes, sculpture and architecture to understand their knowledge of the beauty of the natural human body. She also adopted the Greek habit of wearing flowing tunics to augment the beauty of the human form and also to enhance to flow of movement while dancing.
Not only did Isadora believe that the Greeks had it “right” but also, fortuitously, at Isadora's time, there was a huge resurgence of interest in the antiquities. Society at her time believed anything Greek was high and noble – by associating dance with Greek art, Isadora moved one step closer to her goal of making dance a high art form.
There are several other specific things that Isadora did that relate specifically to the Romantic movement.
The Dancer as Priestess – Revealing Inner Spirituality
Again, Isadora came from a completely aethestic background, but she was a deeply spiritual person and felt that all dance expressed a spiritual plane. Isadora discovered the inner wellspring of the dance and of movement – the breath and solar plexus. Please point to yourself. Where did you point? To your elbow? No, to the center of your chest. Universally, all humankind points to this place to indicate “myself.” At the nexis of the human body and the human spirit is the seat of inspiration for dance.
In her magnum opus, The Art of the Dance, Isadora wrote:
“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 moter power, the unity from which all diversities of movement are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of the dance.”
In 1904, Isadora traveled to Greece, her “mecca.” While there she visited the Parthenon, a place she revered. She describes her experience there in The Art of the Dance:
“The first days as I stood there my body was as nothing and my soul was scattered; but gradually called by the great inner voice of the Temple, came back the parts of myself to worship it...
"For many days no movement came to me. And then one day came the thought: These columns which seem so straight and still are not really straight, each one is curving gently from the base to the height, each one is in flowing movement, neverresting, and the movment of each is in harmony with the others. And as i thought this my arms rose slowly toward the Temple and I leaned forward -- and then I knew I had found my dance, and it was a Prayer.”
The dance simply entitled “Prelude” is to the music of Romantic era composer Frederic Chopin, one of Isadora's favorite composers. In working with concert music, that not written specifically for dance, Isadora shocked and outraged many of the critics and audiences of her dance – until they saw her dances. Then, they loved it. And thus, Isadora continued to push dance be associated with the “higher” art forms.
“Prelude” is a simple dance, even shocking in its simplicity especially when Isadora first performed it, about searching and self-discovery.
Another huge inspiration to Isadora's work was Nature with a capital N. Like other romantic composers, artists and poets, nature was seen as supreme. What was natural was good, what was artificial was bad. This is one reason that Isadora was so profoundly against the Ballet. She felt it went against nature – against gravity, against the natural form of the woman's body. I feel I could safely say, Isadora hated ballet!
Again, from The Art of the Dance, Isadora wrote:
“If we seek the real source of the dance, if we go to nature, we find that the dance of the future is the dance of the past, the dance of eternity, and has been and will always be the same.
"The movement of waves, of winds, of the earth is ever the same lasting harmony. We do not stand on the beach and inquire of the ocean what was its movement in the past and what will be its movement in the future...
“To seek in Nature the most beautiful forms and to discover the movement which expresses the soul of these forms, that is the task of the dancer. Like the sculptor, with whom he has so much in common, the dancer should draw his inspiration from Nature alone. Rodin wrote: “In sculpture it is not necessary to copy the works of antiquity. One must rather observe the works of Nature first, and then see in the works of the ancient sculptors only the way in which Nature has been interpreted.
"Rodin is right; and in my art I have not at all copied, as is believed, figures from Greek vases, friezes or paintings. I have learned from them how to study Nature, and when certain of my movements recall gestures seen on works of art, it is only because they likewise are taken from the great natural source.
"I am inspired by the movement of the trees, the waves, the snows, by the connection betweenpassion and the storm, between the breeze and gentleness, and so on. And I always put into my movements a little of that divine continuity which gives to all of Nature its beauty and life.”
The next dance, entitled “Water Study” is choreographed to another Romantic era composer, Franz Schubert, another of Isadora's favorite composers. Within the dance, the dancer is both representing water and also becomes water. In all of Isadora's dances, there are multiple layers of symbolism and expression.
Dance: Water Study
Isadora was interested in the way humanity moved. She studied how people from all cultures walked, skipped, ran, leaped, reclined and rose up. She studied the traditional dances from other cultures – from Irish jigs to Spanish flamenco and Eastern European gypsy mazurkas.
But Isadora was first and foremost an American. And although Isadora never met with great success with American audiences, she loved American and felt that her dancing, for all its Greek inspiration, was American dancing.
In response to Walt Whitman's famous poem “I See America Singing,” (Whitman was one of the many writers Isadora read and was inspired by) Isadora wrote an article entitled “I See America Dancing.”
In it she writes:
“I see America dancing, beautiful, strong, with one foot poised on the highest point of the Rockies, her tow hands stretched out from the Atlantic to the Pacific, her fine head tossed to the sky, her forehead shining with a crown of a million stars.”
In the following dance, entitled “Gypsy,” is from a suite of dances that Isadora choreographed to a set of Brahm's waltzes. Another Romantic composer, Isadora called this set of dances “The Many Faces of Love.” In them, she explores the diverse experiences of love, from motherhood to passionate abandon. “Gypsy” is derived from the regional dances of Eastern Europe and an exploration of temptation and sensuality, themes that dance had never explored in in Ballet and Ballroom – although perhaps a bit in Burlesque!
First and foremost to Isadora, the dancer was an individual! Not just a dancing body with its head cut off, but a thinking, expressive individual. She expected dancers to study not only dance, but also art, literature, philosophy and science. Isadora herself was incredibly well-rounded. She studied not only the Romantic writers, musicians and artists that we've already mentioned, but also thinkers from the Enlightenment like Rosseau, and from the modern like Nietzche. She passionately studied Darwin and Haeckel. She visited countless museums to study all forms of art.
Isadora also associated with the greatest artists of her day. She regularly hosted the likes of Gertrude Stein, Auguste Rodin, Jean Cocteau, Edward Steichen, Max Eastman, Preston Sturges, Mary Desti and many others. She was also a muse of her time, inspiring many artists in their poems, sculptures, photos and paintings. Emile-Antoine Bourdelle used Isadora as his inspiration for the famous bas relief on the Champs Elysees in Paris. And Isadora almost single-handedly inspired the formation of the Ballet Russes in Russia after her 1905 visit. A ballet company that brought together the powerful talents of Fokine, Njinsky, Pavlova, Stravinksky and Picasso, it manifested many of Isadora's ideas about dance, music and staging to work together to express more meaningful themes.
As an individual, Isadora was a powerful force. Beyond her artistic contributions, Isadora was a powerful personality in society. Her notorious love affairs (with the likes of Gordon Craig, the famed set designer, and Paris Singer, wealthy Singer sewing machine heir), extravagant living (she loved champagne and caviar, 5-star hotels, lavish parties – and she rarely paid her bills), distinctive fashion style (she never wore corsets or high-lace up boots, but rather Greek style flowing robes and sandals) and communist sympathies, and much more, put her on the front pages regularly and in the gossip columns often.
Isadora's revolutionary dances allowed for exploration of the human condition, as an individual artist, rather than a tool of simple storytelling, as was the role for the ballet dancer. Many of her works expressed themes such as loneliness, sacrifice, ecstasy, pilgrammage, and self-discovery.
Isadora wrote: “The movement of the universe concentrating in an individual becomes what is termed the will; for example, the movement of the earth, being the concentration of surrounding forces, gives to the earth its individuality, its will of movement. So creatures of the earth, receiving in turn these concentrating forces in their different, as transmitted to them through their ancestors and to those by the earth, in themselves evolve the movement of individuals which is termed the will.
“The dance should simply be, then, the natural gravitation of this will of the individual, which is in the end is no more nor less than a human translation of the gravitation of the universe.”
She continued: “Imagine then a dancer who, after long study, prayer and inspiration, has attained such a degree of understanding that his body is simply the luminous manifestation of his soul; whose body dances in accordance with a music heard inwardly, in an expression of something out of another, a profounder world. This is the truly creative dancer, natural but not imitative, speaking in movement out of himself and out of something greater than all selves.”
Dionysus: God of Passion and Abandon – the Epitome of Emotion
One of Isadora's highest goals, beyond restoring dance to a high art form, was the pioneering establishment of an educational system that surrounded children with beauty and the opportunity for self-expression. She founded her first school in Grunewald Germany in 1904 – three years before Maria Montessori founded her education program in Italy.
Isadora felt that the human spirit could be best cultivated through the presence of art and music. Her schools were decorated with paintings and sculptures; children were awakened by a piano being played in the middle of the dorm room – they would gather around and sing to start the day. She wrote : The children of my school at an early age learned to sing the chorals of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Bach and the songs of Schubert; for every child, no matter of what class, if he sings and moves to this music will penetrate the spiritual message of the great masters.”
It was through art, and dancing in particular of course, Isadora believed, that a child's emotional character could be best developed.
From The Art of the Dance: “It is possible to dance in two ways: One can throw oneself into the spirit of the dance, and dance the thing itself: Dionysus. Or one can contemplate the spirit of the dance – and dance as one who relates a story: Apollo.”
Isadora Duncan was a tremendous artist of the early 20th century. She almost singlehandedly restored dance as an art form that could be expressive and passionate and flexible and powerful like other art forms. The foundation of her art form, which you have had a glimpse of today, is based in the art and beauty of the Romantic era artists – Keats, Whitman, Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart. But it is important to remember that Isadora herself was a modern artist – the mother of modern dance. She combined the two into a powerful dance form that still speaks today. It revolutionized the art world and society. Isadora was a modern artist, firmly grounded in Romantic ideals, who influenced an entire generation more than 100 years ago...and her influence and her genius is still being felt today.