“The dancer’s body is simply the luminous manifestation of the soul.
The true dance is an expression of serenity;
it is controlled by the profound rhythm of inner emotion.
Emotion does not reach the moment of frenzy out of a spurt of action;
it broods first, it sleeps like the life in the seed,
and it unfolds with a gentle slowness.
The Greeks understood the continuing beauty of a movement
that mounted, that spread, that ended with a promise of rebirth.” Isadora Duncan
I’ve been fascinated with the 1920s since I was a little kid and delighted in the occasional Chaplin film on cable, so it’s not at all surprising that I’d come across the career of Isadora Duncan.
Duncan is regarded as the creator of Modern Dance (though in dance communities, this is sometimes hotly debated). While Modern Dance performances are clearly similar to ballet in some ways, the Modern Dance movement in the early 1900s was born from a distaste that many dancers had with what they perceived as a rigidity and “unnatural movement” in classical ballet. While there are now several schools of Modern Dance, Duncan’s dance was based on the dance depicted in ancient Hellenic pottery, sculpture, Graeco-Roman mosaics and neo-Classical Renaissance art and sculpture.
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 always will be the same… The movement of waves, of winds, of the earth is ever the same lasting harmony.” Isadora Duncan
Though she did have formal teachers giving her a background in classical dance, she ultimately rejected much of this training for improvisation and a sort of Neo-Pagan Romanticism. She once famously proclaimed that the Goddess Aphrodite Herself taught Ms Duncan in the art of dance on the beaches of California.
Her parents were once wealthy, but became rather poor shortly after Isadora’s birth, when her father lost his bank; her parents later divorced when she was seven-years-old. The experience of growing up impoverished, she and her mother and sister giving music and dance lessons to support the family, likely bred her Communist ideals, which would later lead her to defect to Russia. In spite of gaining Russian citizenship, she lived her last years in France, as well as a significant portion of her life prior.
“There are likewise three kinds of dancers: first, those who consider dancing as a sort of gymnastic drill, made up of impersonal and graceful arabesques; second, those who, by concentrating their minds, lead the body into the rhythm of a desired emotion, expressing a remembered feeling or experience. And finally, there are those who convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul.” ~Isadora Duncan
Despite being clearly a subversive influence on the world of artistic dance, she never completely fit in with Bohemian crowds, but her free-spiritedness and natural draw to shake up convention kept her from truly assimilating into high society. In some respects, her nature could be seen as Dionysian.
Though posthumously, she’s been idealised by some as a sort of radical femme-inist of the school of “sisters doin’ for themselves” because her dance schools were famously all-girl, early on she sought to include boys amongst her pupils of dance and philosophy, but ultimately, it was financiers who made the decision for her single-sex education in dance, and men trained in a lineage that can be traced back to Isadora Duncan herself, while increasing in number, are still rare; I know of only one male dancer to have ever been directly taught by Duncan herself. While examinations of her personal life definitely show many feminist sympathies (and also a bisexual with at least one noteworthy and passionate affair with another woman), she refrained from identifying her socio-political ideaologies as anything more than Communist, Socialist, or Marxist, which is easily argued to be inherently feminist, if not explicitly, much less radically so. The ultimate downfall of her schools, though, was her idealism; even her school in Moscow at a time of the early days of Russia’s totalitarian form of Communism suffered financially because the state had not yet made a suitable provision for the arts that could keep the school afloat, and Duncan was so firm in her belief that commercial performances cheapened the artistry she taught students to value, that she’d just as soon close a school left in the charge of a star pupil than tolerate her students performing on a commercial stage. In honour of her value of art over money, Duncan legacy dance troupes are largely non-profit.
Love is an illusion; it is the world’s greatest mistake. I ought to know for I’ve been loved as no other woman of my time has been loved. -Isadora Duncan
Her style of dance she always stressed to be very natural in its approach to the movements of the body, and improv is a major element to Duncan’s style of modern dance (though the choreography is often surprisingly intricate). Emotion and the expression of through the whole body with dance is another defining characteristic of Duncan’s style. Unlike ballet, which tends to place greater value on women dancers who are especially light-weight, and often with an unspoken mantra of “the lighter the better”, Duncan dance values any body that can move with the natural grace and convey the emotions integral to a piece; though this often means fans of ballet and some other dance regard Duncan dancers as “fat” and “out-of-shape”, the inherent athleticism in Duncan dance illustrate that Duncan dance not only keeps one in good physical condition, but also that the movements celebrate all shapes and sizes of graceful. Typically performing in bare feet, hops, skips, leaps, and arm movements tend to be regarded as the most basic elements of Duncan dancing, and Grecian-inspired dance costume is clearly preferred by Duncan herself, and those continuing to dance in her lineage.
The only surviving / known film taken of her dancing is not only extremely short, but clearly gives more attention to Isadora’s costume adjustment than her dance, which is shown as little more than a few hops. The circumstances under which this film was shot, I do not know; it’s likely that it was an experiment taken by a friend, or perhaps setting up the equipment took so long she had become tired. This is certainly not representative of the great dancer that shook up the art world and caused a sensation in the Early Twentieth. For more representitive video, there is no shortage of video of dancers of the Isadora Duncan legacy.
Interestingly, for all of Duncan’s glorifications of the Greeks, Aphrodite, Eros, the Moisai, the Khairetes, and all her applause for the wisdom of the Greeks and the inherent natural beauty of her reconstructed Greco-Roman dance, the music she selected, and that is still popular with dancers of the Duncan legacy, is movements by Romantic composers, and often music not written with dance performances in mind. This rather odd choice, all things considered, still lends to a graceful and beautiful interpretation of the music, I can’t help but wish to see Duncan dance performed with reconstructed Greco-Roman music.
Off the stage, Duncan was a flamboyant character, being practically immune to the typical ill effects of scandal, and a well-regarded eccentric. She rejected Christianity for Classical and Neitzchian philosophy, eagerly entertained Romantic Neo-Pagan imagery of her own character, and often read tarot cards for friends, strangers, and herself. Still, for all her fabulous life, it was marked with great tragedy; her marriages ended bitterly, her children died in a tragic automobile accident, her own life cut short when her excessively long scarf she regarded as something of a trademark wrapped around the axle of her Amilcar, choking her, then snapping her neck, then nearly dragging her body down the street just as her lover realised what was wrong. She died at fifty, but not before leaving an indelible impression on not only dance, but all of the arts (having inspired painters and sculptors).