More than Just Moving: Making Meaning in Movement
“Her real contribution lay in discovering a new motivation for dance”
By Jayme Swallow
Table of Contents
I. Social Context
The turn of the century was a time of great change, which Isadora Duncan responded to and rebelled against in her personal life as well as her dance.
II. Cultural Influences
Philosophers and poets influenced Isadora Duncan, encouraging her to create her own style and aesthetic for her art.
III. Personal Life
Isadora Duncan’s personal life had a large impact on the changes she made to dance as well as the choreography of individual pieces.
IV. The Artist Emerges: The Development of Duncan’s Style
Duncan’s dance style was not codified, yet she had a specific movement style throughout her life. In her early life she moved in a light and airy manner. After her children died, Duncan’s movement was more static and concave. During the war years, Duncan’s dance had a political aspect to it as she created her war time pieces which were very modern and solid.
V. Later Influences
Duncan served as a later influence to artists to come especially in the world of modern dance. Without Duncan, dance would be in a very different state today.
In the late 1800s, Isadora Duncan saw dance in America as entertainment, with little or no acknowledged artistic value. Dance was generally in the form of social dance or ballet, both of which lacked artistry – for Duncan -- as they were not natural or creative, nor satisfyingly aesthetic. Many other dancers and scholars agreed and felt dance was desperately in need of change. A self-proclaimed Artist and revolutionary, Duncan set out to change the world by challenging society by changing the expectations of dance as an art form. Dance in America was seen as a simplistic form of entertainment until she imbued it with the ability to express on a more intimate level and raised it to Art, showing herself to be a product of her changing environment. Duncan infused the dance with self-expression, reflecting characteristics of her time to find an American Art form.
Using a cultural frame of analysis, this paper will examine the life and works of Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, as an artist of self-expression and a reflection of her time. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how Duncan’s dance is an Art reflecting her time as she used the physical body as a medium of Art and self-expression. A study of Duncan’s pedagogy, methodology, and works will illustrate this. As shown in her life and choreography, Duncan rebelled against social conforms. By putting an American twist on dance, she created a new art form to be used as her vehicle for revolution. She broke the rules of conventional turn-of-the-century life and was supported in her ideas by other artists and intellectuals, to exhibit and display her values and beliefs. Duncan pioneered a process to help others find their voice. She was then able to use it as her vehicle to enable other dancers and Artists alike. Dance was not so much what she did, but it was an integral part of who she was, her inner soul, and her means to give a new voice to American dance. Duncan’s revolutionary nature, once combined with this changing culture, made her an innovative pioneer in dance.
In order to show how Duncan gave meaning to movement, this paper will start by discussing the cultural issues Duncan was responding to and rebelling against. Next we will examine the cultural aspects of America that informed Duncan’s work. Her personal life was also of vital impact on her dancing career and choreography which will be shown. Following, there will be a critical analysis of Duncan’s dance style, including technique, style, and choreography. Subsequently, Duncan’s changes to the view of dance in America will be presented alongside Duncan’s influence towards future dance in America in order to show how Duncan revolutionized her world and became the mother of modern dance. This will show how Duncan gave meaning to dance.
I. Social Context
“She [Duncan] was determined to read everything that had ever been written on the
art of dancing” –Larry Sandomir
In examining a time period, there are many different frames of analysis to utilize. This provides the reader with a framework to understand and view the information. Political, economic, religious, science, intellectual, and Artistic lenses shed new light on understanding of a particular culture. According to Aristotle, there is no original thought and everything anyone does is influenced by an external source. There is a unity throughout space and time for the intellectual and artistic; Duncan is no exception. The culture had a vast impression on her. At the turn of the century there was political unrest, which eventually led to the world wars beginning in Europe. Women were beginning to fight for equal rights and suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was leading women’s movement. Intellectuals were beginning to explore self-knowledge and the nature of human suffering. Visual art was dominated by impressionism, a revolt against traditional art, and by modernism, experimentation and fragmentation of the human experience. As for dance, Russia was the leader in the world of ballet. The economy was changing with new advances in science and technology. Religion, too, was changing. Transcendentalists were making their way into society. The social context gives us a view into Duncan’s world, allowing for the understanding of Duncan and her work.
Ann Daly, former women’s studies professor, posits that many “[a]uthors criticized the current state of the art . . . . It was generally agreed that dancing was in serious decline” (Daly, Theory 24). This was because the Paris Opera, which originally featured ballet as an extension of the opera, was diminishing in its influence and importance because of its persistent use of hierarchy over talent. Dance in America had no strong ballet tradition. It was not tied to the American culture or society and was viewed as unaesthetic because it lacked self-expression and personal attachment. It had no personal meaning to the viewer, especially according do Duncan. This affected dance in America in that it had no integral role in the lives of Americans as it did in other cultures. Because there were no dancers paving the way for Duncan in creating the new voice and new art—their dances were different than hers, as they were entertainment, not Art. This necessitated Duncan turning to other art forms and found “the only dance masters I could have were Jean-Jaques Rousseau (“Emile”), Walt Whitman and Nietzsche” (Duncan 80). Using these men as her artistic masters enabled Duncan to draw from more than just the history of dance, but from the history of all art and thought. She was influenced by - and able to utilize - everything she had ever learned and anyone she ever met. The society of America informed Duncan’s behavior and artistic focus.
The Romantic Era, beginning in the late 18th century in Europe, was the intellectual movement into which Duncan was born. Romanticism is an expression of the Artistic, literary, and intellectual. A reaction to the industrial revolution and a revolt against the age of enlightenment, Romanticism validated emotion as a source of aesthetic experience, placed an emphasis on emotion while embracing the exotic. As the Romantic Era progressed into America, the United States began to separate itself from Europe to become an authentically American entity. This will tie into the American authors mentioned in chapter two. The Romantic Era emphasized self-analysis and enabled artists to express their individual ideas. Art became a reflection of the artist and an expression of nature. This found its way to Duncan aiding and influencing her in her formative creative years.
Duncan was created and did create on the cusp of Romanticism and Modernism. Modernism came as a response to realism as well as conservative, traditional values. Duncan, of course, was vitally influenced by modernism, which questioned the current state and found traditionalism to be out date. Modernism’s purpose was to shatter and destroy the traditional. However, modernism cannot be classified solely within a time frame, and Duncan was still intrinsically romantic, transitioning between the two ideologies. Duncan, like modernists, questioned the previous age, and experimented with form. Marcia B Siegel, dance critic and lecturer, wrote a booklet for the Reparatory Dance Theatre outlining the history of modern dance. She discusses Duncan’s inquiry and likens it to modernism, which “is concerned to uncover the substance of art by peeling off the layers of all past traditions, and to work afresh from and through the primary substance of the art form, which, in dance, is movement” (66). Duncan was modern in her rebellion, and in turning inward, but she was not completely modern in that she still embraced aspects of Romanticism, as in looking to nature for inspiration. Both movements influence and are present in her works. Water Study, for example, is very romantic as Duncan looks to nature for inspiration, dancing as the waves move through space and time. Duncan choreographed Water Study as a response to nature, water, and its motion. She became the waves. Duncan’s wartime pieces, Marseilles and Marche Slav, were much more modern in that they were responding to the traditional values and issued a call to arms. Marseilles was patriotic response to WWI. Marche Slav was a response to the Russian Revolution as Duncan embodied the struggles of the serfs. The movement is strong and powerful, showing how Duncan felt the people should be in their individual political turmoil. Duncan was addressing the reality of the world and questioning the current way of dealing with conflict. She did not sit idly by and allow the few in power to make decisions for the whole of the people. Duncan is modern in her shattering the old view of war and politics by encouraging citizens to take action, to let their voice be heard. In her movement she is modern in her rejection of ballet, which would never address these issues in the same manner, but reinforce the old and support the royals.
Impressionism was the prominent Art form of France beginning in the 1860s and gradually spreading outward. This was a response to realism and a revolt against traditional art. The art would express what was impressed upon the eye and mind, hence the title of impressionism. Likewise, this influenced Duncan’s work as she strove to express her impressions in the world in dance. This was also the time of the development of the portable camera. This drove artists to discover new methods and systems for their art, which most certainly influenced Duncan in that all artists were becoming more innovative in their creations. Even the definition of art was changing. Art Nouveau is an international movement and art style mostly found in architecture and decorative art. It exemplifies the belief that art can be found in everything and in making art a part of everyday life. This was a style of art popular as Duncan developed her new dance; these were the movements in art. The circular shapes of Art Nouveau are found in Duncan’s movement as well. She was fond of undulating the torso in a circular manner, forming convex and concave shapes.
The role and importance of God in society was changing. This affected many intellectuals, scientist, and Artists, leading to and influenced by transcendentalism. This was a religious movement originating in New England with a core belief in an idealized state of spiritually to transcend beyond the physical and the practical. It is realized through the intuition of the individual. Transcendentalists believed that if there were a God, He would be found in nature, which encouraged Duncan to look towards nature for inspiration. Spiritualism is a belief in a spirit world and an ability to communicate with said spirits. This led to the popularity of séances in American culture. This was the society Duncan was surrounded by, and it is no wonder that she felt inspired and believed her intuition came from a supernatural power.
Duncan’s revolution of dance was fundamentally tied to the further social reforms. One of the political issues Duncan undertook in her choreography was that of the female body and a woman’s place in society. While not intending to be a suffragist, Duncan embodied the ideals for which the suffragists were fighting. This is because, even as a young girl, Duncan was strongly aware of the inequality between the genders. In her autobiography she writes: “I was deeply impressed by the injustice of this state of things for women . . . I decided . . . I would live to fight against marriage and for the emancipation of women and for the right of every woman to have a child or children as it pleased her, and to uphold her right and her virtue” (17). The way she lived her life was a response to the view and actuality of changing gender roles. Duncan revolted against the traditional view of the woman and the constrictions men and society enforced upon them. She lived as a suffragist. She knew her dance could never be seen as Art if it was seen as sexual, and it would be sexual if the female dancer was considered a fundamentally sexual body. The female body was seen as sexual in the public sphere because it was displayed in the public view as show for males. This degrading view of the female body gave Duncan a starting point.
Prior to suffrage, the social and cultural role of the woman in America was very limited and definitively tied to the view of the body. There was a narrow view as to who and what an American woman could be. Performing in America was very polarized and racially coded. High art, Art, was encouraged; low art, art, was merely of entertainment value. There were two limited roles women could embody on stage – both of which were demoralizing and not found to be Art in Duncan’s view. They represented either the virgin or the whore. Ballet, the classic, rigid, controlling art – markedly more artistic outside of America -- especially as executed by Marie Taglioni, represented the virtuous virgin. Burlesque and the provocative performers associated therein represented the whore. These roles were also present, to a much lesser degree, in Europe.
Yet Duncan was not sexualized. Duncan both created a unity between, and walked the line of, these conflicting ideals. Duncan was not ashamed by her womanly shape and even bared her breasts on stage, but it was not sexual in intent or reception. “This was the paradox of her dancing: on the one hand, she revealed the physical body as it had never been revealed before on the concert stage, but on the other hand, her body disappeared, became force, or virtual gesture, on stage” (Daly, Done 67). This middle ground Duncan utilized was new and unique, not only to her but also to the American stage.
The popular Vaudeville and Burlesque were risqué and rowdy in nature. The movement and environment relegated women to the role of sexual entertainment for male enjoyment. If Duncan could use the female body differently, by transforming the audiences’ assessment of the physical female body into beauty and artistry rather than sexually, then she could dance and not be seen as flaunting her sexuality. Her dance could be seen as Art because her body could be seen as Art. To gain acceptance, Duncan worked “within the existing moral code” (Daly, Done 32). She walked a fine line between the sacred and the profane to create her new Art. An example of this would be how Duncan’s tunic was less form fitting and made of more material than any balletic costume, yet because of its nature would also show much of her body. Duncan, however, viewed her body as Art. Even when exposed, she was not sexual.
At the turn of the century, men and women lived and worked in separate spheres. The men’s sphere was the larger public sphere. They left the house for work, socialization, and entertainment. The women’s sphere was smaller and more private; they were confined to the home as caretakers and had less education than the men. Well before Duncan’s birth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was laying the groundwork for gender equality. She, along with Susan B Anthony, worked for Women’s Rights: socially, politically, and legally. They also fought against slavery and for temperance. The first women’s convention was held in 1848. Some of the issues and rights they were concerned with were voting, parental and custodial rights, employment and income, marriage and divorce; motherhood and birth control, all typically women’s work or a women’s problem. Duncan appeared to be concerned with these issues, as they were very present in her world and her life, although this was not her purpose in her art or her revolution. Continuing what Stanton and Anthony had started, Duncan strove to change the view of women’s role and the female body, yet Duncan was not a suffragette, she was an artist.
However, dance revolutionaries such as Duncan were enabled by social reforms, especially in women’s roles and dress (Tomoko 83). Some of the few women who held a public position, such as dancers and artists, facilitated an artist reform in gender roles as well as the dress reform. Women were beginning to dress in looser fitting dresses; many traded the corset for the emancipation bodice which provided modesty and support without the confinement. In San Francisco, the artistic community gained the apparel of dress reform. This largely impacted Duncan and her family and is reflected in Duncan’s change from the traditional balletic costume to her tunic.
Before Duncan’s revolution in dance came to fruition, dance was merely entertainment, not driven by an ulterior force and motive. Duncan did not find this to be beautiful. It was choreography for the sake of choreography, not for the sake of Art. She would rather concern herself with the idea of natural movement for the body and built it upon the parameters of innate, intuitive, natural body expression. Duncan saw the female body as natural and, as such, used it for natural expression. Her dance necessitated being seen as chaste to be beautiful and artistic. This is part of why Ruth St Denis had more of a following in America than Duncan; St Denis presented herself to be a chaste being. Duncan offered herself in a self-perceived more natural manner, which was often not found chaste by puritanical America. This was not important to
The oft-ignored modern dancer, Loie Fuller, preceded and influenced Isadora Duncan both in American and Europe. Similarly having roots in America, Fuller found Europe to be a better fit and actually first introduced Isadora Duncan to the European public by bringing her on her tour in 1901. Fuller was very different from Duncan, and began as an actress who then moved into dance and experimented with light. She even worked in burlesque theaters, which Duncan despised, however, “Many of the innovations in dance that are normally accredited
Duncan, however, and she wrote that “the true dance must be the transmission of the earth’s energy through the body” (Duncan qtd in Jowitt 27). Duncan was more focused on the “true dance” than on pleasing her audiences.
to Duncan were pioneered by Fuller” (Siegel 60). Fuller was the first actual American modern dancer, as she danced using expression and more free movement. Fuller even used classical music, as followed by Duncan. They parted ways in 1902 when Fuller arranged solo performances for Duncan in Vienna and Budapest. It is clear the effect and influence Fuller had on Duncan, but ultimately Duncan still resisted Fuller because her dance was very much entertainment with her use of light. Fuller was motivated by and produced for entertainment, not Art.
At this time, ballet was the major dance form in the world and was dominating Europe, especially Russia. Yet ballet’s role was being misunderstood and misused in America. It still served as a starting point from which Duncan might diverge, however, as she strove to express herself in her new dance she also desired to shatter and destroy the ballet. Duncan did not like ballet because she found it irrelevant towards women. Ballet maintained a destructive and incorrect, if not impossible view of women. This narrow portrayal of women in ballet gave Duncan much to react to and oppose in her strong, feminine solos. Because ballet restricted the female body and yet relied on the female body to exist, its destruction was inherent.
Duncan herself is quoted, saying: “The ballet condemns itself by enforcing the deformation of the beautiful woman’s body!” (62). There were many differences in the perception and portrayal of gender roles relating to submission, domination, and independence in ballet and modern dance. In ballet, the woman is often viewed as delicate and graceful, as opposed to modern dance where the woman could support herself. The very structure and the concept of ballet was denigrating to the female body, because women were portrayed as dainty, ephemeral beings, aided and displayed by the men in their dance. This view appears to be gender originated, but it was truly about the opposing and shattering of ballet because it was unnatural and did not support her ideas about Art.
Ballet violated Duncan’s new model for the dance because it was unnatural movement. Ballet was choreography solely for the sake of choreography, with no underlying force, motivation, story, or purpose. It lacked the self-expression and natural movement Duncan craved and embodied in order to make the dance into Art and give it meaning. In its uniformity and strength, ballet had no freedom. Duncan found the stipulations to be rather mechanical and, most importantly, she found it ugly and unnatural. The stiff, precise body language, such as the pointed toes and turned out leg and the traditional tights and leotard were also much too constricting for Duncan.
Men also supported and displayed the women in social dance, but in a much different manner. Social Dance was becoming increasingly popular in American culture as a form of socialization but that appeared to be it. It was dances such as the foxtrot and waltz for socialization, not Art or entertainment, which Duncan saw as being superfluous to the dance. Burlesque and the provocative performers associated therein represented the risqué side of America. In Vaudeville and Burlesque, with the general intention of providing comedic, rowdy, racy entertainment, the music was flirty, boisterous, and alluring towards the audience and the dancers played it up, seeking a reaction.
Duncan also sought a reaction, albeit a much different one, as she brought her new dance to the stage, and she would undergo many adversities to bring about this new Art. She eventually left America for Europe, where she fit in with the Artists and Elite much better than she had in America. The Europeans were able to see Duncan as Art, and were not shocked by her movement. The Germans had started exposing Europe to modern dance with German Expressionism, which refers to many creative movements in Germany including modern dance. Duncan flourished in Europe, especially in Germany. The European artists adored Duncan and saw her as a “pioneering vision of freedo [sic], spinning from the New World into a glorious future” (Meany par 2). The majority of Europeans loved Duncan and she found her first worthy audience in London, where her true dance materialized. This is partially because it was not as new and startling as it had been in puritanical America, but also that in Europe the “radical new visions . . . of modernism” started to “strip many of the performing arts of their traditional form” (Reynolds 235). This placed Duncan precisely in her element to make the changes she desired.
II. Cultural Influences
POETS to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me, and answer what I am for;
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! Arouse—for you must justify me—you must answer.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future, 5
I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you, and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
- Walt Whitman
As illustrated in Whitman’s poem, Poets to Come, artistic thought was that it was the responsibility of the American artist to seek for, find, and express the spiritual reality and truth inherent in everything. He issued a call to American artists; it became increasingly important to create an American artistic voice. Duncan took this duty and role of an artist very seriously; she was constantly on a quest for the truth and communicating this truth as she knew it to her audiences with her body and her movement as she followed the artistic trend at the turn of the century. Duncan could communicate the divine, and in so doing, she merged the physical and emotional. She largely concerned herself with nature and beauty, what they are and what they mean, similar in thought to Whitman and transcendentalists. Nature is not only the scenery and wildlife, but also an idea representing simplicity and a return to basics, a place for the transcendentalists to mediate. In movement, what is natural is innate and inherent and is ultimately the goal. For example, natural movement would arise from within the human being. Beauty, or an aesthetic, is that which is perceived to be pleasing visually. For Duncan, nature, harmony, and unity fulfilled her aesthetic and ideals of beauty. This is different from the ballet aesthetic -- which is founded upon dainty femininity -- and the entertainment aesthetic of vaudeville and burlesque, which is sexual and rowdy. Duncan’s ideals “partook of a strong transcendental belief. Dancing was socially progressive because it could create ‘Beauty’ both in the dancer and in the spectator. By ‘Beauty’, she meant not just outward appearance, but essential human goodness - a state of being in harmony with self, others, and the cosmos” (Daly, Theory 29). This followed the current transcendental thought and the conception of art that nineteenth century scholars attributed to the Ancient Greeks.
Duncan idolized the ancient Greeks because she understood them differently than we do now, as did her contemporaries. She looked to their poetry, pottery, and philosophy as a basis for her artwork and motivation in her dance. Lori Belilove, pinnacle Duncan scholar, speculates: “She considered the Greek ideal to be the most beautiful because it was the most natural. Her dancing was not ’Greek,’ it was that the Greeks were the closest to having it ’right’” (Myths par 9). Duncan strove to get it “right” as well. She was unique in that she embodied the Greeks in her movement, as opposed to philosophizing and writing, using them as a base, as other artists did. She focused on how they felt, their artistic spirit. She saw only the good in the Greeks and understood them as great artistic gods to be idolized and emulated. “Using her idealized vision of ancient Greece as a springboard, she expressed new ideas about freedom of expression, individual will and connect to nature through her dances” (Lihs 52). The ancient Greeks inspired Duncan to look inside her soul to find her individual voice, a theme current in American Artists and intellectual circles. Duncan’s style in dance and its transition over time illustrate the influence the Greeks had on her. Her costume, a loose Greek tunic, was the first visible sign of Duncan’s aspiration to the Greeks as well as a reflection of health and dress reform. The trend continued, however, and Duncan used the poses of statues and art on their pottery to inspire and enliven her movement.
Duncan did not find her dancing Greek in origin, however, but very American, as she was responding to an idea. “It has often made me smile - but somewhat ironically - when people have called my dancing Greek, for I myself count on its origin in the stories which my Irish grandmother often told us of crossing the plains” (Duncan 340). Duncan appeared as the ancient Greeks but was still very American in her wish for a new culture and community. Despite Duncan’s desires for an enlightened society, she was herself rather inexperienced when it came to being a revolutionary because she was primarily an Artist. Many intellectuals had hopeful and unrealistic ideas of the changes the desired and the ability to create those changes. Daly states that “Duncan was naïve enough to believe in revolution without ideology” (Done 197). Duncan was an idealist, if not an optimist, she saw things as they could be, not as they were. She was constantly let down by the actuality of the politics and the reality of the people she loved and trusted. Duncan did, however, learn that it was “wiser to describe herself as a puritan rather than a revolutionary” (ibid. 219). As a puritan, she felt the draw to return to nature and the basics, to cleanse dance of its impurities, which truly was a more accurate description than revolutionary while looking at her entirety, especially her political views and ideals. Duncan’s only revolt in dance seems to be against the ballet, whereas she is a puritan about many more things.
Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau served as an enormous motivation and muse for all American artists. Whitman was particularly significant in Duncan’s Art. He had an Artistic presence early in Duncan’s life and she claimed to be his spiritual daughter. Duncan followed in Whitman’s artistic footsteps to create an American voice with her Art. His poetry supported Duncan in her new dance. As he drew from nature, it drove her to look to nature for inspiration. This is a direct effect of transcendentalism. Duncan’s movement contained “Whitmaneqsue rhetoric” (Jowitt 25). She embodied what Whitman wrote. As Whitman became his writing, Duncan became her dance. One cannot analyze the dance without examining Isadora, nor understand Duncan without understanding the dance, and “[t]he poet’s presence resonated through Duncan’s dance” (Bohan 167). It was clear that Duncan looked to Whitman as a source for inspiration. Water Study is the perfect model.
Water Study features light, airy movement generally locomoted by waltz steps accompanied by hops and jumps. Duncan’s arms move in a manner to express the waves and how they travel, rolling, crashing, the gentle ebb and flow. Whitman was inspired by a single blade of grass; Duncan by the waves of the ocean. The natural movement of water inspired Duncan’s natural movement found in Water Study. It is no surprise that Duncan was able to find inspiration from Whitman. His vision for America was echoed in hers, only hers seemed to draw from Greece, as, interestingly, had America in its founding days. The principles America were founded upon -- possibility, potentiality, achievability, equality-- were the same upon which Duncan founded her dance.
Throughout her life, Duncan continued to seek enlightenment and education. This enabled her to better her dance and better herself. Ruth Bohan, PhD in American Studies, explains “[a]s Duncan immersed herself in the work necessary to reconstruct the art of dancing, she consistently sought out the company of poets and writers” (168). Duncan learned much in Europe that she was later able to use for inspiration, and she “enjoyed direct access to both the Whitman and Nietzsche cults through her association with the Austrian scholar Dr Karl Ferdern” (ibid. 169). Dr Karl Ferdern frequented the Duncan home and insisted upon teaching Duncan about Nietzsche, who served as a large influence on Duncan, some think larger even than Whitman. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who wrote of the death of God and the Will to Power; he found Christianity to be a great curse to society.
He influenced Duncan largely with his concept of the Superman. This largely influenced Duncan’s Dancer of the Future, which would express the natural language of the soul with the human body. “Like an entire generation of American radicals, Duncan embraced the iconoclastic philosopher’s exhortation to break with the narrow, bankrupt morals and values of a Christian civilization and to harness the expansive, life-affirming creativity of the Superman” (Daly, Theory 26). For Duncan, the Superman came alive. As an Artist, it was her duty to create this ideology in her genre, hence, the dancer of the future. Nietzsche, in promoting the Superman, was largely influential and visible in Duncan’s work.
Another artist to influence Duncan was Delsarte. In the 1800s, Francois Delsarte created his Delsarte Method, a system of applied aesthetics using gesture and movement, posing, and body language. A native of France, he desired to codify and systemize movement for the human body. His work was widespread and possibly reached Duncan in her early years. In America, however, Delsartism was limited and not directed towards the creation of new art. It was mainly melodramatic posing and gymnastics, each body part had a corresponding idea, the head and neck representing the mental and intellectual, the torso expressing the spirit and emotion, and the lower body equating the physical. Delsarte promoted a spiritual and mental harmony, which would appeal to Duncan. She appears to have drawn largely from Delsarte, “using choreographic allusions to scriptures, paintings, and emotions and to present political arguments” (Preston, Posing 225). Duncan did not study Deslarte in a formalized Delsarte class, but her movement made references to his style, and there is reason to believe Duncan was, at the very least, exposed to Delsarte. Although she never explicitly credited Delsarte as an influence, it would have been very hard for Duncan not to have been influenced, even accidently. In her own teaching, Duncan describes a gymnastics training system, for the girls, which appears to be very Delsarte. It appears that Duncan, even if indirectly, was influenced by Delsarte. Duncan was intentionally creating a narrative as she used the resources at hand, including Delsarte.
III. Personal Life
“Art gives form and Harmony to what in life is chaos and discord” --Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan claims to have danced in uterus and to be born dancing. She believes herself born an Artist, and although she downplays her dance training, she was indeed a student of the dance from a young age and clung to it tightly. However, she never referred to herself as a dancer, for she found it a negative title because others would turn their dance to sexuality for money. They altered the conception of what it meant to be an American dancer, making it very different from Art. Duncan preferred the title of Artist because it put her on a higher plane than her contemporaries as she was resisting the commonly accepted view of “dancer.” This supported the understatement of her prior dance knowledge. She omits ballet classes taken while she was young, as she found the term dancer to be pejorative and sexual in its implications. Duncan responded to the notion of emerging as a fully formed artist and claiming ownership over her Art. She sees it as though she completely invented it. Duncan was responding to the Romantic notion of the protean genius. This is central to her claims of emerging a fully formed artist. In addition, Duncan’s American qualities allowed her to claim ownership of this new art, as Americans are want to do. Duncan sees herself as creating this dance. Yet her early life and numerous influences, including early ballet lessons, impacted who she became and why she chose to act as she did. The fact that she studied dance, that she did not chance upon it, is important to note. She took classes of all sorts and is mythologized, especially by herself, as having walked out of a ballet class when asked to stand on her toes. Duncan writes that she found ballet, especially pointe work, to be “ugly and against nature” and stopped attending ballet classes after and because of this discovery (Duncan 21). Ballet did not fit Duncan’s narrative and so she changed her past to align with her present. However, we know that she “varied her own versions of events in her youth” to suit her purposes (MacDonald I 52). Yet her dance grew out of her personal life and became a further expression of herself. Duncan’s conceptions of herself were made to align with American intellectual and artistic themes.
Duncan was a very passionate woman. She echoed the Ancient Greeks in her feelings that “[t]he Artist is the only lover, he alone has the pure vision of beauty and love is the vision of the soul when it is permitted to gaze upon immortal beauty” (Duncan 5). Just as she was passionate for the dance, she was passionate for men, but more importantly, about the concept of love. In her quest for love, she found many lovers, and “[n]o man’s [reputation] was safe with Isadora” (MacDonald III 50). Gordon Craig, who fathered Duncan’s daughter Deirdre, made an early appearance in her European life, and they had many similar ideals and artistic goals. A large draw for Duncan to Craig was his mother, Ellen Terry. Terry was the ideal for Duncan because, as an actress, she was famous, which allowed a different lifestyle than the traditional. She was involved with many different men and never married Craig’s father. Terry placed great value on her career and little on what others thought. She was a free woman, as was Duncan. Duncan’s idealization of Terry may have had a large role in her embracing the lifestyle that was clearly counter to the social norm. (Duncan 180).
Craig loved Whitman and one might wonder how large an influence this had on Isadora Duncan. Nesta MacDonald, dance scholar, wrote on Duncan and Craig, likening them in that “[b]oth felt that their arts needed reform” (III 50). Craig wanted to establish a cohesive stage image and capture pure emotion. He did this by introducing neutral, mobile screens, changing the stage lighting to from above, and integrating the entire production into a dynamic dramatic form. Duncan made similar changes. She used blue curtains for her backdrop as opposed to ballet’s ornate scenery. She changed the costume. She spoke after her performances. She wanted to reform the dance as to make it more natural and self-expressive. Both Craig and Duncan revolutionized their respective arts to promote a more unified whole, which was an idea current in artistic and philosophical circles. “Craig’s enthusiasm for Whitman infused much of his life’s endeavor but manifested itself most openly during and just prior to his meeting with Duncan” (Bohan 171). This eagerness of Craig’s transferred to Duncan and likewise influenced her. In their individual art forms, both were revolutionary and it appears they bonded just as much physically as over Whitman. This is evident in that their love was strongest while they loved Whitman and that their love was not strong enough to allow them to simultaneously love and create Art. But, “[a]bove all, Duncan’s dance resonated for Craig with an absorbing Whitmanic presence” (ibid. 173). Duncan and Craig bonded over Whitman and this largely influenced and inspired her Art. This influence would be felt and seen throughout Duncan’s life and works. As aforementioned, Whitman looked to nature which encouraged Duncan to do likewise, and she produced Water Study.
Loyal to her audience, Duncan had always embodied a ‘show must go on’ mentality, but at the beginning of her tryst with Craig, “Isadora disappeared with him, and performances had to be canceled” (Mac Donald III 61). Isadora allowed herself to be overcome with love, lust, and Craig, yet their love did not last because it was based on lust. Duncan was unable to simultaneously find love and live the life she desired with her Art. Something needed to change. Duncan writes: “to give up my Art I knew to be impossible. I should pine away - I should die from chagrin” (209). And so she chose dance over a relationship with Craig. Judith Kozodoy, nonfiction author, hypothesizes: “did gaining love mean losing art? . . . Those two desires were, and would continue to be, in direct conflict throughout her life” (39). This was, and is, a conflict global to women as they attempted to make a way and a life for them outside of their homes. Duncan was naïve in love; she trusted too easily and put too much stock on love’s power and ability. Long after Craig, she continued to have love affairs and search for the feeling and high obtained from love in everyone and everything. This is important because her quest for love was almost constantly in conflict with and impacted her Art. Because Duncan was so emotionally volatile, her love life was directly reflected her dance. This is shown in Duncan’s inability to create when she was too in love. Duncan’s ups and downs with Craig are reflected in her art.
Duncan’s next significant partner was Paris Singer, son and heir of Singer Sewing Machines. He fathered Duncan‘s second child, Patrick, and played an active role in both Deirdre and Patrick‘s lives. He was Duncan’s oft time lover and provided the financial backing for many of Duncan’s endeavors. Duncan met Singer in 1909 and they had a sporadic relationship for many years. It appears that Singer always loved Duncan, but she loved herself and her Art more than she could love him. However, she did love his money, and even in her autobiography, it looks as though she used Singer mainly for that reason, especially after their initial tryst. Whenever Duncan needed funding for her school, she knew she could turn to Singer, which allowed her to indulge in her carefree lifestyle and still fulfill all of her commitments. (Duncan 229, 246-262, 334-356).
In love and in life, Isadora was a performer. She would consider the title of “performer” an insult, as it would lower her from an artist to entertainer, but she performed in order to obtain the image she created for herself and to support her narrative. Performer, in this sense, would imply how Duncan seemed to never be herself, but to always be an eccentric, and to have planned her every move. This is ironic, almost hypocritical, in that she promoted self-expression but there was no real self for her to express. Or perhaps it is a testament of her work, to create a self, portray the self, and express the self. This makes Duncan truly American; because only in America can one invent oneself. Duncan’s self was quite monumental. On the stage Duncan was intense, and in person she was a force of nature. Audiences were enthralled by Duncan on stage and the public was amused by her in the streets.
As aforementioned, Isadora Duncan was also a mother. While living in France, Duncan had three children. On April 19, 1913, Deirdre, 6, and Patrick, 2, along with their nanny, were drowned when their car rolled backward into the Seine River on the road back to Versailles. This “completely shattered [her] force and power” (Duncan 277). In her mourning, Duncan desired to end this life and join her children in the next. She felt she had no need to live and was not even worthy of such. Duncan also felt at fault for their deaths. If she had never taken them from Paris to Versailles, her children wouldn’t have been on that road that day, having no need to be, and they would not have died. She did not feel she could carry on. These deaths led to many changes in Duncan’s dance which will be addressed in the following chapter.
IV. The Artist Emerges: The Development of Duncan’s Style
Duncan made many changes to the dance and the resulting art form was very new and different. She claims this originated solely from within herself, writing: “I felt that my dance really resembled the birth of Athena, springing full-armed from the head of Zeus” (Duncan 224-5). This fully expresses how Duncan was a product of her time, because self-expression was a tendency of the time and a very romantic notion. It was expected for all artists to claim their thoughts originated in themselves. Yet Daly refutes Duncan’s claims, writing: “she emerged into - and appropriated - discourses and practices that had already been established by American and European intellectuals” (Daly, Done 24). One tends to agree with Daly, especially as Duncan is known for exaggerating the facts of her life. Duncan saw what was happening around her and incorporated it into dance, echoing the revolution of her artistic peers. Everything she did was premeditated, even her decisions in who to credit as inspiration. She is creating herself; only in America can this happen. Duncan was absolutely American in this regard because she completely created herself and her art, claiming all thought to be original.
All art forms have a technique and method to them, a specific form is necessary to distinguish between the arts, as well as to establish a proficiency scale; dance is no exception. In ballet, the technique includes a pointed toe and turned out leg. One shows proficiency with the number of pirouettes or the height of a leap. In Duncan Dancing, the technique utilized by the solar plexus and is not so much what the body is doing, but how the body is moving the energy and intent supporting it. “[T]he rhythm of the music is danced by the legs while the melodic line is expressed by upper body movements and gestures which emanate from the solar plexus” (Belilove and Smith 5). This enables Duncan to appear effortless and nymph-like, yet still be in complete control of her movement and what she wanted to express.
Duncan’s dance technique is ultimately a theory of self-expression and a more intricate system of manifestation. Duncan’s dance theory changed but the “underlying ideology remained consistent” (Daly, Done 215). Her desires stayed the same. She strove to combine the body and mind as a part of her dance theory. Duncan’s dance style was not codified, or structured, in the same manner as ballet, yet she had specific ways of moving. Duncan was very locomotive in a pedestrian manner throughout her pieces, where she would walk, skip, hop, and jump. In her early creations she was light and airy. After her children died, her movement became much more static and grounded, especially in Mother. She also had a third style, a political aspect to her works during the beginning of the World War in Europe, which was politically motivated and very modern. Duncan’s style changed over time, but her basis, to express and to be natural, stayed consistent throughout her life.
Because of the difference in technique between Duncan’s style and ballet, scholars have debated the level, and existence, of technique in Duncan Dance and in Isadora Duncan. It was generally perceived by her audiences, especially critics, that she had no technique nor even choreographed her pieces before performing them. This is because the audience viewed Duncan’s dances as technique-less due to their limited experience in ballet and vaudeville on the American stage. Duncan’s dance did not contain the expected leaps, turns, and extensions of the ballet, the entertaining tricks of vaudeville, or the sexuality of burlesque. The audiences also perceived – critically so - that Duncan solely improvised her dances while on stage. This is incorrect, as Carrie Preston writes: “Before each performance, Duncan clearly choreographs in the traditional sense, ‘carefully’ organizes the effect she hopes to produce, establishes movement patterns, and rehearses until she no longer needs to think about each individual step and the dance becomes habit” (Motor 281). Because Duncan embodied the dance until it became “habit” and was able to move with such ease and fluidity, it appeared as though the movement was not premeditated, despite it actually having been very specifically designed. “Duncan never improvised on stage and personally supervised every detail of her performances” (Penrod 66). But why is it bad to improvise on stage or for a performance? Americans value hard work and effort, which choreography proves, compared to improvisation, which appears lazy and careless of the artist. In addition, Duncan‘s dance contained a fluidity and expressive element that other dance styles were seemingly lacking. Her “body occupied the middle ground between the disciplined restraint of the ballerina and the grotesque excessiveness of the jazz dancer. Hers was an ease born of effortless control” (Daly, Done 115). Duncan’s dance, while physically exhausting, appears overly simplistic and natural. Because of this, Duncan’s dance appears to be free of technique. There is, however, a recognizable technique found in Duncan’s dancing and in those that continue to dance as she did. “She ennobled an ‘artless’ aesthetic, transforming it from defect to virtue” (Daly, Done 31). Duncan’s dancing is incredibly physical, vigorous, and very active in the legs. It was movement to be regarded as Art for the purpose of self-expression. It is not choreography solely for the sake of choreography, but for a large purpose, for Art, for self expression. This ties into artistic and philosophical movements that art should have meaning.
In order to best express herself, Duncan utilized her solar plexus. The solar plexus, located in the area beneath the sternum where Duncan believed the soul resides, is the place from where she claims all of her movement originates, and from where all movement should originate. In the early 1900s, the area that contained the solar plexus was still trapped by corsets. With the reformation of the costume, Duncan was able to free the solar plexus and
allow it to be used for expression and origination of movement. This relates back to Duncan’s theories about natural movement and is illustrated by her toga and feelings towards the ancient Greeks. Visually, she would appear to “initiate all movement from her chest” (Durham, Myths par 10) and “involve the entire body” (Preston, Motor 282). In Laban Movement Analysis, this movement would be classified as initiating in the core and extending to the distal edges, or, simply put, core-distal movement. In her schools, Duncan perpetuated this theory of initiation from the solar plexus as well, because she wanted to enable her students to move in the self-expressive, free-flowing manner she did, but only as far as to express themselves using the solar plexus, not to imitate her movement.
Duncan not only changed the movement of dance, but its perception as well, by making it more natural and expressive than that of her contemporaries. This is because of the many reforms at this time, such as dress, and the social interest in Ancient Greece. She wanted the dance to hold a higher place in society, as she responded to the intellectual and artistic beliefs about ancient Greece. The paradox of the dance was that it required the use of the body. This was problematic because of the tension associated with it. Yet Duncan chose it to be pure and artistic. She felt that “dancing must be the expression of life, not merely a series of gymnastic tricks or pretty movements” (Duncan qtd in MacDonald VI 72). Dance and movement must have meaning and must have purpose. She clearly expressed her intention in her dance as she raised it to art.
Duncan used her dance and movement as a forum to express her revolutionary views and as the foundation for her own revolution. She uses the dance as it had generally been used in the past: to impart a point of view onto the audience. It is merely that the point Duncan is communicating is different. Siegel supports this argument and writes: “Duncan used dance to make political and social statements,” because she was not troubled by the idea of “art for art’s sake” and felt that art and politics were intrinsically intertwined and interdependent (67). For Duncan, everything was integrated. Everything was related and connected to everything else. This is shown in Duncan’s attempt to “achieve a unity of experience, dance as life and life as dance” (ibid. 61). Duncan was able to change the view of the dancing body in America through her aesthetic and philosophical perspective. As she changed the view of the body from sexual to artistic she changed dance from entertainment to Art.
Although Duncan was never recorded in her fullness, all that is available is a small clip of her at a garden party, her choreography has been passed down from the Isadorables to current Duncan Dancers. In remnants of her work and in the works of her protégés one can see Duncan’s view and usage of the body. She is carefree but not careless. Her arms flow out from the solar plexus to her wrists to her fingertips. She is very mobile, using locomotion such as skipping or a pedestrian walk. She moves between the plie and releve, reaching upward yet grounded. She thrives in the use of the cross-lateral and moves with intricate footwork in contrast to her gesturing upper body. Her manipulation of femoral flexion enables her to move more freely. Her body expresses the passion in her dance.
The effort behind Duncan’s movement changes over time, and within her pieces, and yet she is still clearly Duncan in that she utilizes a direct focus, generally upward. Her flow is very free, yet she is still precise in her delicate, sustained movement. Daly writes: “Duncan’s aesthetic was an expression of effort, not form” (Done 136). Duncan’s dance was very forceful and powerful, and her use of effort expressed her motives very well.
Duncan always made use of her entire space, be it a salon or in an outside performing space. Duncan had a large kinesphere, a large or personal space used for her movement, expressing her forceful and overarching disposition. Despite her direct focus, she seemed to be dancing for everyone yet not quite giving them her attention or even a performance in the traditional sense. She was dancing for the audience, but primarily for herself and with self expression. In her space, Duncan often moved in a circular manner, using her high space in early pieces and transitions to low spaces in her later pieces. There are many reasons why Duncan’s material and subject matter changed. She was getting older and moving was becoming increasingly difficult. Her life was becoming much more depressing, with the loss of her children and the lack of a lover. Duncan was very miserable and this had a considerable bearing on her dance. This can be seen in Mother and the loss of pedestrian locomotion which will be further discussed later in this chapter.
Duncan’s body frequently formed similar, simple shapes in her dancing. Her use of the solar plexus often resulted in undulation of the torso, exhibiting itself in concave and convex shapes. A familiar shape to Duncan Dance is the ball, contrasted by a spreading, open shape of the chest initiated by the solar plexus. In her shapes, Duncan plays with contrasting ideas of the concave and convex, but she is most alive in the open, spreading feel and shape.
An important aspect of Duncan’s dance was her concept of the chorus. In her movement and her choreography, “[s]he would always be the chorus” (Jowitt 27). This meant that Duncan did not dance as the prima ballerina but as part of an entire movement choir. This is an idea similar to that of Rudolf van Laban, who created movement choirs to bring dance to the masses and to make the meaning beyond that of performance for the elite. Laban relied on the expressiveness of the simplified movement. This, too, was borrowed from the Ancient Greeks. The concept of the Ancient Greece chorus was used to move along the progression of the Greek play and represent the public which inspired Duncan. “By taking the role of chorus, as opposed to that of Isadora Duncan, or of a character, she could invoke simultaneously its impersonality and its emotion. That the chorus was an abstract vehicle of emotion . . . was of prime importance to her” (Daly, Done 148). It allowed Duncan to express herself as well as to bond with and relate to her audience. This relates into to Modernism, which encourages self-expression and creating a new image. In her movement, Duncan danced a duet with space; she expressed the conflict and interaction between the inner and the outer. This is a reflection of her culture. The dance is romantic in that Duncan is dancing with nature; it is almost transcendental. It is very modern in that she is turning inward and reevaluating her body and how she can use it. She is shattering and destroying the traditional views of dance.
An area of controversy in Duncan’s Art was her use of classical music. It was initially frowned upon and “extremely controversial” (Preston, Motor 275). Many felt that the classical music could stand on its own and to add dance was degrading. Duncan used more current musicians such as Chopin and Schubert and experimented with known classics such as Bach and Beethoven. “It was an indefensible breach of aesthetic convention to attempt any ‘interpretation’ of the great, ‘absolute’ concert and operatic works, which would be polluted by any association with the physical body.” (Daly, Done 143). Others saw no fault in Duncan, but applauded her ingenuity and insight. Duncan’s choice in music has influenced the use of music with dance today. It is now acceptable to dance to nearly any form of music or no music at all.
The Duncan most frequently remembered today is the early Duncan, the joyful nymph, skipping and bounding across the stage in a free flow. It was “during these years, when a wave of cultural nationalism yoked art and politics with unprecedented intensity, she was admired by radicals, Artists, and intellectuals” (Daly, Done 14-5). Duncan responded to the strength, coarseness, and significance of the musicality and mysticism of nature. She carefully premeditated each movement, each transfer of weight, everything she did. She never imitated art, nature, or music, but expressed it as she felt it in her own soul. As she danced, she induced a calm feel of nature. Duncan accentuated the connection between the body and soul as she felt it. The relationship Duncan formed with nature was important because the relations of humanity were beginning to fall apart. Many forces -- such as religion, science, the intellect, and the progressive -- came together to form Duncan and her ideologies.
Water Study  is available online as performed by both Marianne Alchece (“Isadora Duncan’s ‘Water Study’”) and the Duncan Dancing Group (“Isadora Duncan Dance Group”). The choreography is maintained, but it is clear that the Duncan Dancing Group has more experience with this style and this piece. The arms are used to form waves by moving down and out throughout the piece. The movement originates in the solar plexus and follows through to the fingertips. The torso is also used to represent the ebb and flow of the waves with a sweeping, round motion. The dancers embody the swell and flow of the waves, utilizing high and low space. Waltz steps are used for locomotion as well.
Valse Brilliante, as performed by Maude Baum (“Isadora Duncan Salon Concert”), is almost balletic in its graceful nature, yet more relaxed and natural. It features chaines and leaps, but also gentle skips and leg lifts with femoral flexion. The dancer is very grounded but can also obtain a lightness in the air while she leaps and jumps. The movement is very circular both in the shape and space. The focus is, again, inward, and the arms are precise and delicate. The choreography utilizes a lot of core-distal from the solar plexus, as well as a slight sway.
. The next stage in Duncan’s choreography happened after her children died. MacDonald expresses that “the next few months she spent traveling relentlessly, trying to return to life” (MacDonald V 47). This placed Duncan in her dear friend Eleanore Duse‘s home and Duse encouraged Duncan to return to her movement. Duncan began to dance again and eventually returned to the stage, but the qualities of her movement had changed drastically. Once the free-flowing, light-spirited nymph, Duncan now sustained her movement and delved into much more condensing qualities of retreating, enclosing, and sinking. She was affected by the deaths so intensely that her very movement necessitated immense change. As a mother, she had lost her children. As a woman, she had lost what she held most dear. As a dancer she had lost her free flowing, light-spirited movement. With the deaths of her children, there was a death to that specific Isadora Duncan and those aspects of her life.
A constant choreographer, she created new dances to perform alongside the old, but these new dances were drastically different. Susan Au, dance historian, comments on the change as “[t]he joyful lyricism of her early years gave way to more sombre [sic] emotions and a heightened awareness of the woes of the world” (91). Her movement became much more stagnant and programmatic. Duncan utilized dance for her outlet of mourning, a coping mechanism for her grief. Her choreography articulated and enabled this. Jowitt writes of the solos after the deaths: “the new ones she made were slow, dark, weighty- some of them barely moving” (Images 28). Customary to art, her choreography directly reflected her life and, most fittingly, her joys and sorrows. Without her joyful children in her life, the joy had left her dance.
In 1914, one year after the deaths, Duncan choreographed a piece to Ave Maria by Shubert. As a tribute to Deirdre and Patrick to express her motherly love, Duncan desired to use the tragedy of her children’s deaths to make beauty. Performed with her students, commonly known as the Isadorables, they “provided a youthful surround miming grief and hope to the monumental figure Isadora had become” (Reynolds 17). The Isadorables had been with Duncan for years, and had known and loved Patrick and Deirdre as well; surely Ave Maria was a fitting homage for all of them to give as well as a moving piece to perform. This is where Duncan makes an important transition; she finds a way to make the personal universal that yields depth and maturity. Ave Maria, as performed by Carla Fracci, is very disconnected and static. Her movement is pained and angular. Her torso, her whole body, is very enclosed. Her gaze and focus are inward and downward. She is also very sustained in her movement to express her pain.
Later in her life, Duncan choreographed a piece which is commonly referred to as Mother (1925) to music by Scriabin. In this work, Duncan “didn’t so much stand for a chorus of sorrowing women, but for every mother who had lost a child” (Jowitt 28). This dance featured Duncan barely moving, almost relishing in stillness as she expresses her unspeakable heartache of her darkly painful days. No film is available, but we can refer recreations. Lori Belilove’s Isadora . . . No Apologies contains a revival of Mother, which is “particularly poignant. This dance of sorrow. . . incorporates recognizable gestures of motherhood - the emptiness of the cradle that the dancer sculpts with her arms suggests their unbearable weight” (Preston, Isadora 512). In a recreation by the Isadora Duncan Dancing Group, using the same choreography as passed down through the generations, one can see the stillness of the body and the sorrow of the soul. The dancer remains low to the ground but still varies her levels. There is also much gathering and circling of the arms, as if she is attempting to draw her children back into her reach. She is very much at the height where her children would have been and seems to be searching for them. At one part, she is almost pantomiming playing with or hugging her children, a glimmer of hope and happiness shines through. Even in this revival, the pain at the loss of Patrick and Deirdre is felt, by both dancer and audience. Duncan openly used her dancing, especially Mother, to express her feelings of loss and sorrow over the deaths of the children. Her movement was now bound and sustained. She was moving in her own world, containing herself in her small kinesphere and using a direct focus. Her dance was for herself and her expression of her mourning. It was not dance solely as a performance, but a dance as Duncan merely allowing the audience a glimpse into her broken heart and sorrowing soul.
Mother has become one of Duncan’s best known pieces, as it vividly portrays her life and her sorrows. When Mother is performed “there is a moment in which the dancer . . . forms her arms in a flat circle in front of herself . . . gradually the torso stills. Her arms keep making their rhythmic motion. . . gradually changing. . . until they become a pair of mother’s arms rocking her baby” (Daly, Done 153). This is the most basic symbol of motherhood and easily recognizable to the audience, and the empty arms represent Duncan’s empty heart as she mourns her children. This is a direct reflection of Duncan’s own feelings about her strengths and her inadequacies. Duncan’s dances made her soul discernible by way of her body and self expression as she danced in the space between life and death, love and loss Duncan wrestled with the loss of her children, and as she had had these children out of wedlock, with two different men, Duncan had no one to turn to, nothing to rely on her but her dance, and she relied on it heavily. This dance is also a reaction to the revolution in Russia and Duncan’s idealistic yet modern nature which ties into the next aspect of Duncan’s dance.
The third aspect of Duncan’s dance has many similarities and overlaps with the second. The difference is that she was influenced by the political changes as opposed to the deaths of her children. World War I had a large impact on Duncan. She was in Europe, in the midst of everything, and Duncan especially loved to promote her political persuasion and agenda with her dances during the war. Marseillaise was Duncan’s first war-time piece. Using a song of French Patriotism, and poses from the goddess of war, Duncan embodied female strength, coming to represent Lady Liberty herself. In her red tunic, with an arm raised and a breast bared, Duncan was “a combination of motherhood and nationalistic pride” (Daly, Done 15). This piece was performed in America before they joined the war, and it was a call to arms, for America and young men to fight. Duncan writes:
Coming from bleeding, heroic France, I was indignant at the apparent indifference of America to the War, and one night, after a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, I folded my red shawl around me and improvised the “Marseillaise.” It was a call to the boys of America to rise and protect the highest civilisation of our epoch --- that culture which has come to the world through France. (316)
As Duncan grew and matured as an Artist, as her life became more complicated, her choreographic material did likewise. When performed in Paris, this dance showed Duncan’s support of the French troops and improved patriotism in France. Duncan is “beaten to her knees yet unconquered” (Daly, Done 186), encouraging the audience, the troops, and the allies to never yield or surrender. Preston writes of influence on the piece as “Duncan represents both aspects of Nietzschean will: the power of the commanding force and restriction of obedience” (Motor 279). Marseillaise was a strong, moving piece, very expected of Duncan as a revolutionary.
Marche Slav, similar to Marseillaise, was a clear response to the Russian Revolution as Duncan embodied a serf rising to freedom. This idealized the revolutionaries and expressed Duncan’s sympathies and support. The people were poor, tired, and hungry. The lower class was oppressed and desired a voice in their government. Russian intellectuals upheld the Enlightenment ideals of the importance of the individual as an Artist, which Duncan undoubtedly felt. Duncan was very sensitive and, feeling for the downtrodden, danced so others would feel the same. She danced to bring enlightenment and hope to the Russians as she “vividly portrayed the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity” (Au 91). Duncan is showing her inner strength, her inability to be conquered by the tragedy that struck her children two years prior, as well as encouraging her audience to stand strong and fight their fights as well as the war. Duncan danced in coordination with Marseillaise at the announcement of the Russian Revolution. She danced with an astounding joy and provoked a storm from the audience. Duncan saw herself as a hero when she performed these pieces, evidence of her lack of political understanding and sophistication.
In Duncan’s later life, as she began to self-medicate with alcohol on a regular basis, she was not looked on fondly by society. Her dancing again changed drastically, and the attacks on her became much harsher. Her movement “became blunter, more static and monumental. Aiming for grandeur, she increasingly seemed merely ridiculous” (Meany par 12). “She followed her impulses, deluding herself all the way” but she still became a legend in her own right (Parry par 10-13). She subscribed to the theory that one must know the rules in order to break them, and her movement had its own unique technique to support it. Not all felt Duncan’s decline, though, her devotee’s deemed that “Isadora revolutionized the dancer from mere entertainer to expressive and intellectual Artist” (Durham, Myths par 36). In so doing, she opened many doors for the dance world. Through her pain and sorrow, she had become a powerful force. While Duncan’s movement was self expression, that was not all it was. It was much more intricate and complex. It was a reflection of her life. Her dances are a reflection of her very being.
V. Later Influences
“Duncan, in attempting to destroy all tradition in one glorious blow, proposed not method,
but emotion take its place” --Lincoln Kirstein
The changes Duncan made to dance were put into effect in order to facilitate her self-expression. Her primary purpose was to express herself and provide others with their own way to express their voice; it was not to change the dance. That was secondary. The theater and the dance became a stage for Duncan to promote her ideas about the world. Lincoln Kirstein, dance historian and critic of Duncan, felt that her “interest in theater was incidental. It was merely a frame for the expression of her attitude toward life in general” (Kirstein 272). This shows, therefore, that dance was not what Duncan did, but her vehicle for her poetry, her political activism and idealism. She set out to express herself and used dance to do it. Duncan found purpose in “[c]reating a contemporary image for the stage dancer” (Jowitt 21). The image she wanted to create was different from the oversexed vaudeville or the un-relatable ballet. Duncan wanted the image of the stage dancer, if all dancers, to be much more pure and relatable to the viewer. She wanted the dancer to express herself and the audience to understand her Art as such.
Perhaps the most important and longest lasting change and contribution to dance by Duncan was her liberation of dance by taking her movement back to the basics. “She literally stripped dance of all ornamentation” (Lihs 52). She did this by physically breaking it apart, taking dance down to basics in the movement, costume, and scenery. She figuratively did so by changing how dance was viewed. Upon its liberation, it was also raised up from entertainment to art. Duncan changed the entire concept of dance and how it was viewed by the public, because “[s]he almost single handedly restored dance as an art form that could be expressive and passionate and flexible and powerful like other art forms” (Durham, Child par 39). Duncan held dance in high artistic regard and enabled her audiences to see it in the same way. She changed the dance: how it was done and how it was seen. Through her primary purpose of self-expression, her secondary goal of changing the dance came to fruition. It became Art. In this, Duncan reflects the artistic and intellectual ideas as well as social conditions in her lifetime.
Previous to Duncan’s innovations, the role of the dancer was to entertain and execute the given choreography. As an artist, Duncan had a different role. She felt an urgency to relate a message to her contemporaries. She defied society’s rules by speaking at her performances. MacDonald writes that Duncan “never subscribed to the doctrine of some great dancers, that they should be seen but never, never heard. She constantly made speeches at the end of her performances, quoting her favorite philosophers and poets” (V 45). Whitman and Nietzsche – her main inspirations-- were oft quoted. With the help of their words, and the words of others, Duncan defended her movement and perpetuated her ideals. After some time, the “audience rather expected her to make curtain speeches” (Daly, Done 200). Like her dance, it was unique to her but expected of her by her followers.
Traditionally, ballet had spoken for society and the crown, but modern dance speaks for the artist; it reaches beyond those in power. Duncan made the movement personal. The physical movement of her body alone could not make her ideas clear, and their way she valued the individual as an artist and an individual is what makes Duncan modern. Duncan knew that while both the spoken word and the dance could stand alone, their impact once combined would be much more powerful. Without her verbal explanation to accompany her movement, her dance would be open to interpretation. Speaking about her movement enabled Duncan to explain it in the way she intended it to be understood as part of her narrative. Dance is a personal art, and while dance could physically how she felt and understood, it is not as easily communicable as the accompanying verbal discourse. In speaking to her audience of her intentions and ideals, she left no room for misinterpretation.
Isadora Duncan left a legacy of self-expression and intuition, as well as the freedom to choose. Beginning with her rejection of ballet and ending in her spectacular death, Duncan made herself irreplaceable. Her changes were widespread and her influence immense. One would be forever changed after experiencing a Duncan performance. Her influence was pervasive. She affected many of the mores of classical ballet, especially of the Ballet Russes and Fokine. She also paved the way for many modern dance ideologies taught and embodied today and her legend lives on with many protégées and recreation companies. Because of Isadora Duncan and the changes she brought into her dance, other dancers were enabled to follow her path of self-expression, as influenced by modernism.
Ballet, too, was changed and influenced by Duncan. Her changes were most largely seen and felt by the Ballet Russes despite their mutual dislike and distrust. The Ballet Russes endorsed the idea of collaboration in dance and promoted the value of contemporaneity and innovation in dance, much like modern dance. Michel Fokine, like Duncan, objected to many of the traditions ballet embodied. Fokine’s objections were largely a response to Petipa, and Fokine then integrated changes into ballet. Like Duncan, he chose to use classical or concert music. Fokine employed style over technique and, also like Duncan, he placed an emphasis on fluidity and expressiveness over correct trained artists, not technicians. Notwithstanding differences and biases between Duncan and the Ballet Russes, Duncan was an inspiration and enabler for Fokine to integrate his new ideas for ballet into his company. MacDonald writes: “When one looks back at Isadora’s advent in the preserve of the classical ballet, out of all the accounts, the gossip and the press coverage, the most important result really seems to have been that, however grudgingly, Fokine was able to bring in his new ideals bit by bit within the framework of the Imperial Ballet, and did not have to resign” (III 61). Fokine’s changes were instrumentally influenced by Duncan and her innovation. Duncan and Fokine’s changes were much the same and thoroughly a reflection of their time and culture. Fokine objected to Marius Petipa, the father of classical ballet, and served as inspiration for the next generation of ballet masters. Fokine preferred style over technique and emphasized fluidity and expression. Like Duncan, he also used concert music. Fokine would not credit Duncan as inspiration, but in analyzing the data, it is hard to deny.
The current state of ballet is also much more freeing and expressive than it had been. The concept of contemporary ballet and the integration of ballet and modern is not something to look down upon for the majority of American Society. “And as much as Isadora criticized the ballet, ballet has grown tremendously in its breadth of expression, somewhat due to her early criticisms and examples” (Durham, Myths par 39). Duncan’s changes and influence were integral, not only to modern dance but also to ballet, and are prevalent throughout the world today.
Although Duncan did not teach or directly interact with any major modern dance players in the next generation, she made alterations in dance’s role and view that would allow the up and coming dancers and artists many advantages. “She inspired an entirely fresh approach to movement and creation, one which we now take for granted. In her day, however, everything about Isadora’s art was revolutionary“ (Draegin 67). Without Duncan’s innovative modifications, dance would be in a very different place and have an entirely different role in society today. It is rare to see a dance today that does not deal with some aspect of self-expression.
As Duncan raised the dance to art, she desired to share her technique and style with others, especially children. From 1905 through 1920, there were six main students Duncan she adopted, known as the Isadorables. Five of them survived Duncan, and they were all that remained of her after her death. Duncan had refused to be recorded dancing; her choreography could only continue as far as she had taught it to these girls. Irma Duncan was the most talented, and loyal, of the Isadorables, following Duncan to Russia in 1921 when she went to open another school. Irma knew much of the choreography and technique behind Duncan’s work. She continued Duncan’s work, as did Anna and Marie-Terese, and they spawned a new generation of dancers who moved from their solar plexus and danced to express themselves.
The tradition of Duncan Dance is still carried on today. There is a direct lineage from the current Duncan schools back to the Isadorables and Duncan herself. The fact that there are Duncan Dancers does not negate the fact that Duncan has no codified technique or school. Duncan did not have a codified technique in that there are specific rules, laws, and distinct precision so much as it is a feel of freedom. However, the Duncan Dancers today recreate her choreography and pride themselves on keeping Duncan’s work alive, and yet, “There is a certain irony in the fact that these direct descendants of Isadora have limited themselves to preserving rather than revolutionizing, as their mentor did” (Draegin 70). In this work, these dancers are failing to express themselves as they revive Duncan’s choreography. However, it is historically useful that there is an existence of Duncan Dancing today, and it is beneficial to learn her technique, if taught correctly with the solar plexus.
Duncan reinvented the stage dancer in America and changed how the American audience would henceforth view the dance and the dancer. Duncan changed the dancing woman from weak, manipulated ballerina to a defiant strong woman who could use her body, without using her sexuality, to express herself and her opinions about the world. Duncan created her own path and paved the way for other pioneers to do the same. She had shown that one did not have to conform to society, other choices were viable. Many changes would still rise in modern dance; Duncan and her fellow pioneers had allowed for the revolution to continue. These pioneers had also changed the view of dance and its role in society. “Dancing became an appropriate subject of legitimate scholarly study, not under the aegis of the arts, but in the spirit of scientific inquiry” (Daly, Theory 24) Dance could serve as a metaphor, as a political statement, as a revolution. Dance was a new way to learn about the body, the soul, and how they work together.
Today, Duncan’s natural movement has been immersed into conventional dance and no longer stands on its own as a unique artistic form, but as an element of a greater work. Duncan would not have wanted the dance to stagnate and all future dancers to imitate her. That was not her purpose. Her purpose was to change the role and view of dance in America and to empower the dancer to be self-expressive and free. Duncan achieved this, as is seen in modern dance today. There are those who do not believe this, however, and feel that “Duncan’s anti-formalist aesthetic suffered the same fate of that of Delsarte, it became a formalism in itself” (Siegel 69). This would be counterproductive to her design. But Duncan certainly “unleashed a wave of self expression in dance” (ibid. 67). In this, she revolutionized the dancer as she raised it from entertainer to an expressive artist.
Duncan responded to the changes of her time to change the role of dance. She was a major player in the introduction of modern dance and self expression to the American stage. She was influenced by many things, such as the changing cultural and political issues at the turn of the century. Duncan was also influenced by the state of the dancer, which was solely to provide entertainment. She was, especially in individual pieces, driven by her personal life and changes associated therein. A critical analysis of Duncan’s work illustrates her aesthetic ideals as she integrated them into modern dance. The ancient Greeks and American artists influenced Duncan to express herself and she paved the way for that to continue in American Artistic thought. Duncan changed the view of the body and the way dance was viewed in America by raising it from Entertainment to Art. These changes pioneered by Duncan were a response to the cultural and social changes throughout her life. Duncan gave meaning to movement.
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 Art in this sense will be used to denote High Art, whereas art will signify low art as applicable to Duncan. Only these expressions of the term ‘Art’ will be italicized. To further illustrate, Duncan saw ballet as low art, or art, but many ballerinas and ballet aficionados saw ballet as Art and Duncan as art or not any form of art at all.
 1908, Music by Shubert
 1915, French song of patriotism
 Seneca Falls, New York
 Ruth St Denis, 1879-1968, was an early modern dance pioneer interested in exotic mysticism and spirituality. She was much more culturally accepted in American and later helped form Denishawn with Ted Shawn.
 1862-1928, Loie Fuller was a pioneer to both modern dance and theatrical lighting techniques
 In 1988 Duncan moved to London.
 Lori Belilove is a current Duncan Dancer who studied under Anna and Irma Duncan. She later founded the Isadora Duncan Dance in New York City to perform Duncan’s repertoire, which is the resident performing group for the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation.
 Duncan states that she “discovered the dance worth of the poem of Walt Whitman” and continues to express herself to be his spiritual daughter in convincing Augustin Daly to hire her while in her youth. (Duncan 31).
 “Only by Nietzsche, he said, will you come to the full revelation of dancing expressions as you seek it” (Duncan 141).
 The Superman replaces God as a real individual who creates values that are firmly rooted in the everyday changing world. He trusts his intuition, and he is used to show how much is attainable.
 For an in-depth description of this system, see Duncan 174-5
 “If people ask me when I began to dance I reply, ‘In my mother’s womb, probably as a result of the oysters and champagne -- the food of Aphrodite’” (Duncan 9).
 Duncan writes that at the age of five she was already a dancer and a revolutionary (Duncan 11).
 Gordon Craig, 1872-1966, was a British modern theatre revolutionary. For further reading on Duncan’s feelings and relationship with Craig, see My Life, 180-209
 Dame Ellen Terry, 1847-1928, was a popular English stage actress.
 Duncan recounts her meeting with Singer as an answer to her financial prayers. He enters on 229 of My Life and makes appearances throughout the remainder of the novel.
 The youngest of whom died hours after birth.
 Duncan had a premonition of the deaths of her children, so she moved them from Paris to Versailles in hopes of keeping them safe. The children had gone to visit Duncan at her studio that day and were headed back to Versailles.
 Daly, Done 14
 1908, music by Shubert
 1914, music by Chopin
 Isadora Duncan died in September 14, 1927 an automobile accident in Nice, France. Her long scarf was tangled in the wheel and consequently broke her neck.
 Margot Duncan died in 1925