Monday, March 2, 2009
In 1892, the year the first cakewalk contest was held in a New York ballroom, a woman named Loie Fuller created a sensation at the Folies-Bergere in Paris, dancing what she called her "serpentine dance." The thirty-year-old Fuller, a native of Illinois, had been performing in burlesque and vaudeville since childhood. Her serpentine dance owed its inspiration to a prop; a few years earlier she had received from an admirer a voluminous skirt of transparent white silk. Playing around with the sensuously pleasing fabric in front of a mirror, Fuller had a vision: With dramatic lighting, she could create fantastic, evanescent, suggestive shapes onstage by agitating swaths of silk from underneath with a pair of hand-held wands.
Fuller was a born impresario with a gift for technical stagecraft. Whirling around on a glass platform, lit by as many as fourteen electric spotlights whose colors kept changing and blending, she kept yards and yards of fabric billowing around her in three-dimensional evocations of flowers, butterflies, and flames. Her music tended toward the dramatic, like Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." To her audiences, she was a living manifestation of Art Nouveau, the decorative style that was just coming into vogue in Paris.
None of Fuller's many imitators came close to matching her technical wizardry or her theatrical sense. Her fans included poets (Mallarme and Yeats), painters (Toulouse-Lautrec and Whistler), and scientists (Pierre and Marie Curie). In her hypnotic hold on her audience, in her ability to epitomize the taste of an entire generation, she was a successor to the Taglionis and Elsslers of the earlier nineteenth century. But unlike those ballerinas, whose careers had been formed within a long-established artistic tradition, Fuller was a self-made artist who ran her own show, literally as well as figuratively. She was not only the star dancer, she was the dance maker and the business-savvy entrepreneur. As such, she served as
precursor to a whole generation of dancers-mostly young women from America-whose fresh ideas and attitudes would prove to be as revolutionary a force in the theater as the incursion of African-American dance forms had already become in the ballroom.
The revolution we call "modern dance" was not just about how to move; it was also about how art should be made and by whom. In the West, as we have seen, dance as a serious theater art bad always been a group endeavor, requiring the contributions of hundreds of individuals (from dancers and musicians to carpenters and stagehands) and substantial outlays of money. There was virtually no way to practice the art of dance, either as a dancer or a choreographer, outside the large ballet companies. Like most large enterprises, especially those that rely on the support of the wealthy and powerful, ballet companies tended to resist change. Ballet was unique in one way; although its dominant institutions (like those of the other arts and indeed European society in general) were in the hands
of men, the stars of the ballet stage were women. In no other nineteenth-century enterprise, artistic or otherwise, did women play so significant a role as they did in classical ballet. Behind the scenes, it is true, men remained in charge. Even the most acclaimed ballerinas danced, quite literally, to the tunes of men. With rare exceptions, men composed the music and the librettos, devised and staged the dances, collected and disbursed the money, and, as ballet masters and critics, set the standards and shaped the images that the dancers embodied onstage and off. A ballerina might express her personality in her dancing-the ethereal Taglioni, the pagan Elssler-but that personality was filtered through vessels crafted by men. Nevertheless, dance was one area of public endeavor in nineteenth-century Europe where women's talents were not only prized but idolized. The ballerinas whom audiences cheered were well re
warded; they had both money and fame. They had no reason to separate themselves from institutions and traditions that had nurtured them, to strike out on their own by creating dances of a purely personal inspiration under conditions of their choosing. When agitation for this kind of freedom began, it came not from within the ballet establishment, but from women who set up shop, on their own, as self-proclaimed artists; their goal was unfettered self-expression through body movement. The freedom they won for themselves has invigorated theatrical dance in the West, including ballet, ever since.
The women who created modern dance were asserting for themselves something that poets and painters in the West had come to take for granted by the end of the nineteenth century: the right to follow personal inspiration without catering to the tastes of some private or institutional patron. This prerogative was inherent in the cultural phenomenon known as Romanticism.
The French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was often obsessive in his quest to capture the essence of a popular performer's style and personality, and he was enchanted by Lose Fuller. In 1893, he painted Loie Fuller in the Dance of the Veils, a work that reveals more about the kinetic vitality of her dance than do contemporary photographs and engravings.
Although Romanticism meant different things at different times to different people, common to all its manifestations was an emphasis on the individual as opposed to society, on feelings and intuition as opposed to rationality and calculation, on an almost mystical faith in the ability of an inspired artist to perceive universal truths and to communicate those truths to others. While genuinely inspired individuals formed a kind of natural elite, Romanticism had
a built-in bias against the status quo; the artist needed no official sanction for his or her genius, and could expect incomprehension and resistance from the institutions that society had set up to monitor "good taste" in the arts. William Wordsworth, who challenged accepted taste in English poetry at the beginning of the nineteenth century, urged would-be poets to look within for their justification: "You feel strongly, trust those feelings, and your poem will take its shape and proportions as a tree does from the vital principle that actuates it." Change the word "poem" to "dance," and you have the recipe that Isadora Duncan followed in her seminal career as a pioneer of modern dance.
uncan was born in San Francisco on May 26, 1877. The city had a verve that set it apart even in a California that was still largely frontier. The Gold Rush of '49 had left a permanent heritage of wealth, cultural aspirations, and a sense of adventure that some found intemperate: Rudyard Kipling, after a visit to California, noted, "San Francisco is a mad city, inhabited for
the most part by perfectly insane people, Isadora Duncan, not yet barefoot at twenty-one, dancing in a gown she fashioned from her mother's
lace curtains, 1898.
whose women are of remarkable beauty." Duncan's mother was a strong-willed woman who divorced her husband for his philandering and financial irresponsibility; she supported her four children by taking in boarders, sewing, and giving piano lessons. As a lapsed Catholic who read atheistic tracts to her children, she believed in self-improvement through self-education, and elevated art to the status of religion; a print of Botticelli's Primavera became a veritable icon in the family. By fifteen Isadora was teaching ballroom dancing to Californians in need of social polish; she and her siblings also toured the state in a variety show of their own devising. Her reading ranged from Walt Whitman to Charles Darwin. Money was always a problem, and in 1895 Duncan left San Francisco to seek her fortune on the "open road" that Whitman had written about.
Duncan ended up in a New York theatrical company that toured America and England doing everything from musicals to Shakespeare. But the more she saw of the theatrical dance of the time the less she liked it. She probably saw some ballet and may have taken a few ballet lessons as well, and she liked that even less. "I am an enemy of the Ballet, which I consider a false and preposterous art, in fact outside the pale of all art," she wrote. Ballet was beyond the pale because it was unnatural; it required a "deformed skeleton" and
"sterile movements" whose "purpose is
to create the delusion that the law of gravitation does not exist for them." To uncover what she called "the real source of dance," she went to three places: to nature, to the art of classical Greece, and inside herself.
In Greek sculpture and vase paintings depicting figures in motion-a plump little cupid treading the ground, a gamboling satyr, a winged Hermes "with the ball of his foot resting on the wind" -she found a conformity to "natural forces" that would become the touchstone of her efforts to create what she called "the dance of the future." The Greeks only confirmed her intuition that people responded naturally to every experience with spontaneous movements of the body. Observing her own body for hours at a time in a mirror, she concluded that "the central spring of all movement" was the solar plexus, not "the center of the back at the base of the spine" as the ballet masters taught. She wasted no time informing the world of her discoveries. "I have discovered the dance. I have discovered the art which
has been lost for two thousand years," she told a theatrical producer. She was not yet twenty years old.
Duncan's claims were no more extravagant than those made by the defiant poets and painters of the nineteenth century, the Wordsworths and the Shelleys and the Baudelaires, the Van Goghs and the Monets, who had sought to reshape artistic experience (and therefore human experience itself) in their own image. But for a young woman-a woman with no credentials, no institutional backing, and no money-to challenge the artistic establishment was unheard-of. Her options were limited. There was no stage, either on Broadway or in an opera house, where she could put her theories to the test. So she turned to the only arena available to her: the salons of society women who enlivened their leisure time by supporting Art with a capital A.
A favorite pastime in these salons was the recitation of poetry accompanied by gestures based on a system that linked specific physical movements to specific mental and emotional states. The system had been devised by Francois Delsarte (1811-1871), a French pedagogue with a passion for classical Greece, who was given to statements like, "Art is the telescope of the supernatural world." An American disciple, Genevieve Stebbins, codified his teachings into a regimen of what might be called aesthetic calisthenics, in which literary texts could be interpreted, line by line and even word by word, through an encoded pantomime not unlike the hand-language of Indian classical dance. The grand ambition of this form of Delsartism was satirized in the lyrics of a 1910 hit tune that proclaimed: "Every little movement has a meaning all its own/ Every thought and feeling by some posture may be shown."
Duncan's gestural vocabulary showed the influence of Delsartism, but even more important to her development was Duncan dancers in an undated publicity photograph for a concertat the Metropolitan Opera House in New York performing Duncan's dance based on Sandro Botticelli's painting Primavera (c.1482). A print of this work hung in Isadora Duncan's house when she was a child and seems to have made a strong impression on her. The resemblance between the postures and costumes of the Three Graces in the painting (opposite below) and the Duncan dancers is obvious.
the fact that Delsarte's summons to free the body from all unnecessary constraints had already been heard in the salons of New York and Newport. So her wealthy patrons were in a receptive frame of mind when Duncan put on a Greek-style tunic made from her mother's old lace curtains and, to the lilt of Strauss waltzes, danced her interpretations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Botticelli's Primavera. Her costume, antique in its associations, was also deliciously modern. Feminists and hygienists had been campaigning for years against the painfully and even dangerously constricting clothes that fashion decreed for respectable women in the second half of the nineteenth century. From the age of three or four, girls were bound into tightly laced corsets that prevented them from lifting their arms above the head. What with corset, drawers, petticoats, dress-skirt, over-skirt, and dress-waist, the typical turn-of-the-century woman wore as many as sixteen layers of garments fold ed, buttoned, and belted tightly around her midriff. To such women, the loosely clad Duncan, striking poses from quattrocento paintings and Greek sculpture, must have seemed an incarnation not just of Art and Beauty but of Freedom itself. Her dancing did not come across as erotic; "pure and sexless" is how someone later described it. She saw herself as a "Pagan Puritan, or a Puritanical Pagan."
With the money she raised at salon recitals, Duncan gathered her family and in 1899 sailed to Europe on a "cattle boat" to get in touch with the roots of her art. In London she stood "in adoration" before the British Museum's Elgin marbles and danced for the city's artistic and literary elite; among her sponsors were Henry James, the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and the classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison. On the advice of music critic J. Fuller Maitland, another sponsor, she "elevated" her choice of music from the waltzes of Strauss to the compositions of Gluck, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. For a subscription concert in an avant-garde art gallery she left off her dancing slippers and, apparently for the first time, performed barefoot for an audience. While a few expressed shock at this
gesture of emancipation from the conventions of European art dance, dancing barefoot became her trademark-and the defining characteristic of all "modern dance" in the first half of the twentieth century.
From London, the Duncan family moved on to Paris, where Duncan was enthralled by the Greek collection at the Louvre and by the performances of Loie Fuller in a theater that had been built to her specifications on the grounds of the 1900 Exposition Universelle. When Fuller in turn saw Duncan dance, she invited the young American to join her on a tour through Germany. In the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Duncan found a view of Greek art that attributed its greatness to a dynamic balance between measured Apollonian beauty and irrational Dionysian frenzy; she adopted Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music as her bible.
Wherever she went, Duncan was taken seriously not only as a dancer but as a creative artist of a revolutionary kind. On a pilgrimage to Greece she paid her respects to the origins of her
The American photographer Edward Steichen made a well-known series of images of Duncan on the Acropolis in Athens, including this one at the Parthenon. Steichen's photographs affirmed the association, so important to Duncan, of her art with the culture of classical Greece.
art by dancing ecstatically through the ruins of Athens. In the winter of 1904-5 she was in St. Petersburg, where political reformers, revolutionaries, and supporters of the tsar clashed almost daily in the streets. Her recitals, danced to a selection of Chopin preludes and polonaises, galvanized the forces of artistic reform in the Russian capital. In one of her characteristic pieces, she ran across the stage like the Winged Victory of Samothrace come to life, with her upper body and head bent backward and her arms extended behind her; some people in the audience swore they could hear the wind blowing through her hair. At the apartment of ballerina Anna Pavlova, Duncan met many of the rising stars of the Imperial Ballet, including the twenty-five-yearold Mikhail Fokine, a promising
choreographer who would be the first to put barefoot ballerinas on the classical stage; she also argued about dance with a brilliant critic and promoter of the arts named Serge Diaghilev who, four years later, would astonish the ballet world with an innovative company of Russian dancers brought to Paris under the banner of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.
Although she certainly worked out many of her movement sequences ahead of time, Duncan liked to give the impression that she was improvising onstage. None of her dances were notated during her lifetime; with the exception of a few grainy frames of dubious provenance, no film documentation exists and the still photography of her time could capture only stagy poses, not the fluidity of pantomimic movement she was famous for. She did leave behind students and disciples who handed down her dances in what we are assured is something approximating their original form. Even more evocative are the many drawings of Duncan by artists who thrilled to her embodiment of all that was fresh and daring in the imagination of the new century. "When she appeared," recalled one art student in Paris, "we all had the feeling that God -that is to say Certainty, Simplicity, Grandeur, and Harmony-that God was present [in] the magic of her movements."
Rodin declared: "It can be said of Isadora that she has attained sculpture and emotion effortlessly." Art historian Elie Faure confessed: "Yes, we wept when we saw her.... From deep within us when she danced there arose a flood that swept away from the corners of
our soul all the filth which had been piled up there by those who for twenty centuries had bequeathed to us their critique, their ethics, their judgments...."
Duncan usually danced barefoot on a soft carpet, lit by colored spotlights, against a neutral background of long draperies, wearing a light silk tunic gathered only at the breasts and hips so that her powerful legs were unencumbered. Her movements, based on the natural rhythms of walking, skipping, jumping, and running, were matched to the dynamics of the music she had chosen: familiar concert pieces by Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, even Wagner. To dance to such music was daring in itself; before her, the works of the major classical composers were considered too "serious" to be used as mere accompaniment for any kind of dance, even ballet.
New York critic Carl Van Vechten described her interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave as follows: "[Her dance] symbolizes her conception of the Russian moujik rising from slavery to freedom. With her hands bound behind her hack, groping, stumbling, head bowed, knees bent, she struggles forward, clad only in a short red garment that barely covers her thighs. With furtive glances of extreme despair she peers above and ahead. When the strains of God Save the Czar are first heard in the orchestra she falls to her knees and you see the peasant shuddering under the blows of the knout.... Finally comes the moment of release and here Isadora makes one of her great effects. She does not spread her arms apart with a wide gesture. She brings them forward slowly and we observe with horror that they have practically forgotten how to move at all. They are crushed, these hands, crushed and bleeding after their long serfdom; they are not hands at all but claws, broken, twisted piteous claws!"
Before Duncan came onstage to dance the "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde before a full house at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1911, conductor Walter Damrosch warned the audience: "As there are probably a great many people here to whom the idea of giving pantomimic expression to the `Liebestod' would be horrifying, I am putting it last on the program so that those who do not wish to see it may leave." No one left, and her performance was greeted with sustained applause.
Despite her rhetoric about midwifing a new music and dance "that would express America," Duncan had no ear for ragtime or for any African-American rhythms that appealed to what she called "the appetites." She expressed a strong distaste for "the tottering, apelike convulsions" of the Charleston. "Jazz rhythm ... rhythm from the waist down" was alien to her, the expression, as she saw it, not of her Whitmanesque America but of "the South African savage."
Like the Romantic poets who had troubled the proprieties of the previous century, Duncan made her own rules in life as well as art. Disdaining marriage as a form of slavery, she had two children by two different lovers; her young daughter and son were drowned in a freak automobile accident in 1913. When she decided to marry Sergey Yesenin, a Russian poet seven
teen years her junior, she was reviled in America as a Bolshevik sympathizer; after several stormy years of marriage, he returned alone to Russia, where he committed suicide in 1925. By this time her dances had taken on a somber, autumnal tone; grief and suffering, not the joys of springtime or the glories of the Russian Revolution, increasingly became her themes. The girls' schools she founded in several countries to train a new generation of free-spirited, barefoot dancers failed one by one; her financial situation became precarious; she began to eat and drink to excess. In 1927, while she was riding in an open car near her home on the French Riviera, a long scarf she was wearing caught in a rear wheel and snapped her neck, killing her.
With all her misfortunes and disappointments, Isadora Duncan's achievement was epic. She defined herself and her art, controlled her own career, and forced the world to accept her on her own terms. In the history of Western culture, no woman since Sappho has been so identified with a major artistic genre. Although she left behind no institution to carry on her work, she served as a catalyst for a whole new art form-the dance known as modern. The task of securing the advances she made and of training the next generation of modern dancers fell to her contemporary, Ruth St. Denis.