Chapter 2: The Solo Dancers

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927)

Angela Isadora Duncan was born in 1877 in San Francisco, California. As a child she studied ballet, Delsarte technique and burlesque forms like skirt dancing. She began her professional career in Chicago in 1896, where she met the theatrical producer Augustin Daly. Soon after, Duncan joined his his touring company, appearing in roles ranging from one of the fairies in a "Mid-summer Night's Dream" to one of the quartet girls in "The Giesha." Duncan traveled to England with the Daly company in 1897. During this time she also danced as a solo performer at a number of society functions in and around London.

Isadora Duncan in New York

Returning to New York City in 1898, Duncan left the Daly company and began performing her solo dances at the homes of wealthy patrons. Calling their program "The Dance and Philosophy," Isadora and her older sister Elizabeth offered society women an afternoon of dance pieces set to Strauss waltzes and Omar Khayyam's "The Rubbaiyat." Influenced by the Americanized Delsarte movement, these "afternoons" received little serious notice from the press. Duncan became discouraged by the lack of enthusiasm, and, with her mother andsiblings, set sail for London in 1899.

Duncan's Introduction to Music and Art

In the years between 1899 and 1907, Duncan lived and worked in the great cities of Europe. In London in 1900 she met a group of artists and critics --led by the painter Charles Halle and the music critic John Fuller-Maitland -- who introduced her to Greek statue art, Italian Renaissance paintings and symphonic music. During this perioed, Fuller-Maitland convinced her to stop dancing to recitations and to begin using the music of Chopin and Beethoven for her inspiration.

The Dance of the Future

In Germany Duncan was introduced to the philosopy of Frederick Nietzsche, and soon after began formulating her own philosophy of dance. In 1903 she delivered a speech in Berlin called "The Dance of the Future." In it she argued that the dance of the future would be similar to the dance of the ancient Greeks, natural and free. Duncan accused the ballet of "deforming the beautiful woman's body" and called for its abolition. She ended her speech by stating that "the dance of the future will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks. For art which is not religious is not art, is mere merchandise." It was during this period that Duncan began clarifying her theory of natural dance, identifying the source of the body's natural movement in the solar plexus.

The Isadorables

Between 1904 and 1907, Duncan lived and worked in Greece, Germany, Russia and Scandanavia. During this period she worked with many famous artists, including the scenic designer Gordon Craig and the Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavsky. In 1904, Duncan established her first school of dance in Grunewald, a suburb outside of Berlin. There, she began to develop her theories of dance education and to assemble her famous dance group, later known as the Isadorables.

Duncan's World Fame

Duncan returned to the United States in 1908 to begin a series of tours throughout the country. At first, her performances were poorly received by music critics, who felt that the dancer had no right to "interpret" symphonic music. The music critic from The New York Times, for example, wrote that there was "much question of the necessity or the possibility of a physical 'interpretation' of the symphony upon the seems like laying violent hands on a great masterpiece that had better be left alone." (1908). But the audiences grew more and more enthusiastic, and when Duncan returned to Europe in 1909, she was famous throughout the world. In the following years, Duncan created and maintained schools in France, Germany and Russia. She continued to sponsor young dancers and to give her solo performances. She returned to the United States several times, touring the country, but she never lived there again. In 1927, Duncan was killed in an automobile accident in Paris.

Isadora Duncan's Innovations:

  1. Duncan was the first American dancer to develop and label a concept of natural breathing, which she identified with the ebb and flow of ocean waves.
  2. Duncan was the first American dancer to define movement based on natural and spiritual laws rather than on formal considerations of geometric space.
  3. Duncan was the first American dancer to rigorously compare dance to the other arts, defending it as a primary art form worthy of "high art" status.
  4. Duncan was the first American dancer to develop a philosophy of the dance.
  5. Duncan was the first American dancer to deemphasize scenery and costumes in favor of a simple stage setting and simple costumes. By doing this, Duncan suggested that watching a dancer dance was enough.