Trash in the International Dance Treasure- Isadora Duncan

I am currently preparing to move to New York City so I spent the past weekend going through my collection of ‘stuff’ and deciding what to get rid of. One particular item that I dumped off at Goodwill was Stephen King’s book, ‘On Writing’ which was a present to me in high school when I took an interest in the pen (or cheezit-crumb-infested keyboard which the jerks at The Geek Squad were so kind to point out when they failed to fix my last computer) Other discarded items of literature were ‘The Art of Fiction’ and The Bible, to which the guy managing the junk piles took offense. I had to explain that I have another bible- one with anecdotes and translations and notes that make it a little easier for an unscholar like myself to absorb.  The goodwill good samaritan then got really excited and showed my faking-interest friend and I his own version, a ‘Men’s only bible’ and suggested I check out the bible for women. Hello, has he never heard of cosmo? (Just kidding). Chances are, I will find a gender-specific Bible offensive. While I still am not likely to read it, I appreciate a person who tries to share (no-pun intended) goodwill towards a fellow human, even if it is not for me. I do not feel bad for discarding my first Bible nor do I feel bad about throwing out my ‘how-to write’ books which were mostly unhelpful. Besides a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about setting up a desk by a window with a nice view and making coffee, King advises that those who want to write well, must read a lot. I’ve taken that advice to heart and like to consider myself a ‘promiscuous reader’.

The book that has most recently caught my attention is ‘Reading Dance’, a huge book that I pick up at Borders, peruse, take notes on essays, stories, or interviews of interest, and then replace on the shelf. Hey, downsizing! I will not buy a 45 dollar book before a move, when I’m likely to be charged over-weight fees on my luggage anyways.  Flipping through the titles, I chose to read an excerpt from Isadora Duncan’s memoir, ‘My Life’, that focused on her time in Russia. Having studied in Russia myself, I thought it would be nice to hear someone of her fame describe the palaces and theaters I have also visited. (It makes me feel like a little more of a celebrity myself, instead of just another sad blogger!) Here is the excerpt- including quotations-  in a nutshell:

Duncan travels to Russia. The next day she appeared in front of the elite of st peters society- ‘those dilettantes of the gorgeous ballet’ who watched a ‘simple girl dance her soul as she understood the soul of Chopin’. She received a  storm of applause- ‘this soul awakened in that spoiled, wealthy, and aristocratic audience a response of stirring applause. How curious!’ The next day, she goes to the ballet (although she considers herself an enemy to ballet which she considers ‘preposterous and false art’) judges everyone in the audience for being over-dressed, invited the next day personally by Russia’s biggest star Anna Pavlova to watch a performance of ‘Giselle’ which she felt was against all artistic and human feeling yet “couldn’t resist warmly applauding the exquisite apparition”, goes to dinner, shows up three hours late the next day to watch Pavlova rehearse, watched for 3 hours- concludes that the “point seemed to be to separate the gymnastic movement from the mind- mind suffers in aloofness from rigorous muscular discipline”-( opposite of theories on which she founded her school, where the body is medium for mind and spirit-) watched as pavlova didn’t eat lunch while she stuff herself (her words, not mine)  then she went back to her hotel and fell asleep ‘praising my stars that no unkind fate had ever given me the career of a ballet dancer’ . The next day she arose at the ‘ unheard of hour of eight oclock’ to watch students of the imperial school which she compares to a torture chamber.Next she meets a Russian man named Stanislav who is charge of a theater. In her desire for ‘contact with strong personalities’ she decides the best thing to do is kiss this poor MARRIED guy after a show in her dressing room, who runs away from her. He didn’t ‘risk’ coming to her room again. But he took her lunch one day where they talked of art and she was convinced no one but circe herself could break his virtue. She had ‘heard of the dangers which young girls risked by going into theatrical life, but as readers can see from my career so far, it was just the opposite. I really suffered too much awe and respect and admiration, which I inspired in my admirers.’ (My Life, 1927)

I know it is a fault of mine that I tend to like art done by artists I like, and dislike art from haters, pigs, womanizers (Picasso, I’m talking to you!) and snobs. It is only going to be too easy for me now to sneer at Duncan’s work, even if it was new and innovative on the dance scene at the time. After reading this excerpt, she clearly thinks she is God’s gift to dance and superior to ballet because she doesn’t wear fancy costumes, get up early, eat a strict diet, or work particularly hard. I’m pretty sure there is no ‘Book of Duncan’ even in the bible I threw out. Get over yourself!

I am sad, for once, for my practice of reading because though I was never a Duncan fan anyways, I was never outright disgusted. For once, I wish I hadn’t taken the advise of King to heart and had just left that one alone. I’m more likely to pick up the ‘womens bible’ than the rest of Duncan’s autobiography.While her art was never for me, I at least appreciated the historical significance. That was until I realized she changed things because felt herself so above classical ballet. Duncan, to me, is the stereotype of a ‘bible-thumper’, a person who believes that they have all the answers, push it on others whether they are interested or not, all the while looking down on them. Having other ideas and expressing them are fine, I just can’t stand disdain.

I would rather go to lunch with the guy from Goodwill than Isadora Duncan, even if he is a humble blue-collar worker and she was an international celebrity and renowned artist. How funny to find more of treasure in the heaps of trash (and discarded books) and more trash in the treasure.

* Isadora Duncan was an innovator of modern dance, famous for solo improvised performances at rich ladies tea parties in which she wore simple, Grecian, flowing costumes. Her dances bear little to no technique. Her life’s goal was to train young students. She had two bastard children (one by a theatrical designer, one by the heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune- both of whom drowned before her own death)  married a poet (Sergei Esenin) who abandoned her, then commit suicide. Duncan was tragically killed in 1927 when her scarf caught in a wheel spoke of a car and broke her neck.

Another Note- ‘Giselle’ ( which according to Duncan is devoid of artistic or human emotion) is the story of a young girl with a weak heart who is admired by everyone in her town, but tricked by the love of her life who is secretly royalty and betrothed to someone else. She then dies of heartbreak and joins a group of other dead betrayed women (wilis) who dance men to death in revenge. They are about to do this to Albrecht (the cheater) but Giselle saves him by dancing for and with him and the dead brides are powerless once the sun comes up.

Themes of betrayal, love, revenge- nothing human there. I associate much more with flitting around, praising the earth in a sundress. Good job Duncan.

5 thoughts on “Trash in the International Dance Treasure- Isadora Duncan

  1. That woman sounds like an egomaniac! Since you liken her to a bible-thumper, am I right in assuming you’re saying that she held a false faith in herself that she built in opposition to her personal devil (ballet)? And in that sense, modern dance is essentially in opposition to ballet? Or do you think that was just true in Duncan’s mind. Personally, just from that excerpt, I think she sounds like a nutter. But it seems that she also had a tragic life. Killed by a scarf…one of those fluttery, flowing things she loved. If she had worn a leotard sans scarf, she could have lived a long happy life.

    p.s. DON’T GIVE UP ON READING! King was write (that is a typo but I am keeping it because it is cute).
    p.p.s. You are such a book pirate! Yo ho ho and a latte to you! Don’t worry, I blame the library systems and not you. And Borders for their inviting and beverage-friendly environment.

  2. Almost all serious innovators rebel against what came before. All artists with a new vision have tremendous passion and conviction- that’s how they change things so dramatically. I’m not saying she’s clearly correct or has the most appropriate image of herself but it takes people like her to make dramatic artistic innovations. Your article to me is the same as condoning any person who has contributed to society or art because you don’t like their morals or their life- style. To me seems very naive and small-minded.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. To Beth, as I say in the article, it is a fault of mine to be a harsher critic on someone who I find a personality fault with. Is it small-minded? Yes indeed! Did I like Duncan’s work much before I had read her book? Not really. I absolutely still appreciate the creativity she brought to dance forms and how it has forever changed the dance world. I will never knock an innovator for being an innovator or even her specific ideas regarding a search for truth in dance. I’m just saying she’s not someone I’d like to go to lunch with.
    To Katie, I do not think she had a ‘false faith’ in herself. In stripping the art from of dance of lavish costumes, sets, full orchestras she was attempting to strip away the ‘face-value’ of dance and make her audience find a deeper beauty that connected nature, the soul, the mind, with her performance. In this, I praise her (even if I am a sucker for a tutu and a tiara).
    I would not call modern in direct opposition to ballet, at least by now. I think there used to be a predisposition to believe that ballet is about beauty and modern is about truth- even anatomically speaking. The idea of turn-out is pretty unnatural for almost every person on the earth, even most working ballerinas do not have perfect 180 turn out in their hips. It is still a hallmark of the ballet while of greater/lesser importance in different modern styles. Many employ more use of ‘parallel’ or ‘sixth position’ (with both feet naturally aligned facing forward). I would say the biggest difference between ballet and modern is how the weight is carried. There is a bouyancy in ballet where the dancer must appear light and carry their weight higher up while modern and jazz styles tend to be more grounded and the emphasis of weight is held lower in the pelvis. Most contemporary ballet styles are blending the classic qualities of turn-out and line with this sense of connection tot he floor, mostly because the only way to get through the intricate contemporary choreography of today is to know where your legs and hips are underneath you and to have a strong core. Modern innovators like Duncan and Graham introduced the shift in weight, if you will, and the look of being grounded. Being grounded in your personal life and communication with other people…hmm, people that really strive for that quality in dance really seemed to fail at that in life. Both are egocentric, over-dramatic, stuck-up jerks with long histories of bad relationships.

  4. Oh she dies of a weak broken heart! The last version I saw, I was pretty certain she was dying of breast cancer.

  5. Pingback: Book Review: With Ballet in My Soul | BODIES NEVER LIE

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