Dana Naomy Mills reflects on how the great dance innovator ISADORA DUNCAN was inspired by her time in the first workers’ state
TO SAY that Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was the creator of modern dance is no exaggeration.
Her pioneering techniques, which broke with the rigid conventions of classical ballet, have inspired choreographers and dancers until this very day and her influence can be seen in the work of Pina Bausch, Martha Graham and Frederick Ashton, among many others.
From her early years as an artist, Duncan was a rebellious spirit. Refusing to accept rules in dance — and life — she discarded ballet shoes and tutus in favour of barefoot movement and loose-fitting costumes.
For Duncan, dance came from the soul and her style of free and natural movement was inspired by the classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature and natural forces as well as an American-inspired athleticism.
Born in San Francisco and raised in a poverty-stricken family, Duncan was always aware of her surroundings and social justice. “If my art is symbolic of any one thing, it is symbolic of the freedom of woman and her emancipation of the hidebound conventions that are the warp and woof of New England puritanism,” she once said.
After spending time in London and Europe performing to great acclaim and teaching, she was drawn to the monumental events occurring in Russia, a turning point in her own life. In 1921, at the invitation of the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky, she arrived in Russia. She refused to accept money for her art — Duncan saw the goal of her work in Russia to bring beauty and the new dance to the new world being built.
“Adieu, then, inequality, injustice and the brutality of the Old World,” she wrote at the conclusion of her autobiography just before she left for Russia, “with all the energy of my being, disappointed in the attempts to realise any of my art visions in Europe, I was ready to enter the ideal domain of communism.”
In Russia, Duncan encountered some of the biggest figures of the revolution. Lenin watched her dance to the Internationale with admiration and she danced in front of the grandmother of German communism, Clara Zetkin. She bonded with the feminist-communist revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai over a shared bottle of vodka.
Duncan — motto: “No limits!” — saw dance as a powerful educational mechanism, stating that: “A free spirit can only exist in a freed body.” At the same time, she did not want her art to be “translated” or mediated. “I am not a politician,,” she stated. “I am an artist. But I will try in my dancing to help America to understand the magnificent spirit of Russia”.
In bringing dance centre stage without requiring plots, heavy costumes or sets that would distract from the power of the human body, she exposed its essential power and all those who saw her perform remember a magnetic and unique energy and charisma.
At the same time, she always wanted to found a school, realising that dance, the most ephemeral of art forms, needs structure to survive.
She had hoped the huge promise of Soviet Russia would enable her that continuity.
But she left Russia in 1924, disillusioned by the lack of support for her school, the situation in the fledgling Soviet state and the breakdown of her personal relationship with the poet Sergei Yesenin. But her adopted daughter Irma took over the school after she left.
Duncan’s influence on Soviet modern dance was monumental and, in turn, the Russian revolution was a pivotal point in her work to use dance as an educational tool for justice.
Returning to her homeland on tour, in Boston in 1922 she waved a red scarf and declared: “This is red! So am I! it is the colour of life and vigour. You were once wild here. Don’t let them tame you!”
On this anniversary of the Russian Revolution, those words still inspire in the struggle for justice. We must never allow ourselves to be tamed.