16 March 1900: Isadora Duncan’s first European performance took place in London. By the time she died in a freak accident in 1927 (strangled by her scarf when it caught in the spokes of a car wheel), Isadora had become an international celebrity and her radical notion of a dance form that replaced academic strictures with intuitive inspiration was set to become a central theme of twentieth-century dance.
Duncan had crossed the Atlantic on a cattle boat with her mother, sister and brother in tow – in search of an artistic climate which might prove more conducive to her aims than that of her native America. In a remarkably short space of time, she became a cult figure. Performing barefoot and in a loose-flowing tunic, she gave her audiences a highly individual and subjective vision of dance. Some thought that Isadora was a goddess, others merely saw her as a crackpot. History confirms her as a mixture of the two: legend reveals her distinctive quality as charisma. This was coupled with an unshakable belief in her own genius. Both qualities were part of the legacy she passed on to her fellow dance pioneers.
Isadora Duncan made two lasting contributions to dance. She liberated herself and those who succeeded her from the constricting paraphernalia of corsets, petticoats, long sleeves, high collars and heavy skirts worn by the women of her day. Her second, equally important innovation, was to insist that her art merited concomitantly great music. She danced to Gluck, Wagner and Bach and even Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The music critics were almost as scandalised by her temerity as the ballet aficionados were by her bare feet.
Western theatrical dance was at one of its lowest ebbs when Isadora first appeared in Europe. Tightrope walkers and contortionists shared the music hall stages with ‘toe dancers’, Vaslav Nijinsky was still an unknown student and neither Frederick Ashton nor George Balanchine had been born. Another American ex-patriot, Loie Fuller, was a star attraction at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, but her performances were more illusionist gimmickry than dancing. Fuller, one of the first dancers to use electricity creatively, achieved her stage effects by manipulating gigantic veils of silk into fluid patterns enhanced by changing coloured lights to lose window.
On a Serious Note. . .
Fuller’s exoticism would flower into the pageantry of Dionysian, the California-based company and school founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, but by the time of the Great Depression, all frivolity had been sternly quarantined. Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey in America and Mary Wigman in Germany were deadly serious about the new dance forms they were creating and felt that the only way they could make their audiences realise this was to choreograph no-nonsense dances. Among other things, this ‘high art’ stance was an attempt to stave off the inevitable jeers of uncomprehending ridicule. Having heard Isadora’s clarion call of individualism, the dance pioneers of the 1930’s answered with their own strong voices. Contemporary dance rebels are still doing the same.