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Isadora Duncan: A Revolutionary Dancer in Revolutionary Russia

Lori Belilove, Artistic Director, Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation, New York; Elena Yushkova, Senior Lecturer, Vologda Branch of the Moscow Academy for Humanities, and Fulbright-Kennan Institute Research Scholar, Kennan Institute

Date & Time

Jan. 29, 2008
1:30pm – 3:30pm ET


The words "there is no free mind without a free body" served as a motto to Isadora Duncan, according to Elena Yushkova, senior lecturer, Vologda Branch of the Moscow Academy for Humanities, and Fulbright-Kennan Institute research scholar. At a recent Kennan Institute event, Yushkova and Lori Belilove, artistic director, Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation, New York discussed the life and work of Duncan, particularly her connection to Russia. Duncan brought revolutionary dance techniques to a revolutionary (at the beginning of the 20th century) Russia, Yushkova observed. Tenets of her unique dance philosophy include dancing barefoot, wearing loose clothing, and dancing to the music of great composers, which had previously never been used for dance. Duncan firmly believed in liberating women from convention and encouraged her students to express themselves freely in their movements when dancing, rather than simply training in a particular style, Belilove said.

Duncan's Russian debut occurred in 1904 at the Hall of Nobles in St. Petersburg, and the following year she went on to tour Moscow and Kyiv. The time of Duncan's first travels to Russia coincided with Russia's cultural "Silver Age," a period Yushkova described as a turning point for Russian fine arts, performing arts, and scientific research. Many of Russia's poets, artists, scientists, philosophers, and musicians understood Duncan as a fellow innovator and fully supported her, she continued. A common goal for such artists was Gesamtkunstwerk, a German term attributed to Wagner that means "total," "integrated," or "complete" art that encompasses several forms into one.

Friedrich Nietzsche's values were also popular among Silver Age artists, Yushkova continued, and Duncan particularly embraced Nietzsche's appreciation of the body. Belilove explained that Duncan considered that the natural movements (running, walking, jumping, etc.) and the fluidity of the human body were in harmony with nature. Belilove described Duncan as the first "environmental" dancer, noting that "she was inspired by the movements of the wind, waves, clouds, and the trees, and felt that all movements in harmony with the movements of the earth would be natural and beautiful." Many aspects of Duncan's style were in revolt against Puritan principles, which restricted free movement in general, she added. Her style, in contrast to classical ballet, allowed the body moving in harmony with nature to be infinitely more expressive. To facilitate freer movement, Duncan revolutionized dance costumes as well, forgoing the corset and restrictive clothing, which was the norm for ballet at that time. Instead, Duncan danced in loose-fitting tunics inspired by the ancient Greeks, Belilove explained.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Duncan began opening dance schools in Europe, inviting dancers between the ages of six and eight to audition, Belilove said. The first school Duncan opened was in Grünewald, Germany in 1904, followed by another center in Bellevue, France in 1914. In 1921 she opened her first school in Moscow, on the invitation of Anatoliy Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Enlightenment of the first Soviet government. Duncan's first six students followed her from school to school, and in 1917 she adopted them as "artistic daughters" at Ellis Island and gave each her last name. Belilove added that these six women—Anna, Erica, Irma, Lisa, Margot, and Maria-Theresa—were dubbed "the Isadorables" by the Western press. Some of them were lyrical, others more dramatic, but they all retained the main elements of Duncan's style. Several of them went on to open their own Duncan dance schools, Belilove noted.

According to Yushkova, Duncan was quite liberal in her views, and sympathized with the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, Duncan is quoted as saying "Perhaps I am becoming a Bolshevik." Furthermore, Duncan was "seduced by the idea of Russia's artistic idealism," according to Belilove, and the offer to teach in a school of 1,000 students seemed a dream come true for her. Unfortunately, Russia became a great illusion for Duncan with time. There were countless causes of Duncan's disillusionment. These included the Russian government's inability to support the school as promised, her disastrous marriage to the famous Russian poet Esenin, and the revolution she idealized becoming increasingly torturous and bloody. Lack of funding was so bad that her student Irma eventually was forced to become the leader at the school when Isadora traveled abroad to raise money. Duncan thought she was going to witness and participate in the formation of a free and heroic society but was greatly disappointed, according to Belilove and Yushkova.

Nevertheless, Duncan's legacy lives on in several generations of dancers. Belilove pointed out that there are numerous active Isadora Duncan dance schools in the world at present, located in the United States, Europe, Russia, and Japan. Duncan ushered in a new era in dance and is considered "the Mother of Russian Modern Dance." Her dancing along with her new approach to education was embraced by Russian artists during the tumultuous but artistically revolutionary time of "The Silver Age," Yushkova concluded.


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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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