Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Isadora Duncan: Unchained In Her Expression of Dance

Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco in 1878 and fortunate to have a mother that was a cultured pianist.  Early on her mother told her to “listen to the music with your soul.”

Although her parents were unable to lavish monetary blessings upon her, she was raised in an environment of literature, music and dance; and her young life was lifted above her financial station.

Gifted in dance and hungry to share her young passion, by age twelve she was giving dance lessons to children in her neighborhood. So it was little wonder that by age seventeen she was cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an opportunity that caused her family to move to New York.

But in the blink of an eye she went from being hailed as the next brightest star to yesterday’s news—a blow that took its toll but did not completely dampen her hope for a future, for not too long afterwards she packed her bags and sailed for England.

What character of spirit she had to just pick up her young bootstraps and sail across the wide ocean with the hopes that her gift would be welcomed and put to use.  She may have been young, but her spirit was mature and willing.

So by 1898 (when she was 20-years-old) she debuted at London’s Lyceum, where she captivated her audience with unusual and non-conventional dance moves like skipping and running—breathing an unusual life-force into her expression of dance.

Her choreography flowed in an impromptu way, and it was met with eager enthusiasm by audiences across the continent—success, sweet success followed.

While in Greece she spent time teaching a group of children the art of ancient Byzantine dance, and the children, so excited by this, danced their way from town to town in sandaled feet showing off what Ms. Duncan had taught them.  But unfortunately it was met with disapproval, and the townspeople thought Isadora was mad for encouraging such expression.  So once again she ended up financially broke and ostracized.

By 1904 she had found new strength and founded a school for poor children in Germany.  Her idea was to make a curriculum that included art, culture, and spirituality—a school that tapped into the talents of these children less fortunate, but also gave them a well-rounded education.  Little wonder that she ended up adopting six daughters from the group of students that ended up touring the world with her—named “the Isadorables” by those in the press.

To say that Isadora Duncan was ahead of her time is very much an understatement. But she really was a dancer that embraced the natural, and she was very much unafraid to wear costumes that were considered in poor taste and even shocking.  She availed herself to whatever expression of dance that her soul was stirred to bring forth, and the American audiences were both shocked and enthralled.  Never one to withhold “speaking forth” a message with her body, she once performed with bear breasts to protest the corset!

Unleashed poetic and artistic expression is frequently fueled by harsh realities and tragedies, which Ms. Duncan was not unfamiliar with. In 1913 while performing to Chopin’s Funeral March she had a vision of her children’s death—days later they drowned in the Seine.

So while her life was riddled with many challenges, troubled times, financial set-backs, heartbreak, and a general lack of acceptance at many junctures, she still abandoned herself to express who she was as a dancer, a teacher, a mother, and a lover.  She never  held back.  She never gave up.

Sadly she died at the age of 49 in a strange auto accident—her trailing veil got caught in the wheel and broke her neck.  She was buried in Le Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris—leaving all future dancers freedom of movement and freedom of expression!

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