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Born in California in 1877, Duncan's childhood was as chaotic as it was sublime. Her mother, Dora Angela Duncan, a self-educated cultured woman, provided her four children with classical underpinnings that instilled a love and respect for art and language and a reverence for the past. Her father, Joseph Duncan, a banker-aesthete, abandoned the family when Duncan was quite young. However, even in absentia, he prophetically heralded Duncan's formative concepts of a Greek sensibility through his published poem, "Intaglio: Lines on a Beautiful Greek Antique," in which he wrote, "Greece is living Greece once more." (Duncan, Art of the Dance, 144; quoting Bret Harte, ed., Outcroppings: Being Selections of California Verse. San Francisco: A. Roman, 1866).
Duncan's family moved often, eventually traveling across America and then to Europe. They arrived in London the summer of 1899, where Duncan, then age 22, immersed herself every day for four months in the vast holdings of the British Museum. (Duncan, Original Notebook from the Arnold Rood Collection, n.d., Special Collections, Theatre Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England, without pagination. Courtesy of Barbara Kane.)
Thereafter, they left for Paris, where Duncan was introduced to the Louvre's collection of Greek vases and their iconography. In her autobiography, Duncan recalls that her brother, Raymond, sketched every red or black-figured vessel in that collection. Duncan subsequently danced from their inspired images, while Raymond photographed her. (Duncan, My Life, 67-68.) It was their self-proclaimed mission to attune themselves to the ancient Greek sensibility, its aesthetic and its ethos.
Duncan was particularly drawn to the myths and traditions of the Western cultural imagination, most notably those of ancient Greece. Their influence was deep and resolute. They infused not only her work, but her very `soul': the latter being a concept taken from ancient Greece that is central to Duncan and her work.
From early childhood, Duncan identified with ancient Greek philosophies, rituals and ceremonies. To some critics, her life-long commitment to these and the inspiration she derived from them, would appear as an obsession. To Duncan, however, the connections were at once both historical and contemporary. She drew from them personally to live her life, and professionally, in her determination to restore the ancient ideal of "The Dance" (as she envisioned it practiced in the ancient Greek world) to its centrality in human experience.
Her dedication to this goal defined dance less as an entertainment and more as a propitiation to the forces of nature and to the gods. For Duncan, dance was the expression of creative impulse. It was a non-vocal manifestation of the human psyche and an affirmation of the human spirit. She accepted the view that dance was the most ancient of arts and that it had sprung from the vital urgencies of communal life, which were manifested in the ceremonies and rituals of earliest mankind.( Curt Sachs, World History of the Dance, trans. Bessie Schonberg. New York: Norton, 1937). She also acknowledged her own role as both inheritor and progenitor of this legacy. As early as 1905, Duncan wrote:
Duncan's reference to ancient Greece as fertile ground for intellectual, artistic and popular expression was not unique for the period. Duncan was particularly influenced by the Delsartean system of expression, which emphasized "harmonic poise," "artistic statue posing" and "plastique."
In recent times, Duncan has been accused of appropriating Greek culture to develop her dancing persona, with further charges that her dedication to the Greek ideal was merely a superficiality. One might argue that such criticism is unfounded and reflects a misunderstanding of the sources of Duncan's motivation as well as of the totality of the Greek world view. It is clear from Duncan's own writings, public statements and documented accounts, that she understood her reference to the Greek world not as a rarification of their ideals, but more as a matrix that provided her with a conceptual framework from which to explore her art, her politics and her lifestyle:
Duncan recognized instinctively that which scholars today purport: that the basis of ancient Greek art and life was religious and political at its core, not aesthetic. Therefore, as Duncan developed her artistic and public persona, she became both "priestess" and "revolutionary" to her sacred causes. These included the dance, social justice and freedom for the human body and spirit. Duncan was able to enjoin all three in her artistic declaration against the bondage of Puritanism and government without vision, in her extraordinary essay, "I See America Dancing."( Duncan, The Art of the Dance, 47-50.) As her views evolved, she came to embrace a religion without dogma and a politics devoid of national bias. She understood and sought the roots of her inspiration in ancient Greek ideals and in their antecedents within ancient mysteries. The combination gave rise to a profound dialectic that characterized Duncan and her art. The great Irish poet, Shaemus O'Sheel, captured this essence of Duncan's work when he eulogized:
That O'Sheel wrote so evocatively of Duncan as spanning time, space and normal configuration in her dance is not surprising. Her exploration of human movement, which led to the notion of freedom for the body, likewise evolved to the notion of freedom for one's soul. As inspired readers and followers adopted the concepts she espoused, they were reminded metaphorically and directly of her source of inspiration:
Duncan had long espoused the freedoms in the Greek traditions, internalizing them. They provided a foundation from which she defined her own rights and that of her contemporaries. She challenged most of society's restrictions on human behavior, particularly those placed on women and their bodies, through her dance and public behavior. But, it was her reinvestment of the "soul," a concept that she accepted as early as 1901, that truly reinvented the "body" for society and for modern women:
In light of Duncan's innovations and their impact on her contemporaries in the press, in the arts and among the intelligentsia of Europe, she became a cultural phenomenon, with particular spiritual and `soul-ful' attributes. By 1903, when she was hailed in Germany as "die göttliche, heilige Isadora" (the goddess-like one, St. Isadora) and carried triumphantly through the streets on unhitched carriages by the public, she had shifted from a mere celebrity to a cultural icon.
This book can be purchased at UMI Dissertation Express. Proceed through intro, choose your order method and search by title (Myth and Image in the Dance of Isadora Duncan) or Author Jeanne Bresciani.