Isadora Duncan’s influence on Pavlova, Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Balanchine Among Others

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A photo from the U.S. Archives which demonstrates very clearly Isadora Duncan’s, and other modern dancers, influence on ballet. You can’t say “choreography” without saying “dancers” or “ballet” as they converge, effect each other, and dancers dance, to some extent, what they want to or what the can.

This is a pretty rare photo, but now, we can see that perhaps Anna Pavlova did not really hate Isadora Duncan after-all, but instead was influenced by her, tried to channel or feel what Isadora felt, what modern dance was, or her choreographer was interested in it for this piece. We see it finally because she danced it. She agreed to do it. That makes it important to ballet. What a dancer agrees to do (and does not agree to do) ultimately defines them to their audience, defines their art, and history, especially when you are discussing Anna Pavlova.

But in relation to any dancer, they will be seen to be a certain kind of dancer, expected to perform certain roles, become skilled at those and roles like them. Obviously Pavlova went back to classical roles and swore off modern dance. At least for her life, this was not what she was good at, excelled at. One needs to know oneself and one’s limitations, but that comes with experience. Expansion can mean growing into an acceptance of what your roles could and should be in dance, or it can come to mean limiting yourself to perfection of one type of dancing. Being an expert at one thing certainly raises the level of expertise required for that genre. It increases your ability to dance those roles.

Most importantly, if you are determined to dance certain roles, certain ballets, certain parts, then you need to learn those parts, become expert at them, so that no matter your deficiencies, people will say, “but she/he dances those parts better, even if she/he is not this or that. But if you do not specialize, then perhaps you will never be good enough at one thing to qualify even for that. If Pavlova had not been skilled in ballet, had that not been her passion, we would not have been fortunate to have come to understand her legacy a little better, and while she had the option to become more skilled, at a later age, in other forms of dance, she did not do a 180 and perform modern, or try to find herself in it.

Even with poorer choreography than Diaghilev could provide, she continued to astound audiences with her versatility and drama, as a ballet dancer. She truly was an ambassador of ballet. Something must also be said about modern dance here, the characteristics of it, the difference between it and ballet, are wide. Isadora Duncan could have suddenly said, I want to be a ballet dancer. But she did not. There was unquestionable an attitude and freedom in her approach to dancing, her naturalness, her languor and beauty (she was a very beautiful woman), her form and development in modern dance, which gave her an advantage in performing her roles, her choreography, and she danced to a different drummer, literally, different music.

She was right and Pavlova was right. Two experts, a long time ago, who felt that you had to make up your mind, pick a side, choose, two purists. I do not think choreographers today understand dance very well, for they are not able to separate or merge the two dance styles (usually). They are greedy, and dancers are too, so no one is perfect today in ballet, because they try to do too much. Be the star on every stage. And yet, even with the most sought after choreographers, some dancers just do not enjoy that success. Great ballet dancers fail at exploring new styles, new techniques, and they are simply not the best.

But, by taking on roles that minimize, instead of maximize, their abilities as ballet dancers, instead of having new ballet roles made for them, their performances are not what they could be. At thirty to forty years of age, these dancers should be reaching a point where they are true artists, and yet the barre for true artistry is lowered. There are some artists, such as Natalia Osipova, Darcy Bussell, Tamara Rojas, etc., who have remained dedicated to their art and may possibly reach a point, historically, where their body of work is respected and exceeds more publicized dancers, simply because they knew their limitations and they stayed within the parameters of their expertise longer, trying to reach a point where they were consummate in their art. It is not today that they will be judged, but tomorrow, and in the annals of history, where we are not yet and cannot say whom will leave what.

How will they all be credited? More is needed for women to make a mark, when before them is opportunity to travel, to reach out, to grow, to direct, choreograph, produce. What will their choices be? Will they stray from the path of their strength, give up, or will they take the torch, the flame and finally bring something monumental back to ballet, the genre that gave them their careers, their fame? Or will they dabble in other forms of dance, leaving mediocrity in their wake, when they could have developed classical ballet, and ballet, a big step further in order to safeguard it as Vaganova did.

So when you are in class, or studying ballet, pick a side, and win or lose, cling to that vision. For is you are true to your vision, you are working not only toward what you believe in, and love, but you are setting a precedence for what will be your strongest form of dance in the future. What do you want that to be? Don’t let rejection, or all of the opinions of others set your path. For the path you choose will probably be the one that survives with you, the one you will know best, and will propagate. If there is one you prefer, no matter what others say, follow the choice you will be able to live with and embrace.



I truly believe…

A man and a woman performing a modern dance.
A man and a woman performing a modern dance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I truly believe all art should be free. My daughter got in the car today and said (in tears) that it wasn’t fair-her teacher constantly cancels her privates in order to take someone else ahead of her. She said, “It is like I am doing all this for nothing”-meaning variations. The fact is, I don’t know. She quickly made sure I knew she didn’t mean ‘ballet.’ Just privates.

If you have even one, it’s addictive, like you can be better faster, not ahead of everyone else, just better. Someone said, ‘ballet never gets easier, just possible.’ Ballet is an art which you venture into unaware that it will take the rest of your life to understand, study and hone-I did not say ‘perfect.’ You work in privates very hard. As there is more personal attention it is very intense, tiring and deflating in a way. Even though you are getting more corrections, there is only so much you can assimilate at one time. Hopefully, you get better each time (requires actual practice). But sometimes getting better is not being told to get better, but learning to get better or advancing/growing enough physically/mentally to be able to do something or understand it.

It seems it is all about getting better quickly, working out little issues, learning variations-it’s what they do in Russia, right? Wrong. I do not really know what they do in Russia because I am not Russian and I did not study ballet long enough to have more knowledge on the subject. I do feel that some Russians are expert teachers, but teaching, like learning, is also a growth thing, and a practical knowledge thing. With age comes maturity. One is trying to communicate, and one is trying to understand and do. At least in the classroom. There are many great American teachers of ballet. Though Russian technique, the Vagonova method, might be an older method book, and if followed precisely, may result in a certain ability to more easily work the body, I am not so sure the end result is any better than our own mature dancers in terms of freedom and expression.

I have not been completely stunned by Russian dancers of late-not since Lopatkina, and she, too, has her limits. They are all good dancers, but is their artistry better than their training? I look at it as a billion little cells and muscles and they can all be taught to do the basics in any method. But the brains are different. It tells those cells and muscles what to do, or sometimes, just naturally, someone’s cells and body parts just do things differently, uniquely. The x-factor. Not all the students with short backs and long legs, good feet, etc. are going to have that gift. Sometimes it is the awkward or ungainly bunny that has the staying power, drive, and determination to get ahead, and the x-factor. I believe you have to watch this person to see what they will do next. You don’t have a choice.

If you start weeding them out too early, assess them out based on body-type alone, or because they cannot focus all the time, you are putting art through a sieve and retaining what you think are the golden apples. That is not a natural selection process or an intelligent one, but it will get shows put on and tickets sold. The result may not be as amazing, but there will be leads. Shows must go on everywhere.  In the meantime, there is a certain kind of person who will wait patiently in the wings and try to be a better and better technician and artist each day. But as the athlete or dancer‘s career is very short by nature, this also requires more than a bit of good luck. And to be be very successful in dance, it requires parents and teachers who coach and nurture these children well beyond their own level of maturity or ability. If your child is not one of these “prodigies” then they do not really stand a chance in this type of environment, but it is up to the parent and the child, in this situation, to determine whether to stick it out, or move on to a better environment, or quit. People do all three.

From this, I am reminded that some people feel that a child, picked as among the best, for your better academies, should have what it takes to survive in class, to get better with everyone else. This is a heavy burden in itself. They should be given the chance to exert their personalities and express themselves in class-they need to do this with other similar students, easily done for the most part. In a given area there might not be enough children to choose  from to fill a class each year with boys and girls of a certain body type  and ability, I like to call mainstreaming. But that is why we have always had regional companies. Many dancers do not wish to go to a major city and become famous or try to be a big fish in a big pond. Some people just do not like to travel, particularly out of their own country, and do very well in a smaller company, and some even move up after a time. Sometimes it is enough to dance anywhere. Some of the best dancers are in these regional companies.

All of the other possible factors including ability and desire combine to ‘make-up’ for the lack of perfect body types to educate-and let’s not forget artistry. Was Pavlova smart? Smart enough. Not enough is made of these lesser known, dedicated and oftentimes very talented dancers and their voices are not called upon usually to give their advice to young dancers, but they should be, because they are the reality and their paths the likeliest one for most dancers. Dancers trained in the best schools are needed as teachers, more than as dancers. It’s a fact. Like a recipe for what will be instead of what could be.

Something must be said for superior training and it all comes down to the best teaching really, and not necessarily the best dancing or the most famous dancers. I think if most of us knew the preemptive, it might change our paths. From the best teachers frequently come the best dancers, but it is not like an egg. You can have great dancers and great teachers from different eggs (teachers). The Russian ideal was created over a long period of time, refined and perfected because the state paid for the education of those dancers. Lots of other pros and cons emanated from that system, too, and it is not something to idealize, necessarily. Certainly a great dancer can add instruction on the nuances of a role, but that does not make a dancer unique, for there would be no artistry if the student exactly followed the prescription of the teacher or the choreographer for the role. It is said a great dancer has a style all of their own, like a painter, or a musician, but as we know, there are schools of art, just like dance. When you see a Russian dancer, you know their school, by certain telltale signs. But a true artist is their own school-we like to think. I cannot help looking at the best dancer and thinking what kind of teacher she will make and whether that would suit her or her parents very well, because that is what is likely to become of all that training. My daughter wants to be a teacher, which is fine, because she can be well on her way before others get the notion. Perhaps that will slant her perspective at a time when it is important. Is that any less of a reason to be well trained. But, in knowing this, do I really need to worry so much?

However, ballet does not stop at the classroom anymore. With performances and events, like competitions, dance immediately goes beyond the classroom to the world, YouTube, major cities, and publications, competitions, the ballet world and beyond. People also claim that ballet is intuitive, a dancer listens to listen to his/her own body and from the outside it might appear as if one dancer is naturally more intuitive than another, even to a teacher, but children learn at different rates. An experienced dance teacher will tell you that you can never tell who will make it and who won’t-there are too many factors. But, if they did know, then there would be no purpose, and no money, from teaching everyone else at all. The parents should quickly ascertain that certain students get more of the attention, praise and are better than their own children at many things. But parents have indefatigable hope and belief in their own children to persevere and improve. If they knew they were competing to be teachers eventually, do you think they would fight so hard, pay so much?

They continue to pay for lessons, and this is frequently at the behest of their children, who improve enough and enjoy the classes and performance enough to still want to become ballet dancers against all the odds, bad bodies, and poor teaching (possibly). Some of them do become great, but the majority eventually quit, never even attending a dance college. I think that is a shame, for one profession is intrinsically as good as any other one. I never hear of many dancers in adult ballet class who were dancers and follow the same regimen they did as youngsters, as older adults. Funny. It is as though they are traumatized, forever, and severed from what they love, convinced that they are failures, rather than embracing what they know and love. So, it is important to think about why we dance in the first place, it is for fame, for glory, to be better than everyone else, or just because we love to. Because how can you have to do something everyday until you are 14-17, and then suddenly wake up and say, I no longer want to do that. I was unsuccessful. I will try something else. To give up what you love must denote some severe setback.

From my perspective there are two majors groups of dance supporters, besides teachers. They are both parents-those who danced as children who now or will or did have children with whom they will not make the same mistakes, or to whom they pass down the art and love of ballet, and there is the other major group of older teens and adults who comprise new learners and whom, without baggage and failure learn to love and dance. So dance is constantly recycled and we build new possibilities and breathe new life into the art form with our children, ourselves and our love or appreciation of ballet. But hopefully, we learn from all of our experiences, as the generations of Russians did, who do not all go on to be great performers, but also great teachers, choreographers, administrators, etc.

Therefore, it is for some a means of keeping in shape, for others a way of expressing themselves and growing, and for others a way of life that is being passed down to them at perhaps a too early age to decide, and in a very competitive and picky environment where many of the positives for a mature person are degraded for the child in an arena of extreme competition. Forget art, it is about survival of the fittest, literally. Money is a big part of that agenda now and not just in America!

By now, my regular readers know that I studied dance for a while, and I began late (as a teenager). But my mother and her mother also danced and had more natural proclivity for it than I did probably. My grandmother could not afford lessons, being one of 12 children. She used to wait for the girls outside dancing class, walk home with them and pick their brains. She taught herself everything this way-everything she knew. She copied what she saw. She sewed this way, did her hair, clothes and make-up this way, and she was very good at everything she did. If she had had a great teacher, there is no question in my mind that she would have been the best. They are necessary it seems. It is also important that as people we value dance and continue to strive at it and to increase the knowledge of it to be passed down. Why is it such a legacy that no other art form is intrinsic to ourselves? Shouldn’t we just sever the cursed limb?

Is dancing hereditary? Genetic?

Is dance h