Isadora Duncan Essay Topics

More than Just Moving: Making Meaning in Movement

“Her real contribution lay in discovering a new motivation for dance”

Nancy Reynolds

Painting by Fritz August von Kaulbach

By Jayme Swallow

Table of Contents


I. Social Context

             The turn of the century was a time of great change, which Isadora Duncan responded to and         rebelled againstin her personal life as well as her dance.

II. Cultural Influences

             Philosophers and poets influenced Isadora Duncan, encouraging her to create her own style and                aesthetic for her art.

III. Personal Life

             Isadora Duncan’s personal life had a large impact on the changes she made to dance as well as    the choreography of individual pieces.

IV. The Artist Emerges: The Development of Duncan’s Style

            Duncan’s dance style was not codified, yet she had a specific movement style throughout her life.              In her early life she moved in a light and airy manner. After her children died, Duncan’s movement        was more static and concave. During the war years, Duncan’s dance had a political aspect to it as        she created her war time pieces which were very modern and solid.

V. Later Influences

            Duncan served as a later influence to artists to come especially in the world of modern dance.        Without Duncan, dance would be in a very different state today.



            In the late 1800s, Isadora Duncan saw dance in America as entertainment, with little or no acknowledged artistic value.  Dance was generally in the form of social dance or ballet, both of which lacked artistry – for Duncan -- as they were not natural or creative, nor satisfyingly aesthetic. Many other dancers and scholars agreed and felt dance was desperately in need of change.  A self-proclaimed Artist and revolutionary, Duncan set out to change the world by challenging society by changing the expectations of dance as an art form. Dance in America was seen as a simplistic form of entertainment until she imbued it with the ability to express on a more intimate level and raised it to Art, showing herself to be a product of her changing environment. Duncan infused the dance with self-expression, reflecting characteristics of her time to find an American Art form.

            Using a cultural frame of analysis, this paper will examine the life and works of Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, as an artist of self-expression and a reflection of her time.  The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how Duncan’s dance is an Art reflecting her time as she used the physical body as a medium of Art and self-expression.  A study of Duncan’s pedagogy, methodology, and works will illustrate this.  As shown in her life and choreography, Duncan rebelled against social conforms.  By putting an American twist on dance, she created a new art form to be used as her vehicle for revolution.  She broke the rules of conventional turn-of-the-century life and was supported in her ideas by other artists and intellectuals, to exhibit and display her values and beliefs.  Duncan pioneered a process to help others find their voice. She was then able to use it as her vehicle to enable other dancers and Artists alike. Dance was not so much what she did, but it was an integral part of who she was, her inner soul, and her means to give a new voice to American dance. Duncan’s revolutionary nature, once combined with this changing culture, made her an innovative pioneer in dance. 

            In order to show how Duncan gave meaning to movement, this paper will start by discussing the cultural issues Duncan was responding to and rebelling against.  Next we will examine the cultural aspects of America that informed Duncan’s work. Her personal life was also of vital impact on her dancing career and choreography which will be shown.  Following, there will be a critical analysis of Duncan’s dance style, including technique, style, and choreography.  Subsequently, Duncan’s changes to the view of dance in America will be presented alongside Duncan’s influence towards future dance in America in order to show how Duncan revolutionized her world and became the mother of modern dance. This will show how Duncan gave meaning to dance.

I. Social Context

“She [Duncan] was determined to read everything that had ever been written on the

 art of dancing” –Larry Sandomir


            In examining a time period, there are many different frames of analysis to utilize.  This provides the reader with a framework to understand and view the information. Political, economic, religious, science, intellectual, and Artistic lenses shed new light on understanding of a particular culture.  According to Aristotle, there is no original thought and everything anyone does is influenced by an external source.  There is a unity throughout space and time for the intellectual and artistic; Duncan is no exception. The culture had a vast impression on her.  At the turn of the century there was political unrest, which eventually led to the world wars beginning in Europe. Women were beginning to fight for equal rights and suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was leading women’s movement.  Intellectuals were beginning to explore self-knowledge and the nature of human suffering.  Visual art was dominated by impressionism, a revolt against traditional art, and by modernism, experimentation and fragmentation of the human experience. As for dance, Russia was the leader in the world of ballet. The economy was changing with new advances in science and technology. Religion, too, was changing. Transcendentalists were making their way into society. The social context gives us a view into Duncan’s world, allowing for the understanding of Duncan and her work.

            Ann Daly, former women’s studies professor, posits that many “[a]uthors criticized the current state of the art . . . . It was generally agreed that dancing was in serious decline” (Daly, Theory 24).  This was because the Paris Opera, which originally featured ballet as an extension of the opera, was diminishing in its influence and importance because of its persistent use of hierarchy over talent.  Dance in America had no strong ballet tradition.  It was not tied to the American culture or society and was viewed as unaesthetic because it lacked self-expression and personal attachment. It had no personal meaning to the viewer, especially according do Duncan.  This affected dance in America in that it had no integral role in the lives of Americans as it did in other cultures. Because there were no dancers paving the way for Duncan in creating the new voice and new art—their dances were different than hers, as they were entertainment, not Art.  This necessitated Duncan turning to other art forms and found “the only dance masters I could have were Jean-Jaques Rousseau (“Emile”), Walt Whitman and Nietzsche” (Duncan 80).  Using these men as her artistic masters enabled Duncan to draw from more than just the history of dance, but from the history of all art and thought. She was influenced by - and able to utilize - everything she had ever learned and anyone she ever met. The society of America informed Duncan’s behavior and artistic focus.

The Romantic Era, beginning in the late 18th century in Europe, was the intellectual movement into which Duncan was born. Romanticism is an expression of the Artistic, literary, and intellectual.  A reaction to the industrial revolution and a revolt against the age of enlightenment, Romanticism validated emotion as a source of aesthetic experience, placed an emphasis on emotion while embracing the exotic.  As the Romantic Era progressed into America, the United States began to separate itself from Europe to become an authentically American entity. This will tie into the American authors mentioned in chapter two. The Romantic Era emphasized self-analysis and enabled artists to express their individual ideas.  Art became a reflection of the artist and an expression of nature.  This found its way to Duncan aiding and influencing her in her formative creative years.

            Duncan was created and did create on the cusp of Romanticism and ModernismModernism came as a response to realism as well as conservative, traditional values.  Duncan, of course, was vitally influenced by modernism, which questioned the current state and found traditionalism to be out date.  Modernism’s purpose was to shatter and destroy the traditional.  However, modernism cannot be classified solely within a time frame, and Duncan was still intrinsically romantic, transitioning between the two ideologies. Duncan, like modernists, questioned the previous age, and experimented with form. Marcia B Siegel, dance critic and lecturer, wrote a booklet for the Reparatory Dance Theatre outlining the history of modern dance.  She discusses Duncan’s inquiry and likens it to modernism, which “is concerned to uncover the substance of art by peeling off the layers of all past traditions, and to work afresh from and through the primary substance of the art form, which, in dance, is movement” (66).  Duncan was modern in her rebellion, and in turning inward, but she was not completely modern in that she still embraced aspects of Romanticism, as in looking to nature for inspiration.Both movements influence and are present in her works. Water Study, for example, is very romantic as Duncan looks to nature for inspiration, dancing as the waves move through space and time. Duncan choreographed Water Study as a response to nature, water, and its motion.  She became the waves.  Duncan’s wartime pieces, Marseillesand Marche Slav, were much more modern in that they were responding to the traditional values and issued a call to arms. Marseilles was patriotic response to WWI.Marche Slav was a response to the Russian Revolution as Duncan embodied the struggles of the serfs. The movement is strong and powerful, showing how Duncan felt the people should be in their individual political turmoil.   Duncan was addressing the reality of the world and questioning the current way of dealing with conflict.  She did not sit idly by and allow the few in power to make decisions for the whole of the people. Duncan is modern in her shattering the old view of war and politics by encouraging citizens to take action, to let their voice be heard.  In her movement she is modern in her rejection of ballet, which would never address these issues in the same manner, but reinforce the old and support the royals.

            Impressionism was the prominent Art form of France beginning in the 1860s and gradually spreading outward. This was a response to realism and a revolt against traditional art.  The art would express what was impressed upon the eye and mind, hence the title of impressionism. Likewise, this influenced Duncan’s work as she strove to express her impressions in the world in dance.  This was also the time of the development of the portable camera.  This drove artists to discover new methods and systems for their art, which most certainly influenced Duncan in that all artists were becoming more innovative in their creations.  Even the definition of art was changing. Art Nouveau is an international movement and art style mostly found in architecture and decorative art.  It exemplifies the belief that art can be found in everything and in making art a part of everyday life.  This was a style of art popular as Duncan developed her new dance; these were the movements in art. The circular shapes of Art Nouveau are found in Duncan’s movement as well. She was fond of undulating the torso in a circular manner, forming convex and concave shapes.

            The role and importance of God in society was changing.  This affected many intellectuals, scientist, and Artists, leading to and influenced by transcendentalism.  This was a religious movement originating in New England with a core belief in an idealized state of spiritually to transcend beyond the physical and the practical. It is realized through the intuition of the individual.  Transcendentalists believed that if there were a God, He would be found in nature, which encouraged Duncan to look towards nature for inspiration.   Spiritualism is a belief in a spirit world and an ability to communicate with said spirits.  This led to the popularity of séances in American culture.  This was the society Duncan was surrounded by, and it is no wonder that she felt inspired and believed her intuition came from a supernatural power.

            Duncan’s revolution of dance was fundamentally tied to the further social reforms. One of the political issues Duncan undertook in her choreography was that of the female body and a woman’s place in society. While not intending to be a suffragist, Duncan embodied the ideals for which the suffragists were fighting.  This is because, even as a young girl, Duncan was strongly aware of the inequality between the genders. In her autobiography she writes: “I was deeply impressed by the injustice of this state of things for women . . . I decided . . . I would live to fight against marriage and for the emancipation of women and for the right of every woman to have a child or children as it pleased her, and to uphold her right and her virtue” (17).  The way she lived her life was a response to the view and actuality of changing gender roles. Duncan revolted against the traditional view of the woman and the constrictions men and society enforced upon them.  She lived as a suffragist. She knew her dance could never be seen as Art if it was seen as sexual, and it would be sexual if the female dancer was considered a fundamentally sexual body.  The female body was seen as sexual in the public sphere because it was displayed in the public view as show for males.  This degrading view of the female body gave Duncan a starting point.

            Prior to suffrage, the social and cultural role of the woman in America was very limited and definitively tied to the view of the body.  There was a narrow view as to who and what an American woman could be.  Performing in America was very polarized and racially coded.  High art, Art, was encouraged; low art, art, was merely of entertainment value.  There were two limited roles women could embody on stage – both of which were demoralizing and not found to be Art in Duncan’s view.  They represented either the virgin or the whore. Ballet, the classic, rigid, controlling art – markedly more artistic outside of America -- especially as executed by Marie Taglioni, represented the virtuous virgin.  Burlesque and the provocative performers associated therein represented the whore. These roles were also present, to a much lesser degree, in Europe.


                Marie Taglioni, representing the virgin                                     Burlesque Dancers, representing the whore

(“La Sylphide, Marie Taglioni, 1832")                                      (Lagland)                                

            Yet Duncan was not sexualized.  Duncan both created a unity between, and walked the line of, these conflicting ideals. Duncan was not ashamed by her womanly shape and even bared her breasts on stage, but it was not sexual in intent or reception.  “This was the paradox of her dancing: on the one hand, she revealed the physical body as it had never been revealed before on the concert stage, but on the other hand, her body disappeared, became force, or virtual gesture, on stage” (Daly, Done 67).  This middle ground Duncan utilized was new and unique, not only to her but also to the American stage.

            The popular Vaudeville and Burlesque were risqué and rowdy in nature.  The movement and environment relegated women to the role of sexual entertainment for male enjoyment.  If Duncan could use the female body differently, by transforming the audiences’ assessment of the physical female body into beauty and artistry rather than sexually, then she could dance and not be seen as flaunting her sexuality.  Her dance could be seen as Art because her body could be seen as Art. To gain acceptance, Duncan worked “within the existing moral code” (Daly, Done 32).  She walked a fine line between the sacred and the profane to create her new Art. An example of this would be how Duncan’s tunic was less form fitting and made of more material than any balletic costume, yet because of its nature would also show much of her body. Duncan, however, viewed her body as Art. Even when exposed, she was not sexual.

            At the turn of the century, men and women lived and worked in separate spheres.  The men’s sphere was the larger public sphere. They left the house for work, socialization, and entertainment.  The women’s sphere was smaller and more private; they were confined to the home as caretakers and had less education than the men. Well before Duncan’s birth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was laying the groundwork for gender equality.  She, along with Susan B Anthony, worked for Women’s Rights: socially, politically, and legally.  They also fought against slavery and for temperance.  The first women’s convention was held in 1848.  Some of the issues and rights they were concerned with were voting, parental and custodial rights, employment and income, marriage and divorce; motherhood and birth control, all typically women’s work or a women’s problem. Duncan appeared to be concerned with these issues, as they were very present in her world and her life, although this was not her purpose in her art or her revolution. Continuing what Stanton and Anthony had started, Duncan strove to change the view of women’s role and the female body, yet Duncan was not a suffragette, she was an artist.

            However, dance revolutionaries such as Duncan were enabled by social reforms, especially in women’s roles and dress (Tomoko 83).  Some of the few women who held a public position, such as dancers and artists, facilitated an artist reform in gender roles as well as the dress reform.Women were beginning to dress in looser fitting dresses; many traded the corset for the emancipation bodice which provided modesty and support without the confinement.  In San Francisco, the artistic community gained the apparel of dress reform.  This largely impacted Duncan and her family and is reflected in Duncan’s change from the traditional balletic costume to her tunic.

            Before Duncan’s revolution in dance came to fruition, dance was merely entertainment, not driven by an ulterior force and motive. Duncan did not find this to be beautiful.  It was choreography for the sake of choreography, not for the sake of Art.  She would rather concern herself with the idea of natural movement for the body and built it upon the parameters of innate, intuitive, natural body expression.  Duncan saw the female body as natural and, as such, used it for natural expression.  Her dance necessitated being seen as chaste to be beautiful and artistic. This is part of why Ruth St Denis had more of a following in America than Duncan; St Denis presented herself to be a chaste being.  Duncan offered herself in a self-percieved more natural manner, which was often not found chaste by puritanical America. This was not important to


Ruth St Denis in an Oriental Costume (Otto Sarony)


            The oft-ignored modern dancer, Loie Fuller, preceded and influenced Isadora Duncan both in American and Europe.  Similarly having roots in America, Fuller found Europe to be a better fit and actually first introduced Isadora Duncan to the European public by bringing her on her tour in 1901. Fuller was very different from Duncan, and began as an actress who then moved into dance and experimented with light.  She even worked in burlesque theaters, which Duncan despised, however, “Many of the innovations in dance that are normally accredited

Duncan, however, and she wrote that “the true dance must be the transmission of the earth’s energy through the body” (Duncan qtd in Jowitt 27).  Duncan was more focused on the “true dance” than on pleasing her audiences.

Loie Fuller (Napoleon Sarony)


to Duncan were pioneered by Fuller” (Siegel 60).  Fuller was the first actual American modern dancer, as she danced using expression and more free movement.  Fuller even used classical music, as followed by Duncan. They parted ways in 1902 when Fuller arranged solo performances for Duncan in Vienna and Budapest. It is clear the effect and influence Fuller had on Duncan, but ultimately Duncan still resisted Fuller because her dance was very much entertainment with her use of light.  Fuller was motivated by and produced for entertainment, not Art.

            At this time, ballet was the major dance form in the world and was dominating Europe, especially Russia. Yet ballet’s role was being misunderstood and misused in America. It still served as a starting point from which Duncan might diverge, however, as she strove to express herself in her new dance she also desired to shatter and destroy the ballet. Duncan did not like ballet because she found it irrelevant towards women. Ballet maintained a destructive and incorrect, if not impossible view of women.  This narrow portray

al of women in ballet gave Duncan much to react to and oppose in her strong, feminine solos. Because ballet restricted the female body and yet relied on the female body to exist, its destruction was inherent.

Anna Pavlova in Giselle, wearing a romantic Tutu

(Geoffry Ingram)

Duncan herself is quoted, saying: “The ballet condemns itself by enforcing the deformation of the beautiful woman’s body!” (62). There were many differences in the perception and portrayal of gender roles relating to submission, domination, and independence in ballet and modern dance. In ballet, the woman is often viewed as delicate and graceful, as opposed to modern dance where the woman could support herself. The very structure and the concept of

ballet was denigrating to the female body, because women were portrayed as dainty, ephemeral beings, aided and displayed by the men in their dance. This view appears to be gender originated, but it was truly about the opposing and shattering of ballet because it was unnatural and did not support her ideas about Art.

            Ballet violated Duncan’s new model for the dance because it was unnatural movement. Ballet was choreography solely for the sake of choreography, with no underlying force, motivation, story, or purpose. It lacked the self-expression and natural movement Duncan craved and embodied in order to make the dance into Art and give it meaning.  In its uniformity and strength, ballet had no freedom. Duncan found the stipulations to be rather mechanical and, most importantly, she found it ugly and unnatural. The stiff, precise body language, such as the pointed toes and turned out leg and the traditional tights and leotard were also much too constricting for Duncan.         

            Men also supported and displayed the women in social dance, but in a much different manner.  Social Dance was becoming increasingly popular in American culture as a form of socialization but that appeared to be it.  It was dances such as the foxtrot and waltz for socialization, not Art or entertainment, which Duncan saw as being superfluous to the dance.  Burlesque and the provocative performers associated therein represented the risqué side of America. In Vaudeville and Burlesque, with the general intention of providing comedic, rowdy, racy entertainment, the music was flirty, boisterous, and alluring towards the audience and the dancers played it up, seeking a reaction.

            Duncan also sought a reaction, albeit a much different one, as she brought her new dance to the stage, and she would undergo many adversities to bring about this new Art. She eventually left America for Europe, where she fit in with the Artists and Elite much better than she had in America. The Europeans were able to see Duncan as Art, and were not shocked by her movement. The Germans had started exposing Europe to modern dance with German Expressionism, which refers to many creative movements in Germany including modern dance.  Duncan flourished in Europe, especially in Germany. The European artists adored Duncan and saw her as a “pioneering vision of freedo [sic], spinning from the New World into a glorious future” (Meany par 2).  The majority of Europeans loved Duncan and she found her first worthy audience in London, where her true dance materialized.  This is partially because it was not as new and startling as it had been in puritanical America, but also that in Europe the “radical new visions . . . of modernism” started to “strip many of the performing arts of their traditional form” (Reynolds 235).  This placed Duncan precisely in her element to make the changes she desired.


II. Cultural Influences

POETS to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!    

Not to-day is to justify me, and answer what I am for;     

But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,      

Arouse! Arouse—for you must justify me—you must answer.       


I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,                   5

I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.    


I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you, and then averts his face,    

Leaving it to you to prove and define it,   

Expecting the main things from you.

- Walt Whitman

            As illustrated in Whitman’s poem, Poets to Come, artistic thought was that it was the responsibility of the American artist to seek for, find, and express the spiritual reality and truth inherent in everything.He issued a call to American artists; it became increasingly important to create an American artistic voice. Duncan took this duty and role of an artist very seriously; she was constantly on a quest for the truth and communicating this truth as she knew it to her audiences with her body and her movement as she followed the artistic trend at the turn of the century. Duncan could communicate the divine, and in so doing, she merged the physical and emotional. She largely concerned herself with nature and beauty, what they are and what they mean, similar in thought to Whitman and transcendentalists. Nature is not only the scenery and wildlife, but also an idea representing simplicity and a return to basics, a place for the transcendentalists to mediate.  In movement, what is natural is innate and inherent and is ultimately the goal.  For example, natural movement would arise from within the human being. Beauty, or an aesthetic, is that which is perceived to be pleasing visually. For Duncan, nature, harmony, and unity fulfilled her aesthetic and ideals of beauty.  This is different from the ballet aesthetic -- which is founded upon dainty femininity --  and the entertainment aesthetic of vaudeville and burlesque, which is sexual and rowdy. Duncan’s ideals “partook of a strong transcendental belief.  Dancing was socially progressive because it could create ‘Beauty’ both in the dancer and in the spectator.  By ‘Beauty’, she meant not just outward appearance, but essential human goodness - a state of being in harmony with self, others, and the cosmos” (Daly, Theory 29). This followed the current transcendental thought and the conception of art that nineteenth century scholars attributed to the Ancient Greeks.

Duncan dancing in Athens

(Raymond Duncan)

            Duncan idolized the ancient Greeks because she understood them differently than we do now, as did her contemporaries.  She looked to their poetry, pottery, and philosophy as a basis for her artwork and motivation in her dance. Lori Belilove, pinnacle Duncan scholar, speculates: “She considered the Greek ideal to be the most beautiful because it was the most natural.  Her dancing was not ’Greek,’ it was that the Greeks were the closest to having it ’right’” (Myths par 9). Duncan strove to get it “right” as well. She was unique in that she embodied the Greeks in her movement, as opposed to philosophizing and writing, using them as a base, as other artists did.  She focused on how they felt, their artistic spirit.  She saw only the good in the Greeks and understood them as great artistic gods to be idolized and emulated.  “Using her idealized vision of ancient Greece as a springboard, she expressed new ideas about freedom of expression, individual will and connect to nature through her dances” (Lihs 52).  The ancient Greeks inspired Duncan to look inside her soul to find her individual voice, a theme current in American Artists and intellectual circles. Duncan’s style in dance and its transition over time illustrate the influence the Greeks had on her.  Her costume, a loose Greek tunic, was the first visible sign of Duncan’s aspiration to the Greeks as well as a reflection of health and dress reform.  The trend continued, however, and Duncan used the poses of statues and art on their pottery to inspire and enliven her movement.   

            Duncan did not find her dancing Greek in origin, however, but very American, as she was responding to an idea.   “It has often made me smile - but somewhat ironically - when people have called my dancing Greek, for I myself count on its origin in the stories which my Irish grandmother often told us of crossing the plains” (Duncan 340).  Duncan appeared as the ancient Greeks but was still very American in her wish for a new culture and community. Despite Duncan’s desires for an enlightened society, she was herself rather inexperienced when it came to being a revolutionary because she was primarily an Artist.  Many intellectuals had hopeful and unrealistic ideas of the changes the desired and the ability to create those changes.  Daly states that “Duncan was naïve enough to believe in revolution without ideology” (Done 197). Duncan was an idealist, if not an optimist, she saw things as they could be, not as they were.  She was constantly let down by the actuality of the politics and the reality of the people she loved and trusted. Duncan did, however, learn that it was “wiser to describe herself as a puritan rather than a revolutionary” (ibid.  219). As a puritan, she felt the draw to return to nature and the basics, to cleanse dance of its impurities, which truly was a more accurate description than revolutionary while looking at her entirety, especially  her political views and ideals. Duncan’s only revolt in dance seems to be against the ballet, whereas she is a puritan about many more things.

            Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau served as an enormous motivation and muse for all American artists. Whitman was particularly significant in Duncan’s Art. He had an Artistic presence early in Duncan’s life and she claimed to be his spiritual daughter[12].  Duncan followed in Whitman’s artistic footsteps to create an American voice with her Art. His poetry supported Duncan in her new dance. As he drew from nature, it drove her to look to nature for inspiration.  This is a direct effect of transcendentalism. Duncan’s movement contained “Whitmaneqsue rhetoric” (Jowitt 25).  She embodied what Whitman wrote.  As Whitman became his writing, Duncan became her dance.  One cannot analyze the dance without examining Isadora, nor understand Duncan without understanding the dance, and “[t]he poet’s presence resonated through Duncan’s dance” (Bohan 167).  It was clear that Duncan looked to Whitman as a source for inspiration.  Water Study is the perfect model.

            Water Study features light, airy movement generally locomoted by waltz steps accompanied by hops and jumps.  Duncan’s arms move in a manner to express the waves and how they travel, rolling, crashing, the gentle ebb and flow. Whitman was inspired by a single blade of grass; Duncan by the waves of the ocean.  The natural movement of water inspired Duncan’s natural movement found in Water Study. It is no surprise that Duncan was able to find inspiration from Whitman.  His vision for America was echoed in hers, only hers seemed to draw from Greece, as, interestingly, had America in its founding days. The principles America were founded upon -- possibility, potentiality, achievability, equality-- were the same upon which Duncan founded her dance.

            Throughout her life, Duncan continued to seek enlightenment and education.  This enabled her to better her dance and better herself. Ruth Bohan, PhD in American Studies, explains “[a]s Duncan immersed herself in the work necessary to reconstruct the art of dancing, she consistently sought out the company of poets and writers” (168). Duncan learned much in Europe that she was later able to use for inspiration, and she “enjoyed direct access to both the Whitman and Nietzsche cults through her association with the Austrian scholar Dr Karl Ferdern” (ibid. 169).  Dr Karl Ferdern frequented the Duncan home and insisted upon teaching Duncan about Nietzsche[13], who served as a large influence on Duncan, some think larger even than Whitman.  The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who wrote of the death of God and the Will to Power; he found Christianity to be a great curse to society.

He influenced Duncan largely with his concept of the Superman. This largely influenced Duncan’s Dancer of the Future, which would express the natural language of the soul with the human body.  “Like an entire generation of American radicals, Duncan embraced the iconoclastic philosopher’s exhortation to break with the narrow, bankrupt morals and values of a Christian civilization and to harness the expansive, life-affirming creativity of the Superman” (Daly, Theory 26).  For Duncan, the Superman came alive.  As an Artist, it was her duty to create this ideology in her genre, hence, the dancer of the future. Nietzsche, in promoting the Superman, was largely influential and visible in Duncan’s work.

            Another artist to influence Duncan was Delsarte. In the 1800s, Francois Delsarte created his Delsarte Method, a system of applied aesthetics using gesture and movement, posing, and body language. A native of France, he desired to codify and systemize movement for the human body.  His work was widespread and possibly reached Duncan in her early years.  In America, however, Delsartism was limited and not directed towards the creation of new art.  It was mainly melodramatic posing and gymnastics, each body part had a corresponding idea, the head and neck representing the mental and intellectual, the torso expressing the spirit and emotion, and the lower body equating the physical.  Delsarte promoted a spiritual and mental harmony, which would appeal to Duncan.  She appears to have drawn largely from Delsarte, “using choreographic allusions to scriptures, paintings, and emotions and to present political arguments” (Preston, Posing 225).  Duncan did not study Deslarte in a formalized Delsarte class, but her movement made references to his style, and there is reason to believe Duncan was, at the very least, exposed

to  Delsarte.  Although she never explicitly credited Delsarte as an influence,it would have been very hard for Duncan not to have been influenced, even accidently.  In her own teaching, Duncan describes a gymnastics training system, for the girls, which appears to be very Delsarte[16]. It appears that Duncan, even if indirectly, was influenced by Delsarte. Duncan was intentionallycreating a narrative as she used the resources at hand, including Delsarte.


Delsarte Exercises (Delsarte)


III. Personal Life

“Art gives form and Harmony to what in life is chaos and discord” --Isadora Duncan

Isadora with her children, Patrick and Deirdre, in Paris (Otto Studio)


            Isadora Duncan claims to have danced in uterus[17] and to be born dancing. She believes herself born an Artist, and although she downplays her dance training, she was indeed a student of the dance from a young age and clung to it tightly.  However, she never referred to herself as a dancer, for she found it a negative title because others would turn their dance to sexuality for money. They altered the conception of what it meant to be an American dancer, making it very different from Art.  Duncan preferred the title of Artist because it put her on a higher plane than her contemporaries as she was resisting the commonly accepted view of “dancer.” This supported the understatement of her prior dance knowledge.  She omits ballet classes taken while she was young, as she found the term dancer to be pejorative and sexual in its implications. Duncan responded to the notion of emerging as a fully formed artist and claiming ownership over her Art.  She sees it as though she completely invented it.  Duncan was responding to the Romantic notion of the protean genius.  This is central to her claims of emerging a fully formed artist.  In addition, Duncan’s American qualities allowed her to claim ownership of this new art, as Americans are want to do. Duncan sees herself as creating this dance.  Yet her early life[18] and numerous influences, including early ballet lessons, impacted who she became and why she chose to act as she did. The fact that she studied dance, that she did not chance upon it, is important to note. She took classes of all sorts and is mythologized, especially by herself, as having walked out of a ballet class when asked to stand on her toes. Duncan writes that she found ballet, especially pointe work, to be “ugly and against nature” and stopped attending ballet classes after and because of this discovery (Duncan 21). Ballet did not fit Duncan’s narrative and so she changed her past to align with her present. However, we know that she “varied her own versions of events in her youth” to suit her purposes (MacDonald I 52).  Yet her dance grew out of her personal life and became a further expression of herself.  Duncan’s conceptions of herself were made to align with American intellectual and artistic themes.

            Duncan was a very passionate woman. She echoed the Ancient Greeks in her feelings that “[t]he Artist is the only lover, he alone has the pure vision of beauty and love is the vision of the soul when it is permitted to gaze upon immortal beauty” (Duncan 5).  Just as she was passionate for the dance, she was passionate for men, but more importantly, about the concept of love.  In her quest for love, she found many lovers, and “[n]o man’s [reputation] was safe with Isadora” (MacDonald III 50).  Gordon Craig[19], who fathered Duncan’s daughter Deirdre, made an early appearance in her European life, and they had many similar ideals and artistic goals. A large draw for Duncan to Craig was his mother, Ellen Terry.  Terry was the ideal for Duncan because, as an actress, she was famous, which allowed a different lifestyle than the traditional.  She was involved with many different men and never married Craig’s father.  Terry placed great value on her career and little on what others thought.  She was a free woman, as was Duncan. Duncan’s idealization of Terry may have had a large role in her embracing the lifestyle that was clearly counter to the social norm. (Duncan 180).

            Craig loved Whitman and one might wonder how large an influence this had on Isadora Duncan. Nesta MacDonald, dance scholar, wrote on Duncan and Craig, likening them in that “[b]oth felt that their arts needed reform” (III 50).  Craig wanted to establish a cohesive stage image and capture pure emotion.  He did this by introducing neutral, mobile screens, changing the stage lighting to from above, and integrating the entire production into a dynamic dramatic form.  Duncan made similar changes. She used blue curtains for her backdrop as opposed to ballet’s ornate scenery.  She changed the costume. She spoke after her performances. She wanted to reform the dance as to make it more natural and self-expressive. Both Craig and Duncan revolutionized their respective arts to promote a more unified whole, which was an idea current in artistic and philosophical circles. “Craig’s enthusiasm for Whitman infused much of his life’s endeavor but manifested itself most openly during and just prior to his meeting with Duncan” (Bohan 171).  This eagerness of Craig’s transferred to Duncan and likewise influenced her.   In their individual art forms, both were revolutionary and it appears they bonded just as much physically as over Whitman. This is evident in that their love was strongest while they loved Whitman and that their love was not strong enough to allow them to simultaneously love and create Art.  But, “[a]bove all, Duncan’s dance resonated for Craig with an absorbing Whitmanic presence” (ibid. 173). Duncan and Craig bonded over Whitman and this largely influenced and inspired her Art. This influence would be felt and seen throughout Duncan’s life and works. As aforementioned, Whitman looked to nature which encouraged Duncan to do likewise, and she produced Water Study.

            Loyal to her audience, Duncan had always embodied a ‘show must go on’ mentality, but at the beginning of her tryst with Craig, “Isadora disappeared with him, and performances had to be canceled” (Mac Donald III 61). Isadora allowed herself to be overcome with love, lust, and Craig, yet their love did not last because it was based on lust.  Duncan was unable to simultaneously find love and live the life she desired with her Art.  Something needed to change.  Duncan writes:  “to give up my Art I knew to be impossible.  I should pine away - I should die from chagrin” (209).  And so she chose dance over a relationship with Craig. Judith Kozodoy, nonfiction author, hypothesizes: “did gaining love mean losing art? . . . Those two desires were, and would continue to be, in direct conflict throughout her life” (39). This was, and is, a conflict global to women as they attempted to make a way and a life for them outside of their homes. Duncan was naïve in love; she trusted too easily and put too much stock on love’s power and ability. Long after Craig, she continued to have love affairs and search for the feeling and high obtained from love in everyone and everything.  This is important because her quest for love was almost constantly in conflict with and impacted her Art. Because Duncan was so emotionally volatile, her love life was directly reflected her dance.  This is shown in Duncan’s inability to create when she was too in love.  Duncan’s ups and downs with Craig are reflected in her art.

            Duncan’s next significant partner was Paris Singer, son and heir of Singer Sewing Machines. He fathered Duncan‘s second child, Patrick, and played an active role in both Deirdre and Patrick‘s lives. He was Duncan’s oft time lover and provided the financial backing for many of Duncan’s endeavors. Duncan met Singer in ­­­1909[22] and they had a sporadic relationship for many years.  It appears that Singer always loved Duncan, but she loved herself and her Art more than she could love him.  However, she did love his money, and even in her autobiography, it looks as though she used Singer mainly for that reason, especially after their initial tryst. Whenever Duncan needed funding for her school, she knew she could turn to Singer, which allowed her to indulge in her carefree lifestyle and still fulfill all of her commitments. (Duncan 229, 246-262, 334-356).

            In love and in life, Isadora was a performer. She would consider the title of “performer” an insult, as it would lower her from an artist to entertainer, but she performed in order to obtain the image she created for herself and to support her narrative. Performer, in this sense, would imply how Duncan seemed to never be herself, but to always be an eccentric, and to have planned her every move.  This is ironic, almost hypocritical, in that she promoted self-expression but there was no real self for her to express.  Or perhaps it is a testament of her work, to create a self, portray the self, and express the self.  This makes Duncan truly American; because only in America can one invent oneself. Duncan’s self was quite monumental.  On the stage Duncan was intense, and in person she was a force of nature.  Audiences were enthralled by Duncan on stage and the public was amused by her in the streets

            As aforementioned, Isadora Duncan was also a mother.  While living in France, Duncan had three children. On April 19, 1913, Deirdre, 6, and Patrick, 2, along with their nanny, were drowned when their car rolled backward into the Seine River on the road back to Versailles. This “completely shattered [her] force and power” (Duncan 277).  In her mourning, Duncan desired to end this life and join her children in the next.  She felt she had no need to live and was not even worthy of such. Duncan also felt at fault for their deaths. If she had never taken them from Paris to Versailles, her children wouldn’t have been on that road that day, having no need to be, and they would not have died. She did not feel she could carry on. These deaths led to many changes in Duncan’s dance which will be addressed in the following chapter.

IV. The Artist Emerges: The Development of Duncan’s Style


            Duncan made many changes to the dance and the resulting art form was very new and different.  She claims this originated solely from within herself, writing: “I felt that my dance really resembled the birth of Athena, springing full-armed from the head of Zeus” (Duncan 224-5).  This fully expresses how Duncan was a product of her time, because self-expression was a tendency of the time and a very romantic notion.  It was expected for all artists to claim their thoughts originated in themselves. Yet Daly refutes Duncan’s claims, writing:  “she emerged into - and appropriated - discourses and practices that had already been established by American and European intellectuals” (Daly, Done 24).  One tends to agree with Daly, especially as Duncan is known for exaggerating the facts of her life.  Duncan saw what was happening around her and incorporated it into dance, echoing the revolution of her artistic peers.   Everything she did was premeditated, even her decisions in who to credit as inspiration.  She is creating herself; only in America can this happen. Duncan was absolutely American in this regard because she completely created herself and her art, claiming all thought to be original.

            All art forms have a technique and method to them, a specific form is necessary to distinguish between the arts, as well as to establish a proficiency scale; dance is no exception.  In ballet, the technique includes a pointed toe and turned out leg.  One shows proficiency with the number of pirouettes or the height of a leap.  In Duncan Dancing, the technique utilized by the solar plexus and is not so much whatthe body is doing, but how the body is moving the energy and intent supporting it. “[T]he rhythm of the music is danced by the legs while the melodic line is expressed by upper body movements and gestures which emanate from the solar plexus” (Belilove and Smith 5).  This enables Duncan to appear effortless and nymph-like, yet still be in complete control of her movement and what she wanted to express.

            Duncan’s dance technique is ultimately a theory of self-expression and a more intricate system of manifestation.  Duncan’s dance theory changed but the “underlying ideology remained consistent” (Daly, Done 215). Her desires stayed the same. She strove to combine the body and mind as a part of her dance theory. Duncan’s dance style was not codified, or structured, in the same manner as ballet, yet she had specific ways of moving. Duncan was very locomotive in a pedestrian manner throughout her pieces, where she would walk, skip, hop, and jump. In her early creations she was light and airy.  After her children died, her movement became much more static and grounded, especially in Mother. She also had a third style, a political aspect to her works during the beginning of the World War in Europe, which was politically motivated and very modern. Duncan’s style changed over time, but her basis, to express and to be natural, stayed consistent throughout her life.

            Because of the difference in technique between Duncan’s style and ballet, scholars have debated the level, and existence, of technique in Duncan Dance and in Isadora Duncan. It was generally perceived by her audiences, especially critics, that she had no technique nor even choreographed her pieces before performing them.  This is because the audience viewed Duncan’s dances as technique-less due to their limited experience in ballet and vaudeville on the American stage.  Duncan’s dance did not contain the expected leaps, turns, and extensions of the ballet, the entertaining tricks of vaudeville, or the sexuality of burlesque. The audiences also perceived – critically so - that Duncan solely improvised her dances while on stage. This is incorrect, as Carrie Preston writes: “Before each performance, Duncan clearly choreographs in the traditional sense, ‘carefully’ organizes the effect she hopes to produce, establishes movement patterns, and rehearses until she no longer needs to think about each individual step and the dance becomes habit” (Motor 281).  Because Duncan embodied the dance until it became “habit” and was able to move with such ease and fluidity, it appeared as though the movement was not premeditated, despite it actually having been very specifically designed. “Duncan never improvised on stage and personally supervised every detail of her performances” (Penrod 66). But why is it bad to improvise on stage or for a performance? Americans value hard work and effort, which choreography proves, compared to improvisation, which appears lazy and careless of the artist.  In addition, Duncan‘s dance contained a fluidity and expressive element that other dance styles were seemingly lacking.  Her “body occupied the middle ground between the disciplined restraint of the ballerina and the grotesque excessiveness of the jazz dancer.   Hers was an ease born of effortless control” (Daly, Done 115).  Duncan’s dance, while physically exhausting, appears overly simplistic and natural.  Because of this, Duncan’s dance appears to be free of technique. There is, however, a recognizable technique found in Duncan’s dancing and in those that continue to dance as she did. “She ennobled an ‘artless’ aesthetic, transforming it from defect to virtue” (Daly, Done 31).  Duncan’s dancing is incredibly physical, vigorous, and very active in the legs. It was movement to be regarded as Art for the purpose of self-expression. It is not choreography solely for the sake of choreography, but for a large purpose, for Art, for self expression. This ties into artistic and philosophical movements that art should have meaning.

  Duncan, moving from her solar plexus (Sunami Soichi)

                In order to best express herself, Duncan utilized her solar plexus.  The solar plexus, located in the area beneath the sternum where Duncan believed the soul resides, is the place from where she claims all of her movement originates, and from where all movement should originate.  In the early 1900s, the area that contained the solar plexus was still trapped by corsets. With the reformation of the costume, Duncan was able to free the solar plexus and

allow it to be used for expression and origination of movement. This relates back to Duncan’s theories about natural movement and is illustrated by her toga and feelings towards the ancient Greeks. Visually, she would appear to “initiate all movement from her chest” (Durham, Myths par 10) and “involve the entire body” (Preston, Motor 282).  In Laban Movement Analysis, this movement would be classified as initiating in the core and extending to the distal edges, or, simply put, core-distal movement.  In her schools, Duncan perpetuated this theory of initiation from the solar plexus as well, because she wanted to enable her students to move in the self-expressive, free-flowing manner she did, but only as far as to express themselves using the solar plexus, not to imitate her movement.

            Duncan not only changed the movement of dance, but its perception as well, by making it more natural and expressive than that of her contemporaries.   This is because of the many reforms at this time, such as dress, and the social interest in Ancient Greece.  She wanted the dance to hold a higher place in society, as she responded to the intellectual and artistic beliefs about ancient Greece. The paradox of the dance was that it required the use of the body. This was problematic because of the tension associated with it.  Yet Duncan chose it to be pure and artistic.  She felt that “dancing must be the expression of life, not merely a series of gymnastic tricks or pretty movements” (Duncan qtd in MacDonald VI 72). Dance and movement must have meaning and must have purpose.  She clearly expressed her intention in her dance as she raised it to art.

            Duncan used her dance and movement as a forum to express her revolutionary views and as the foundation for her own revolution.  She uses the dance as it had generally been used in the past: to impart a point of view onto the audience. It is merely that the point Duncan is communicating is different.  Siegel supports this argument and writes: “Duncan used dance to make political and social statements,” because she was not troubled by the idea of “art for art’s sake” and felt that art and politics were intrinsically intertwined and interdependent (67).  For Duncan, everything was integrated.  Everything was related and connected to everything else. This is shown in Duncan’s attempt to “achieve a unity of experience, dance as life and life as dance” (ibid. 61). Duncan was able to change the view of the dancing body in America through her aesthetic and philosophical perspective.  As she changed the view of the body from sexual to artistic she changed dance from entertainment to Art.

Among the works presented last weekend was Annabelle Gamson's reconstruction of Isadora Duncan's ''The Blue Danube.'' It's especially revealing to compare this pioneering work of modern dance with a seminal work of post-modern dance, Yvonne Rainer's ''Trio A,'' being revived this weekend at St. Marks Church (where a number of early post-modern dances are being re-staged in conjunction with Bennington College's Judson Project).

At first glance, the work of Duncan and Miss Rainer appears to have little, if anything, in common. As danced by Miss Gamson in her revival of ''The Blue Danube,'' Duncan's movement luxuriates in its own physicality and basks in the gaze of an adoring public. Miss Rainer's movement in ''Trio A'' by contrast, is considerably less voluptuous. Some would call it puritanical. Certainly, it is cold, uninflected, almost ''unperformed.''

But despite such stark contrasts these two dances share something essential: Not only were they both choreographed by women; both dances reflect the prevailing feminist ideologies of their respective eras. Indeed, feminist concerns may be the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, the key to the question: Why have women choreographers been central to modern and post-modern dance but not to ballet?

In an age still dominated by the dictates of puritanism, Duncan dared to dance uncorseted. Dressed in a loose-fitting, free-flowing tunic, she rebelled not only against the corset per se, but also against everything it symbolized: The constraints - both physical and psychological - imposed upon women by Victorian culture. Miss Rainer on the other hand, is the product of a very different time (one inspired in large part by the example of Duncan and others like her): The so-called ''sexual revolution'' of the 60's and 70's. Unlike the feminists of Duncan's generation who longed for sexual freedom and viewed puritanical repression as an obstacle to the emancipation of women, many feminists of the 60's and 70's eyed the sexual revolution with considerable suspicion, fearful that it hadn't really liberated women, but had simply made them more sexually available. Many radical feminists began to practice what the social critic Midge Decter calls ''the new chastity.'' Thus, Yvonne Rainer's insistence upon saying ''no'' to so many of the voyeuristic and erotic pleasures that dance has traditionally offered begins to assume feminist implications when viewed against this ideological backdrop.

Needless to say, not every pioneer of modern or post-modern dance waved a feminist banner as openly as Isadora Duncan. In the work of choreographers such as Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham, the issue of women's rights is often subsumed into a concern with women's rites.

Early modern dance is first and foremost a repudiation of late 19th century ballet. And it is essential to recognize that this repudiation is boldly feminist in character. Even the most cursory glance at the voluminous writings of Isadora Duncan reveal how closely the topics of women's emancipation and dress reform were related to her virulent criticisms of ballet. Like the dreaded corset, ballet transformed and deformed the young woman's body: ''Have you ever seen the little girls who are studying in the ballet of today,'' she asks in an essay called ''What Dancing Should Be.'' ... ''Their tender little bodies already are being forced into tight bodices and baby corsets, while their natural movements are being tormented into unnatural straight kicking of the legs, toe walking, and all sorts of awkward contortions which are directly contrary to what a child's natural movement would be if developed in the line of reason and beauty.''

Duncan's broadside against ballet may strike us as wildly exaggerated, but there can be no denying the basic truth of her comments about the unhealthy nature of Victorian dress. Significantly, Duncan once suggested that her real contribution to the future of civilization was to have helped free women from the tyranny of the corset. And the quality that pervades Duncan's joyful dances like ''The Blue Danube'' suggests the exhilaration of a woman recently released from bondage.

Of course, Duncan was offended by ballet not only because she thought of it as corseted movement, but also because it projected what she believed to be a socially pernicious image of women. The popular stereotype of the ballerina - woman as virginal, disembodied sylphide (an image that dominated ballet from the heyday of Taglioni to that of Pavlova) - corresponded closely to the Victorian ideal of womanhood: Woman as a frail, sexually passive creature apt to suffer from the ''vapours'' and likely to faint at the slightest provocation.

In place of delicate, chaste women who die of unrequited love or romantic betrayal (''Giselle''), or who lay waiting to be awakened from their passive slumbers by a handsome prince (''Sleeping Beauty''), or mechanical dolls who (unlike Ibsen's Nora) remain confined within their doll's house (''Coppelia'') - in place of these charming, but ineffectual heroines, Duncan and the early moderns created images of strong, self-reliant women, a tradition that would culminate in the powerful, mythic heroines danced by Martha Graham.

One of the most radical and decisive differences between 19th century ballet and early modern dance is so obvious that its farreaching significance is easy to overlook: the early moderns, almost all of whom began their choreographic careers by creating solos for themselves, were using their own, unballetic bodies as the raw material of their art. In 19th century by contrast, the choreographer - invariably a man - imposed abstract patterns on the bodies of others (usually women). As the vogue for pointe work and ethereality began to dominate 19th century ballet, male dancers were demoted to the status of hydraulic lifts for the lighter-than-air ballerinas. Thus, the very image of the ballet dancer became invariably associated with femininity. But the choreographers remained, just as invariably, men.

This state of affairs is succinctly summed up in George Balanchine's proclamation that ''the ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman -a garden of beautiful flowers, and the man is the gardener.'' Implicit in this statement is the time-honored tendency to associate women with natural world and men with the forces of civilization and cultural advancement (i.e. woman as flower; man as gardener, the one who tends, tames, and transforms nature).

Furthermore, classical ballet illustrates the way in which male choreographers reconciled the art of dance to then prevailing Western attitudes toward the body. In the tradition extending from Plato to Freud, art is envisioned as a mode of sublimation: an alchemical conversion of lower or bodily energy into a higher, mental or spiritual state. Hence the odd paradox that dance - the only art form whose primary raw material is the live human body - began to idealize the image of the disembodied woman.

And it was against this implied hatred of the flesh - the belief that the dancer's body must be tortured into ethereality - that the early modern dancers rebelled. The movement that begins with Duncan culminates in those works of Martha Graham which re-examine and repudiate her own puritanical upbringing. The starkly dressed ''Ancestress'' in ''Letter to the World'' and the fiery revivalist in ''Appalachian Spring'' are two of Miss Graham's darker incarnations of puritanism. Significantly, these dances from the early 40's that explore the crippling effects of puritanism are followed by a number of unabashedly pagan works in which Miss Graham portrayed a whole pantheon of Greek mythological heroines.

The immense popularity that Martha Graham has enjoyed over the past quarter-century testifies to a profound change in our sexual mores. Clearly, the rebellion against puritanical repression is no longer a revolutionary idea for most Americans. But the new wave of feminist thinking that arose in the 60's and 70's viewed such sexual liberation as a mixed blessing, if not an out and out curse. In this new era of the pill and promiscuity, it was feared that women were no longer free not to be sexy.

Thus, it seems reasonable to suggest that the austere, cerebral, anti-voluptuous quality of the early post-modern dances created by women such as Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Lucinda Childs reflects these concerns, if only indirectly. Eager to avoid being reduced to the status of sex objects, feminists began to ''dress down'' in a way that minimized their attractiveness to men. Lucinda Childs, whose work''Carnation'' is being revived this weekend at St. Marks Church, adopts a persona of cold severity to avoid flaunting her natural beauty.

For many women, theatrical dancing of any sort became suspect, for dance is the art of pure physical presence in which women are most fully reduced to and equated with their bodies. The women who pioneered post-modern dance were eager to demonstrate that they possessed minds as well as bodies. The original title of Yvonne Rainer's ''Trio A'' by the way, was ''The Mind Is a Muscle, Part I.''

Miss Rainer in fact, once declared her ''rage at the impoverishment of ideas, narcissism, and disguised sexual exhibitionism of most dancing.'' This explains in part the prominence of spoken language in much post-modern dance, the fascination with abstract thought, and the new conception of dance as a mode of ''problem-solving.'' One of the central problems addressed by the women who pioneered postmodern dance was how to exhibit the body in public without becoming an exhibitionist. Miss Rainer's provisional solution is evident in her solo version of ''Trio A'' performed this weekend at St. Marks: she ''averts'' her gaze and refuses to directly acknowledge the presence of the audience.

Rather than saying ''yes'' to forbidden fruit (in the manner of Duncan), Miss Rainer says ''no'' to familiar pleasures. In one of her best known proclamations, Miss Rainer declared ''No to spectacle no to virtuosity ... no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.''

Twyla Tharp is another woman who began her choreographic career in the 60's as a stark, austere minimalist. She now describes those severe early works as having been ''resentful of physicality.'' Miss Tharp, of course, would soon lead the way back toward a lush, virtuosic physicality; and many of the early post-modernists have since followed her lead. Apparently, after proving that dance could be unmistakably brainy, it then became idealogicallyacceptible to be ''beautiful'' as well.

Obviously, none of the choreography discussed above can or should be reduced purely to its feminist dimensions. Feminism is one of many influences exerted on - and reflected in -these works. But the fact remains that modern and post-modern dance are probably the only art forms in which various stages of feminist thinking are literally embodied

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