Irina Sirotkina

Reforming early-twentieth-century dance theatre: Mikhail Fokin and Isadora Duncan

The innovative choreographer Mikhail Fokin (Michel Fokine, 1880-1942) is often credited with reforming the early-twentieth-century ballet theatre. In the first decade of the twentieth century he vehemently criticized traditional ballet for mechanistic virtuosity and lack of emotion. The reform he suggested was to introduce a new genre of one-act abstract ballet set to classical or romantic, non-dancing music, as well a new emotional regime in ballet theatre. In his early statement of his purposes, he recognized that one of the strongest inspirations came from his contemporary, Isadora Duncan. Dance historians have also commented that the direction in which Fokin took ballet was suggested to him by the American dancer. Yet, in the 1930s, with the advance of modern dance, Fokin started distancing himself from Duncan. While admitting that his ‘Greek’ ballets such as Eunice and Daphnis and Chloe (both 1907) stemmed from Duncan dance, he categorically denied any influence of hers on his main chef-d’oeuvres, The Swan (The Dying Swan, 1907) and Chopiniana / Les Sylphides (1907-1909). Believing Fokin’s words, Russian dance historians have seriously belittled Duncan’s contribution in the reform of the twentieth-century ballet. The article restates Duncan’s impact on Fokin by demonstrating that Chopiniana borrowed from Duncan’s Chopin-Abend, and that the genre of the one-act ‘abstract’ ballet is indebted to her dance.

Key words: Chopiniana, Ballet theatre, Isadora Duncan, emotional regime, Mikhail Fokin, one-act abstract ballet
The very first night of Isadora Duncan performing in Russia has been described many times. It took place in Saint-Petersburg on December 13th, 1904 in the Nobility Congress Hall (today it is the Great Philharmonic Hall at 2, Mikhailovskaya St.). Sitting in the Emperor’s Loge were the Grand Dukes of Russia, in the first rows was the artistic elite: Sergey Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois, Lev Bakst, Mikhail Fokin, Anna Pavlova and other ballet artists. The grandeur of the room and of the audience stood in a stark contrast with the simplicity of the performance. The stage covered with greenish felt, grey-blue curtains, and outlines of Greek columns on coulisses. No orchestra, just a grand-piano. As an overture, the pianist played a nocturne by Chopin, and when he finished, a small figure appeared from behind of the curtains. The actress, Valentina Verigina, thus described Duncan making her entrance on the stage: ‘There was no stage, no theatre room, when in a rayon of light a barefoot woman in a white tunic appeared, without any signs of make-up. In her entrée there was nothing of a show; at the beginning she even did not dance. She appeared to live her own life immersed in her thought and feeling, far from the present. It was as if she belonged to a different civilization and was looking at it from afar’ (Verigina 1974: 129). The program mostly repeated the Chopin-Abend Duncan had given in Hamburg earlier that year. Clothed in a simple tunic, Isadora danced barefoot Chopin’s mazurkas, waltzes, and polonaises, but also his preludes and nocturnes, music which nobody had danced before. After she had finished, the audience burst into applause and made her dance multiple encores.
The artful naturalness of dance
From her first appearance in Russia, Duncan greatly interested theatre directors including Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold. Stanislavsky highly appreciated her talent as an actress, and he allegedly did not miss a single available performance. He watched Duncan during recitals and rehearsals, when ‘from a growing feeling inside of her, the expression of her face changed and, with shining eyes, she proceeded to perform what was in her soul’ (Stanislavsky 1988: 414). In winter 1907/08, he managed to persuade the Moscow Art Theatre to give its stage to Isadora’s matinées – an unprecedented step, which Stanislavsky had to justify in front of the theatre administration (Radishcheva 1997: 400). The playwright and stage director Nikolay Evereinov confessed that Isadora’s dances were one of the most powerful impressions in his life, ‘a revelation in art and unarguably a genius of simplicity’ (Evreinov 1998: 68). Likewise, Meyerhold burst with admiration: ‘One can shed tears of emotion… The delight of joy, like on a green meadow. <…> One can only describe it in a dithyramb. Poets will compose hymns in Duncan’s honor. Citizens will mount golden monuments in city squares for the one who wants to give children joy which has been destroyed in them by the noise of trams and cars’ [Meyerhold’s letter to his wife, 9 January 1908 (Feldman 2000: 252)].

Duncan successfully demonstrated on stage artful naturalness, carefully designed ‘genuine’ feelings, as opposite to conventional expression of emotions associated with ‘bad’ theatricality (‘teatral’shchina’) of the old ballet and drama theatre. Her new emotional regime was to a great extent supported by her choice of music, classical or romantic, which stood in striking contrast with the light and often primitive scores composed for ballet. She created her own genre between dance, drama, and pantomime, called ‘free dance’, or ‘danse plastique’ (‘École de la danse plastique’ was the name of the Duncan school in Bellevue, near Paris, opened in 1913). It was often seen as an expression of intimate feelings (it was not clear whether the feelings were inspired by the music or were the dancer’s own). Contemporaries saw in her dancing ‘the self in formation <…>, dancing “subject-in-process” (to borrow a term from Julia Kristeva), whose unspecified longings they could fill in with their own’ (Daly1995: 121). Art scholars compared her dance with the personal ‘monologue’ (Krasovskaya vol. 2, 1971: 263) or a popular salon genre of ‘melodeclamation’ (poetry recital accompanied by music).

Although ballet critics were less enthusiastic than actors and stage directors, they also sensed the novelty Duncan brought to dance theatre. The influential Andrey Levinson (1877-1933) described Duncan’s as ‘impressionistic’: ‘In the foundation of her dance lies her particular impressionability to music, and not formal choreography. Her dance is impressionistic and it creates the impression of spontaneous, sudden improvisation’ (Levinson 1992: 214). Today, when improvisation, spontaneity and the artist’s direct, intimate utterance are valued features in art, Levinson’s words might be seen as praise. In the beginning of the twentieth century, however, when this was stated, the word ‘impressionism’ had not completely lost its original negative meaning. The word was coined in 1874 by the French journalist, Louis Leroy, in relation to Claude Monet’s painting ‘Impression, soleil levant’. He scathingly wrote: ‘Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape’ (Rewald 1973: 323). Born as a label, ‘impressionism’ meant a lack of finish and professionalism. And although since then time had passed, the word was still imbued with negative meaning.

The analogy between impressionist painting and free dance introduced by Duncan in the beginning of the twentieth century is not inappropriate. Similar to the young cohort of French artists who broke with academic canons of painting, new dancers like Duncan rejected conventions of classical ballet including bodily positions, costumes and dancing on points. The ballet aficionado, Levinson, looked at free dance suspiciously; coming from him, the epithet ‘impressionistic’ (used vaguely and spelled either ‘impressionistskii’/‘impressionist’ or ‘impressionisticheskii’/‘impressionistic’) dismissed Duncan as a superficial choreographer and a dancer lacking ballet technique and virtuosity. Using Levinson’s label, a critic of the next generation, Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944), claimed that Duncan’s dance was an ‘impressionist improvisation to music’ (Sollertinsky 1933: 334). He repeated the current opinion that Duncan’s best choreography was her earlier ‘miniatures’ to romantic music by Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, and Grieg: there ‘the sincerity of lyric feeling won over’ (ibid.). By contrast, she failed with larger forms, such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky symphonies or fragments from Wagner, for the lack of expressive means.

When the young Isadora started her career as a dancer and actress in California in the closing years of the nineteenth century, she could hardly know anything about impressionism in art. Yet, her mother, a piano teacher, often played romantic music at home, and her children’s music tastes were formed by Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms. As a girl, Isadora danced in amateur performances, and she later tried several theatre companies but did not join any of them. ‘Impressionist’, ‘impressionistic’ could also mean ‘romantic’, ‘poetic’, ‘lyrical’, or simply ‘emotional’. Switching into a different emotional regime, Duncan’s dances transported the audience to a poetic, dream-like state. This was the aim of drama theatre as contemporary stage directors understood it. Meyerhold wrote sympathetically about Duncan: ‘The aim of dance is to reconnect with music and poetry and to re-establish its place in drama, to stand between the audience and acts of tragedy, to provoke the fullest and deepest response from the human soul’ [Meyerhold’s letter to Mikhail Gnessin, 25 June 1914 (Korshunova, Sitkovetskaya1976: 168)].

By contrast with the emotionality of free dance, old ballet appeared wooden and emptied of feelings. Mikhail Fokin believed the contemporary ballet theatre stagnated: ‘From year to year, from century to century “exercise at the barre” interchanged with “exercise at the middle”, in order to end up by copying, in a ritualistic way, some parts of an old ballet. Creative initiative has been eliminated. Thus everything emotional and spontaneous evaporated from ballet, and a new “caste” of the arm of the law was created’ (quoted in Sollertinsky 1933: 329). An adept of the new methods propagated by the Moscow Art Theater, Fokin criticized traditional ballet for the same reason that Stanislavsky criticized drama theatre: dancers demonstrated themselves too much, showed their technique and look. Instead, they should enact roles and transform themselves with each performance (Fokin 1981: 60). He set out to reform ballet theatre, and Duncan’s dance persuaded him that it was possible.

Sergey Diaghilev notoriously claimed: ‘Fokin has literally gone mad about her dances, and Duncan’s influence made the basis of all his creations’ (Fokin 1984: 354). Fokin did not reproach her, as many ballet critics did, for not dancing on points. In an article, ‘Bare foot dancers. A new era in ballet’ (published May 1, 1908) he wrote complimentarily: ‘It is not possible to turn on a bare foot, jump on toes, etc., and that is why the dancer without shoes cut off her way to technical complexity, tricks and all that brings dance nearer to sport rather than art. In these circumstances, the dancer has to seek only one thing: beauty’ (Fokin 1984: 299). Dancing barefoot, and not on points, made Isadora’s movements softer, more flowing and connected, and it opened up an opportunity for using the weight of the dancer’s body. A stable posture on bare feet, compared with being on points, gave her dance a more material, grounded character, while freeing arm, neck, and upper torso movements. Her arms and upper torso were especially flexible. ‘Have you heard of mimics of the arms?’ – the review asked. – ‘Of course, not. Meanwhile, Duncan’s arms are as expressive as her face’ (Shebuev 1992: 41). An arabesque with the head thrown backwards or a skip on one leg with the other leg bent and lifted to 90 degrees became her emblematic movements. Contemporaries interpreted them as ‘ecstatic’ and ‘Dionysian’. Paraphrasing the theoretician of performance Richard Schechner, one can say that Duncan did not express feelings, she enacted feelings by creating new movement repertoire symbolic of emotions and by adding the relaxed, ‘impressionist’ quality to her dance.

By contrast with classical ballet, which exploited just one bodily regime – strong, muscular and tense, Duncan added the psychophysical regime of relaxation and perfectly mastered alternation between tensed and relaxed body, as well as between strong and intimate emotions. She stopped pretending, as ballet does, that the dancer’s body is weightless and escapes gravity. By contrast, she skillfully used the weight of her freed, relaxed, and breathing body (thus, she was one of the first to introduce parterre poses and movements, which in contemporary dance is often termed ‘floor work’). She had also mastered the art of moving from the center of her torso, the principle described by the teacher of voice and movement François Delsarte who believed that the movement initiated form the center acquires emotionality and wholeness. Duncan located the source of movement in the solar plexus: ‘I was seeking, and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversions of movements are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of dance <…> not the brain’s mirror, but the soul’s’ (Duncan 2013: 61). The solar plexus and the diaphragm are central to breath, so Isadora’s impulse could come from inhaling. Her body and its members followed the impulse, and this made her movement flowing, uninterrupted, similar to legato in music or sea waves. These and further metaphors of nature were her own: she claimed that the dancer’s body gradually unfolds like an opening flower bud, it enters continuous motion, the great waves of life, a continuous cosmic pulsation.

Duncan developed a particular style and technique based on her philosophy of movement. She did not copy ballet virtuosity and especially dancing on points. Though not acrobatic, her dance was no less refined and sophisticated. Her choice of music was far from the dansante tunes typical of ballet, often full of brilliance but empty of content. By contrast, Duncan chose romantic music with which her soft, lyrical manner of dancing formed a perfect couple. Her dance, gracious and poetic, reminded Fokin of the great symbol of the romantic ballet Maria Taglioni and her dream-like appearance in La Sylphide.
On points vs barefoot
Dissatisfied with the mechanical manner of his fellow ballet dancers, Fokin aspired to revive the romantic image. Duncan was his inspiration and stimulus. He hoped to combine free dance with ballet. For him, the signature of Duncan dance was the flexibility and freedom of the upper torso and arms. Dancing on points, it is hardly possible to freely move the upper torso and the head while keeping in balance. Yet, to Fokin’s delight, there was a ballerina who could do the seemingly impossible: she was Anna Pavlova.

In the winter of 1907-08 Duncan returned to Russia with recitals to the music of Gluck, Schubert, and Chopin. Yet again, Fokin, himself a musician (he played various instruments including a balalaika in a folk music orchestra), was deeply moved by Isadora’s musicality. Shortly thereafter, he choreographed The Swan for Pavlova,to the adagio by Saint-Sans. The ballet historian, Vera Krasovskaya believed that he intentionally made the choreography appear as a ‘free improvisation’ to music: ‘Undoubtedly, while creating the dance, he and Pavlova thought of Duncan’s improvisational art. The Swan was indeed performed merely a couple of weeks after Duncan’s tour’ (Krasovskaya 1971: 263).

Like ‘impressionism’, the word ‘improvisation’ asks for a commentary. Duncan’s musicality was recognized by everyone, but many remained under the illusion that in free dance it was enough to move spontaneously to music. To think that Duncan improvised on stage, however, rather than prepared her dances is as much a myth as belief in the absence of ‘technique’. Though inspired by music, her choreography was always thoughtfully created and thoroughly rehearsed. ‘Many people are under the misconception that Isadora simply improvised at performances, and did not set formal choreography. This is completely mistaken’, argues the authoritative Duncan dancer and teacher Sylvia Gold (Gold 1984: 7). She developed her vocabulary of movements: plunging torso, the head thrown ecstatically backwards – the ballet vertical position was broken, softened. The dancer’s figure looked organically-shaped, like a sculpted figure, not two-dimensional or symmetrical. The perceptive Fokin noticed the absence of the symmetrical second position of the feet, and in his next choreography he also did not use it: ‘If the human figure with the legs symmetrically positioned does not express anything, then down with it… legs [normally] do not lift left and right, they lift only forward and backward’ (Fokin 1984: 449).

Fokin’s choreography for The Swan was also very simple, the opposite of ballet virtuosity: pas de bourrée, the arms moving freely like wings, flexions of the back and the neck. The romantic music by Camille Saint-Sans turned out to be an excellent piece to dance to. The critic, Akim Volynsky, wrote poetically: ‘Usually not very musical, Pavlova fused here with every stroke of sound, every vibrating sfumato, at the border of the female non-being’ (Volynsky 2008: 332). Like no other ballerina, she succeeded in reproducing Duncan’s soft, lyrical and meditative mood while dancing on points. Pavlova had found a way to imitate the soft and flowing manner of Isadora’s dance and had mastered the Duncan’s important discovery of how to switch between tension and relaxation, moving actively and ‘giving up’, to create a drama of movement. Fokin was lucky: there were not many ballet dancers who could repeat this. Volynsky confessed that he saw numerous dancers performing The Swan, and none who could compare with Pavlova in musicality and manner (Volynsky 2008: 332).

In the 1930s, when Fokin moved to the US, he engaged in bitter polemics with modern dance of Martha Graham; like Duncan earlier, she vehemently criticized ballet. As a result, Fokin furiously attacked both Graham and Duncan. He took so much care to distance himself from Isadora that altered retrospectively the date of the libretto of his first ‘Greek’ ballet, Daphnis and Chloe, from 1907 to 1904, and the date of The Swan from 1907 to 1905, the time before he saw Duncan (Fokin 1984: 452; Dobrovolskaya 2004: 44-45). This reinforced the myth, among ballet aficionados, of Duncan as a merely amateur in dance theatre. The further we are from the beginning of the twentieth century, the stronger the myth. Compare, for instance, two respected ballet scholars, Vera Krasovskaya and Galina Dobrovolskaya, Fokin’s later biographer. Krasovskaya, from the previous generation, is not shy to admit Duncan’s influence on Russian ballet. By contrast, the younger Dobrovolskaya claims that ‘in comparison with the high culture of classical ballet Duncan’s art was poorer in both its content and expression’ and that she ‘denied the school, the system <...> and doomed herself and her followers to dilettantism’ (Dobrovolskaya 2004: 41).

What had been obvious to the contemporaries – that Chopiniana grows from her Chopin-Abend – later became a blind spot of ballet historians (the exception is Garafola 1989). Fokin’s pupil and an adept of his reforms, Kasian Goleyzovsky, comments that in Chopiniana, ‘which appears for us a model of Taglioni classics, the corps-de-ballet’s gestures are transfigured from Duncan’ (Teider 2014: 119). By contrast, Dobrovolskaya claims that today ‘the idea about Duncan’s influence on Chopiniana could hardly enter one’s head. In the ballet, apparently, everything was suggested by the traditional choreographic theatre’ (Dobrovolskaya 2004: 131). Further, we well try to reconstruct the course of the events to show that Fokin’s early chef-d’oeuvres were deeply indebted to Duncan.
Dancing to Chopin
After the very first recitals in Russia in December 1904, Duncan quickly returned at the beginning of the following year and extended her successful tour to Moscow (where she also acquired a small army of fans, including artists of the famous Artistic Theatre). Exactly a year later, 12 February 1906, Fokin choreographed his first dance to Chopin (Étude Ges-dur op. 25, no. 9) which he titled ‘Butterflies’ (‘Polyot babochek’) (Fokin 1981: 462). It was first performed by the Mariinsky dancers, Maria Gorshkova and Mikhail Obukhov, and, on another occasion, by Elena Smirnova and Vaclav Nijinsky. The critics enthused and called both the choreography and the performance a ‘choreographic chef-d’oeuvre’ (Krasovskaya 1971 2: 326). The young Smirnova was praised for beautiful movements of ‘torso and arms, a virtue rare even in experienced female dancers’ (Krasovskaya 1971 2: 326). One can imagine that free-flowing arms and torso movements, after Duncan dances, were especially sought by the choreographer.

A year later, for a charity evening of 10 February 1907, Fokin staged five short ‘tableaus’ to music by Chopin, or, to be precise, to the suite of Chopin’s pieces which Alexander Glazunov orchestrated and titled ‘Chopiniana’ (op. 46). The suite consisted of four pieces: Polonaise A-dur Op. 40 no. 1 (Militaire), Nocturne F-dur Op. 15 no. 1, Mazurka cis-moll Op. 50 no. 3 and Tarantella in As-dur Op. 43. These pieces Fokin staged as ‘character dances’, performed in shoes (not on points) and in ordinary costumes (not tunics). The ballet had a libretto in which the tableaus were united by a narrative, and Frederic Chopin ‘himself’ was a central part of the plot.

If Fokin had limited the ballet only to Glazunov’s suite, we would not have had the Chopiniana we know and love. Yet, he asked Glazunov to orchestrate a fifth piece, the dreamy Waltz cis-moll Op. 64 No. 2, which the composer obligingly did. The choreographer explained retrospectively: ‘I needed the waltz because other numbers were character dances, and I wanted one dance on points and in long tunics à la Taglioni’ (Fokin 1981: 95). Nevertheless, the choreography of the waltz differed from regular ballet pas-de-deux owing to the complete absence of virtuoso movement, or, in Fokin’s own words, ‘trick’: ‘not one entrechat, no tours, no pirouettes… I just could not imagine a tour-de-force in the most poetic, lyrical Chopin’s waltz’ (Fokin 1981: 96). The story is Fokin’s. Our answer to the question, why the waltz, would be that Duncan danced it in her Chopin-Abend. The choreography was preserved and under the title of ‘Narcissus’ it is still one of the most popular numbers with Duncan dancers.

At the premier of Chopeniana, the waltz was performed by Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Obukhov. Pavlova danced on points, in a tunic – a long bell-shaped skirt know from the romantic ballets, La Sylphide and Giselle but later re-baptized into ‘Chopinovka’, a ‘Chopin skirt’. Fokin judged the number the most successful of all: ‘I saw my dream come true, the dream of a ballet not at all like what I used to see at the Mariinsky stage. At that very moment, I had an idea to create an entire ballet with sylphs flying about the young man, in love of beauty’ (Fokin 1981: 97). From this, in Fokin’s words, ‘moon-like vision’, the second version of Chopiniana grew a year later. In this version, which became canonical, Fokin endeavored ‘not to surprise with novelty, but to return ballet dance to the moment of its highest glory. I do not know whether our ballet predecessors danced like that, and nobody knows it. But in my dreams, they danced this way’ (Fokin 1981: 114). Unfortunately, the choreographer forgot to add just one thing: that was exactly the way in which Duncan danced Waltz cis-moll at her Chopin-Abend.

The second version of Chopiniana premiered on 8 March, 1908 (for the comparison of the programs see Table 1 in the Attachment). Fokin’s favorite dancers, Anna Pavlova, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Tamara Karsavina, and Vaclav Nijinsky successfully performed what the choreographer intended, bringing to the stage the spirit of romantic ballet, creating a poetic impression. The second version of the ballet (which eventually became the classic one) had nothing to do with Glazunov’s suite. All the numbers were different; only the Waltz stayed. Instead of Nocturne F-dur, Nocturne As-dur (Op. 32 no. 2) was included; instead of Mazurka cis-mollMazurka C-dur (Op. 67 no. 3); and the second Mazurka D-dur (Op. 33 no. 2) was added. Fokin also added a Prélude (Op. 64 no. 7) and two waltzes: Ges-dur (Op. 70 no. 1) and Es-dur (Valse brillante, Op. 18). New Chopin’s pieces were orchestrated by the Kapellmeister, Moritz Keller. Why did the choreographer reject the beautiful Glazunov Chopeniana and instead include new pieces? As a matter of fact, three of the new dances were in the program of Duncan’s Chopin-Abend: the Prelude, Mazurka D-dur, and Valse brillante. If we add to them the Waltz cis-moll (orchestrated earlier by Glazunov), then four out of eight numbers were those that Duncan danced at her unforgettable evening.

Together with the Waltz cis-moll, the Prélude e-moll (the Seventh, out of the twenty-four of Chopin’s Préludes, op. 64) is the most Duncanesque dance of the ballet. In some versions of Les Sylphides, it is repeated twice, first opening the sequence and, the second time, in the middle of it. Although the Prélude is danced on points and includes some of the pas typical of ballet, it remains a lyrical solo similar to Duncan’s choreography. The dancer’s figure fuses with Chopin’s piece and becomes its melody. ‘The music is transfigured in her and emanates from her’ as the poet, Max Voloshin wrote (Voloshin 1992: 35). The Prélude was a dream, longing for the unobtainable, perfectly matching the mood of Chopin’s music.

Duncan’s choreography is simple walking, soft steps, and feet feeling the carpeted floor as if it were grass. Sometimes rising on tiptoes, at times speeding up and then slowing down, lifting the arms, opening the chest, face looking up as if seeing something in the sky. The dancer moves like a wave, her non-corseted body bent slightly as if under a warm breeze, it inhales and exhales in rhythm with the music. At the very beginning she stands still listening to the Prélude played on the piano, letting Chopin speak. One of the finest observers at the Chopin-Abend, Nikolay Shebuev, thought that the préludes, all four of them (op. 28, no. 7, 4, 20, 6), were even more interesting than other pieces: ‘Here she is standing by the grand piano and listening to the first of them. Almost motionless, from the beginning to the end, she accompanied the melody, and when the melody started playing again, she went to the back of the stage and illustrated it with poses. And so much of unsatisfied desire, of yearning, and questioning, resonated in her gestures!’ (Shebuev 1992: 43).

In Fokin’s ballet, the dancer (Olga Preobrazhenskaya at the premier of the second version) ‘would be listening to the silence surrounding her, and in her sparse and careful movements there was aspiration, obscure disquietude. Standing with her back to the ramp, the Sylphide stretched out her arms: one could hear an outcry from the heart, call, and hope in her gesture.
Gradually music and dance calmed it down, brought relief, and the Prélude ended with the same movement that it began with’ (Dobrovolskaya 2004: 122). Fokin was outraged when Preobrazhenskay repeated the Prélude to the audience as an encore. Though this was habitual in ballet theatre, it went against his principles of making ballet genuinely artistic. In the old ballet, which Fokin aspired to refrom, ‘there are no feelings on stage; dancers pursue success, try to satisfy the audience, to get its approval, they throw gazes into the audience, make servile gestures. There is no unity of action, it is interrupted so that the ballerina could… stretch applauds with her curtsies’ (Fokin 1981: 60). In Chopiniana he intended to opposite.

The ballet, which in the new version had nothing to do with the Glazunov suite, had to be renamed. Fokin tried new titles, Réverie romantique, Ballet to music by Chopin, Grand pas to music by Chopin (Dobrovolskaya 2004: 114-116; Kulakov, Pappe 2008: 188). A year later the second version, under the name of Les Sylphides, appeared on the program of the Ballets russes. Its premier on June 2, 1909, in the Châtelet Theatre launched the worldwide glory of both the ballet and the choreographer.

There is a large literature on Duncan in Russia (Souritz 1992; Misler 2011; Sirotkina 2011; Yushkova 2019). Recently, Michaela Böhmig published a volume of Duncan criticism (translated into Italian) with a substantial introductory article (Böhmig 2016)

For the history of Duncan and Stanislavsky's relationship and correspondence see (Sirotkina 2014, 2021)

«В основе ее танца лежит не сознательное формальное творчество, а особенности ее музыкальной впечатлительности. Танец этот импрессионистичен и вызывает впечатление непроизвольности, внезапной импровизации»

«В сущности, танец Дункан являлся импрессионистской импровизацией на музыку»

One can speculate how much Sollertinsky, who was two years old at the time of Duncan’s first performance in Russia, had seen her dancing. He probably watched her performances in the 1920s, but be that time her dance had considerbly changed. Even some of Isadora’s fans were disappointed by her dance evening at the Bolshoi theatre, for the anniversary of the October revolution (November 7, 1921): ‘Her appearance became statuary and heavy. Everybody was awaiting something purifying and uplifting, but it did not come’ (Kats 2007: 265)

‘[P]erformance is not an “expression of” feeling but an action which is the feeling’ (Schechner 2004: 246)

Modern dance and contemporary ballet both made good use of Duncan’s discovery: Rudolph von Laban and Mary Wigman created special exercises for relaxation, Martha Graham introduced the idea of alternating between ‘contraction and release’, and Doris Humphrey centered her dance on ‘fall and recovery’. As with Duncan, the two regimes of modern dance corresponded with inhaling and exhaling

The third-generation Duncan dancer (she was a student of the second-generation Irma Duncan, Isadora’s pupil and an adopted daughter) Sylvia Gold claims that ‘Isadora Duncan dancing is not “flitting around” like so many people think, nor is it “unplanned” “un-choreographed” interpretive dancing’ (Gold 1984: 7). For learning Duncan technique she recommends the handbook by Irma Duncan (Duncan 1937)

Duncan knew very well how to use both sound and silence. While rehearsing to the music of The International at the Bolshoi Theatre, she tried to calm down the orchestra playing to loud: ‘You are too noisy, you play to bluntly… More internal meaning and less external pathos <…> Why there are so many trumpets, so many cymbals? Noise destroys happiness’ (quoted in Kasatkina 1992: 349)

Sylvia Gold’s performance might be the closest to the poetic impression that Isadora’s dance made on spectators. It is helped by black-and-white opaque video filmed by an amateur camera in the 1970s: <>

I thank Elena Glukhova for the reference to Sidorov’s mystical drawings.

Although the ballet historian, Victor Teider, acknowledges that Fokin ‘had brought together the impressionist aesthetics of I. Duncan’s dance and the aesthetics of ballet academism’, he claims that ‘thank to his efforts, impressionism was liberated from I. Duncan’s dilettantism, found a professional basis and received the technique of academic ballet school’ (Teider 2014: 119-120). His colleague, Vadim Gaevsky, also repeats the claim that ‘radical innovation in ballet is brought about by dilettantes, Isadora Duncan being the most obvious example’ (Gaevsky; Gershenzon, 2010: 115). Gaevsky starts his conversation about the ‘newest history of ballet’ with the critic, Pavel Gershenzon, from Duncan’s first visit to Russia (Gaevsky; Gershenzon, 2010: 15). Yet he tells his story in such a way that she has no place in it

See various performances of the piece: <>

Keller’s orchestration, apparently, was not very good and was later changed (see Table 1 in the Attachment)

See the piece performed by Sylvia Gold <>

Nikolay Georgievich Shebuev (1874-1937) was playwright, artist, and scholar. The review (signed ‘N. Georgievich’) was published in Petersburgian Gazette, no 345, on December 14, 1904, the next day after the Chopin-Abend. See Sylvia Gold’s performance of the choreography as the best example I could find: <>

For the program of Chopin-Abend in Hamburg, see <>; the program of Chopin-Abend in Saint-Petersburg is established on the basis of contemporary reviews (Kasatkina 1992; Böhmig 2016); for programs of Chopiniana see (Krasovskaya 1 1971: 184-193; Kulakov, Pappe 2008: 188-190)

Historians generally agree that Chopiniana started a new ballet genre, the one-act ‘abstract’ ballet with neither plot nor narrative, its choreography solely following the music. The genre eventually became the most prominent in twentieth-century dance theatre (Dobrovolskaya 2004: 115-116). Duncan’s Chopin-Abend stands at the very beginning of the genre, and arguably without it there would be neither Fokin’s early chef-d’oeuvres, nor the ‘dance symphony’ by Fedor Lopukhov or ‘symphonic ballets’ by Leonid Massine and George Balanchine.
Duncan can also be credited with the introduction of a new psychophysical regime of relaxation, both bodily and emotional, more ‘naturalistic’ acting, spontaneity and improvisational quality of performance. The interpreters of her dance often formulate it in terms of the primacy of music, or, in the words of Levinson, ‘musical impressionability’ or ‘impressionism’. ‘The Duncan dancer always listens to the music first to achieve an understanding of the phrasing and dynamics of the composition. The impulse of the music is felt before starting each movement. The music is never anticipated’ (Gold 1984: 7). At each performance the dancer experiences the music afresh so that the audience can see the source of movement and share the emotional impulse from which dance is born. This was what early-twentieth-century theatre reformers, including Stanislavsky and Fokin, valued in her performance, and this was what they helped to bring to contemporary drama and dance theatre.
Table 1. Programs of two versions of Chopin-Abend by Isadora Duncan and two versions of Chopiniana by Mikhail Fokin. The repeated numbers printed in bold.
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Fokin, M.
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Gold, S.
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Кasatkina, Т. (ed.)
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Krasovskaya, V.
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Kulakov, V.; Pappe, V.
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Levinson, А.
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Radishcheva, О.
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Sirotkina, I., et al. (ed.)
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Sirotkina, I.
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Sollertinsky, I.
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Stanislavsky, К.
1988 Sobrania sochineniy : v 9 tomakh. Moskva, Тоm 1.

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Teider, V.
2014 Russkiy balet na perelome epokh. Moskva.

Verigina, V.
1974 Vospominaniya. Leningrad.

Vilenkin, V. (sost.)
1979 V.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko. Izbrannye pis’ma: v 2 tomakh. Т. 2. Moskva.

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Volynskiy, А.
2008 Kniga likovanii. Azbuka klassicheskogo tantsa (1925). Sankt-Pereburg.

Yushkova, Е.
2019 Isadora Duncan i vokrug: novye issledovaniya i materialy. Ekaterinburg.