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Elena Yushkova
Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia:
First Impressions and Discussions.

This article analyzes the ways in which Isadora Duncan’s dance oeuvre was perceived
in  Russia  by  di16  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
art, literature and theater in the West, the English-language accounts of Duncan’s
experiences in Russia and the Soviet Union are quite insuElena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  17
abroad  and  even  surpassed  its  French  and  Italian  counterparts,  which  were
technically the ‘parents’ of Russian professional dance in the eighteenth century.4
A special ballet school in St. Petersburg prepared about 150 professional dancers
for the stage during the period of 1779–1896. Nevertheless, at the beginning of
the twentieth century, certain ballet traditions were becoming obsolete. The young
choreographer Mikhail (Michel) Fokine, was deeply unsatis18  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
background of the 1900s. Organic forms of Art-Nouveau architecture decorated
Moscow and St. Petersburg streets, and magazines attracted readers’ attention by
publishing images of home grown and authentic Russian design.
Spiritual aspirations penetrated all kinds of arts. The magazine, Mir Iskusstva
(World  of  Art),  published  in  St.  Petersburg  in  1899–1903  represented  a  new
approach to analyzing painting, architecture, and theater, paving the way for a
new kind of art criticism. This art criticism was be based on a canon of reyned
aesthetics  and  it  acknowledged  the  importance  of  spiritual  content  in  art,  and
allowed for discussions about the human soul. “Mir iskusstva was committed to
exploring the category of beauty, and this credo, along with its alignment with
European modernist art, made it anathema to Russia’s more utilitarian-minded
critics.12  New  aesthetics  penetrated  into  theater  as  well.  Even  in  the  realistic
works  of  Moscow  Art  Theater  led  by  Konstantin  Stanislavsky,  a  spiritual
atmosphere prevailed during the performances of Vsevolod Meyerhold in Vera
Komissarzhevskaya’s plays.
 Theater tried to create a hypnotic inElena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  19
be a spiritual act involving the public emotionally and intellectually like Russian
theater directors of that time (Stanislavsky, Meyerhold). Isadora Duncan easily
and  successfully  broke  many  traditions  of  the  dance  form,  while  proclaiming
a  new  role  of  dance  in  a  human  life.  She  also  broke  artistic  stereotypes  like
Russian symbolist poets and philosophers did, claiming that dance would be a
new religion of the twentieth century. Duncan charmed the Russian cultural elite
with her devotion to the high art. They were ready to accept her manifesto in
which Duncan declared her intention to overcome the Cartesian duality between
body and mind through dance.16 “Indeed, the 20  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
Maurice Girschman, the Berlin correspondent of the newspaper.22 She explained
to the Russian public that her main tasks were to revive the beauty of the ancient
dance, to illustrate the thoughts of composers such as Beethoven in dance, and to
make art publics believe that dance was an elevated art form.23 Most of the Elena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  21
with  perfectly  formed  feet;  they  22  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
jumps to him looked ‘wild,’41 her ‘poses were risky.’42 Nevertheless, all critics
agree that Duncan’s ‘nudity’ has nothing to do with pornography or entertainment.
Alexander Rafalovich writes about her being a “chaste virgin,’43 and most other
critics thought the same way. “This is not a nudité that arouses sinful thoughts, but
rather a kind of incorporeal nudity”44 and “there is nothing here to shock the moral
sense,”45 add Shebuev and Svetlov. While Belyayev claims, that “except her legs
and proportional body, there is nothing attractive in Miss Duncan as a woman,”46
Rafalovich Elena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  23
meaning that she is a real discoverer of the Greek art. Nikolai Shebuev, on the
contrary, 24  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
ground of historical truth,”62 denying his colleagues’ doubts in the authenticity
of her dances. But Andre Levinson noted ironically that “the public received her
dances as antique artifacts, despite their obvious unauthenticity and the fact that
Isadora preferred to discuss them as dances of the future, not the past.”63 However,
Russian Symbolists continued to look for diElena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  25
passion and sorrow.”68 She described images of an awakening nature, a 26  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
One publication in Vesy looks quite strange. Most likely Bryusov himself had
prepared it, since he did most of the work during the Elena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  27
from it should grow the reform of one of the most exhausted and abandoned forms
of life: dance.”81
Retelling  the  speech  of  Duncan,  which  he  listened  to  at  the  dinner  after
her  second  performance  in  St.  Petersburg,  Benois  pays  a  special  attention  to
her aesthetic ideas focusing on her thoughts about beauty: “The only thing that
matters is beauty, the pursuit of beauty in order to make all life beautiful. In the
presence of beauty, even su ering has no terror, even death does not frighten,
beauty illumines everything, and it is mankind’s best comforter.”82 He describes
her thoughts on the beauty of nature in which the most beautiful creature is a
human  being.  “Everything  is  good  when  it  repeats,  harmonizes,  yts  together,
gives a lively life, when it’s not uniform, not disjointed or accidental. Beauty is in
motion, in repetition, in rhythm,”83 comments Benois on Duncan’s ideas about a
necessity to restore a beautiful human image familiar to ancient artists.
Voloshin also believes that dance can surpass words. “Nothing can shake the
soul so much as the dance… Dance is the highest of the arts because it reaches
the most primary of rhythm, the one enclosed in the pulsation of a human heart,”84
claims  the  poet.  Philosopher  Vasily  Rozanov  will  soon  predict  that  ‘Isadora
Duncan’s personality, her school will play a large role in the battle of ideas of the
new civilization’85 recognizing her contribution to the history of ideas. However,
many reviews of Duncan performances represented negative records. There were
critics who refused to see any depths in her dance, which evidently challenged
Poor theater of a ‘silly American miss’
In  an  open  letter  by  the  famous  conductor  and  musical  critic  Alexander
Ziloti to the violinist Leopold Auer, who conducted the orchestra during Isadora’s
second tour in Russia in January 1905, Ziloti chastised Auer for participating in
Isadora’s program, asserting that it was unacceptable for a musician of his level to
accompany such a ‘primitive’ dance.’ “Despite all my e orts, I could not ynd any
connection between the music and the movements of Ms. Duncan. She yrst raised
her hands upwards; suddenly she went down as if searching for a paper lost on the
28  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
dull, very monotonous and very daring,”88 wrote Plescheev in December 1904,
representing the opinion of general public. “She does not charm, doesn’t move
[the  audience],  she  only  shows  original  poses  that  are  reminiscent  of  dancers
depicted on antique vases. She embodies ancient dances and from this perspective
deserves our attention. But then again to see this is pleasant only in small doses,”89
assumes he, supposing that the admiration by Isadora was provoked only with a
help of the European press.
Belyayev  thinks  that  Duncan  should  add  her  dance  to  the  collection  of
Russian sans-culottes’ art, meaning by that the literary works by Maxim Gorky and
paintings by the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers). “Sans-culotte” Gorky represented a
new generation of have-nots, who in the Russian language were called “bare-foot”
people—they traveled around the country without shoes (bosyaki). The painters
of Peredvizhniki group, which was created in 1874 and existed at the beginning
of the 20th century, expressed their compassion to the poorest people of Russia
who were living in desperate conditions even 40 years later after the abolition
of the serfdom. In Repin’s famous painting Haulers on the Volga-river, we can
see shoeless people in the rags pulling the barge. Figuratively, the reformers took
oElena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  29
interested in what is being played.94 However, Shebuev in his description of the
dance to Chopin’s Mazurka in B-major, op.7, no 1, shows that the dance ytted
in  with  the  music  completely.  “She  [Duncan]  emerged  and  swam  like  Undine,
swaying in time with the beat, waving her hands with the beat, smiling, diving with
the beat… her dancing merged into a single chord with Chopin’s Mazurka.” Then
he adds that “her body is as though bewitched by the music. It is as though you
yourself were bathing in the music.”95 Voloshin writes about music as an embodied
partner of Duncan. “You do not hear the music. The music is instilled and falls
silent in her body like in a magic crystal. The music becomes radiant and 30  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
dreamed about the synthesis of arts and turned to antiquity to Elena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  31
hands and arms, an absence of acrobatics and of steel toes. Shebuev stressed that
“Duncan has no ballet technique; she does not aim at fouettes and cabrioles. But
there is so much sculpture in her, so much color and simplicity.”106 Benois retells
the conversation with Duncan, in which she says: “There is no human dignity
in the ballet. The dancers are mere puppets in motion, not people,”107 having in
mind that “the ballet … represents an overcoming of di32  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
of the nineteenth-century ballet’s apollonian danse d’école,”117 sums up critic and
later—a historian of ballet Andre Levinson, using Nietzsche’s terminology, dear
to  Isadora,  which  also  can  be  found  in Vil’kina’s  reviews. Thus,  most  writers
see in Duncan’s dance an overcoming of the numerous ballet clichés and new
freedom of bodily expression.
By 1908, the rhetoric on Duncan dance changes and a new term Elena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  33
the viewer’s impressions of the dance is necessary.121 Molostvov summarizes that
Duncan’s plyas and her inspirational gesture is much more important than the
perfect technique of the contemporary ballet. In Volynsky’s opinion, the dancer’s
work becomes an appeal to a new art, to the spiritual art of Apollo, contrary to
The philosopher Vasily Rozanov in 1909 wrote: “In her plyaska the entire
human being is re34  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
that kind of discussion, which switched later to the new plastique of Diaghilev’s
ballets, also based on ancient rituals and very modern at the same time.129
InElena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  35
of  Russian  ballet  abroad.  He  stood  for  the  purity  of  ballet  and  did  not  accept
Duncan’s  innovations  in  dance  in  general,  but  probably  was  inspired  by  the
discussions on the relationship between a free dance and classical ballet. Composer
and critic, Cherepnin, published his works On the ways of ballet realism (1915-
16) and Ballet symbols (1917), while searching for common methods of analysis
between ballet and musical forms. He insisted that ballet had to be understood not
through the prism of principles of dramatic theater, but only through its plastic
and choreographic means.131 A detailed consideration of all these books is beyond
this article’s limits. However, as we can see, the appearance of literature on dance
history  coincides  with  and  follows  the  extensive  tours  of  Isadora  Duncan  in
“Genuine beauty:” coverage of Duncan’s tours in the following
prerevolutionary years
After 1905, tours of Duncan took place in 1907-08, 1909 and 1913, and re-
views of that time became less impressionistic and more analytical. In 1907, the
Russian translation of Duncan’s essay Dance of the future was published132 and
after that, critics could use her own theoretical statements in their descriptions of
her dance. In the preface to the book, writer Nikolay Suslov stressed that Duncan
had spiritualized the dance, “transformed it into a story of emotional depth.”133
Duncan’s other achievements included the concept of the solo dance, bringing
dancing to the human level and making it personal to the dancer, as well as a form
of rehabilitation of the human body itself. 134
In 1913, Duncan’s Russian tour caused another 36  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
right: the practitioners of the Russian ballet were enraptured by her performances
and found new ideas for their work. Among them were young choreographers of
the Mariinsky and Bolshoi theaters Michel Fokine and Alexander Gorsky, and
ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Vera Karalli.137
Critics again accented the spiritual content and the embodiment of “genuine”
beauty, despite some imperfections of the body and the limited lexicon of the
dancer. ‘I don’t know any other plastic actor of our time who could express in
the movements of the body the motion of his/her soul with greater power and
naturalness than Duncan,’138 wrote theater director Komissarzhevsky, reElena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  37
itself riddle with contradictiosn and was in extreme 38  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
concert in November 1921, showing how the dancer, using only the means of
pantomime, transformed herself into a bow-backed workman—a symbol of the
oppressed Russia, who succeeded to tear his fetters and become free.146 Some
of the authors were disappointed by Duncan’s  body (not that young now),  by
some of her sentimental pieces, and later—by her marriage to Esenin. However,
newspapers and magazines started to write ecstatically about Duncan’s students—
young and beautiful, harmonically developed. They wished all Russian children
could have studied at the Duncan’s school.
The year 1923 became an important milestone in the formation of the cultural
policy of the Soviet Union. The Twelfth Party Congress of the Bolshevik Party
resolved that the theater had to be used for systematic mass propaganda of the
communist ideas.147 On the other hand, in Moscow the Choreological Laboratory
of the State Academy of Artistic Sciences under the leadership of art historians
Alexei Sidorov and Alexei Larionov, conducted fundamental research on human
motion  with  small  groups  of  plastique  dancers.  In  the  process  they  developed
new forms of ‘free’ dance, and which the Government tried to liquidate.148 At that
time, there were more and more skeptical articles on Duncan in magazines and
newspapers. “Duncan still shows us the harmonious human being’s emotions…
But  there  is  no  appropriate  environment  to  create  new  Hellenes,”149—writes
theater  critic  and  writer  Victor  Ardov.  Nevertheless,  in  August  1923,  after
Duncan’s return from the United States, the press reports on the deep connection
of Isadora’s thoughts with the Soviet ideology—mostly because of her involuntary
propaganda on behalf of the Bolsheviks that she conducted in the United States
(she was deprived of her American citizenship after that). “Duncan returned to
Russia...  Her  ideas  about  the  free  and  harmonious  education  of  a  spirit  and  a
body in beauty, in her opinion, could take root only in Russia,”150 wrote Ogonyok
magazine. The educational program of Duncan was recognized as useful for the
regime again. “To take a poor proletarian child and to make a healthy and joyful
creature out of him—this is a big accomplishment,”151 wrote ballet critic Viktor
Iving in the newspaper Pravda after the performance of the school in Moscow in
November 1923.
The  year  of  1924  could  hardly  be  successful  for  the  school  because  after
Lenin’s death in January 1924. Cultural policy dramatically changed for the worse,
fostering the Communist Party control over all kinds of arts. On August 26, the
146 Stepanida  Rudneva.  Vospominaniya  schatlivogo  cheloveka.  Stefanida  Dmitriev-
na Rudneva i studiya muzykal’nogo dvizheniya Geptakhor v dokumentah Tsentral’nogo
moskovskogo arhiva-muzeya lichnyh kollektsyi. Ed. A. Kats. (Ì.: Izdatel’stvo Glavarhiva
Moskvy, 2007), 664.
147 V. Zhidkov. Teatr i vremya: ot Oktyabrya do perestroiki. (M.: STD, 1991), 105.
148 N. Misler. Vnachale bylo telo. Ritmoplasticheskie eksperimenty nachala XX veka.
(M.: Iskusstvo—XXI vek, 2011), 109.
149 Viktor Ardov. O tantse so storony (On dance from aside), in Aisedora, 288.
150 D.K.  Vozvrzaschenie Aisedory  Duncan.  Ogonyok.  26.08.1923,  State  Bakhrushin
Theater Museum (Moscow), Makarov, Elena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  39
Decree of the Moscow Council ordered the closure of more than ten famous studios
of plastique dance, and demanded the inclusion of a communist functionary into
Duncan’s school sta , who could supervise its activities.152 Nevertheless, thanks
to the Commissar of Sports Nikolay Podvoysky, in the summer of 1924, the school
got a right to work. He helped organize a training for six hundred153 proletarian
children at the huge Red Stadium in Moscow. Irma Duncan taught children to
dance revolutionary dances, that she had been choreographed earlier.154
In 1924, Duncan’s departure to the West was inevitable. There was no state
support; Russian tours of the dancer were ynancially disastrous. In September,
two farewell performances of the school took place at the Chamber and Bolshoy
theaters, where Isadora was visibly distressed in her introduction, stressing that
the students did not have food and funds to pay for utilities.155 The press after
the  performances  was  ecstatic  again.  Izvestiya  wrote  that  “the  whole  program
manifests  a  revolutionary  spirit”,  and  represents  “the  realism  of  feelings.”156
Rabochy zritel insisted that “the Duncan pedagogical system should be used more
widely, and for ALL proletarian children.”157 Of course, that was unrealistic. After
the departure of Irma Duncan to the USA in 1928, the school became almost
illegal: it  did  not  yt  in  with  the new  emphasis  on  Socialist Realism and  mass
sports, and survived only because some former students had a long tour of Siberia
at the beginning of the 1930s, and staged anti-fascism pieces during the wartime
in 1940s. In 1949, the school was closed and was not referred to again until the
end of the 1970s.
In 1927, after the tragic death of Isadora Duncan, Russian criticism summed
up her main achievements. Alexander Gidoni in the journal Contemporary theater,
¹  4,  1927,  wrote,  “Isadora  Duncan  has  been  dispersed  in  the  contemporary
art  of  dance.  Still,  this  dispersal  is  very  fruitful  for  the  artistic  culture  of  our
days.”158 Aleksey Gvozdev, who considered Duncan’s art as bourgeois, asserted
in Krasnaya Gazeta (Red Newspaper) that ‘Duncanism’ outlived itself, “without
having created a monumental form capable of expressing the heroic mood of the
epoch. But it did open the yrst breach and cleared the way for new achievements,
which must be reached by a new generation of dance reformers under the more
profound in40  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
Summarizing  discussions  of  Isadora  Duncan  in  Russian  criticism,  we  can
note that the perception of her dance changes according to situations in Russian
and  Soviet  art.  Duncan  had  always  been  welcomed  by  the  Russian  press,  but
the nature of this enthusiasm varied. The Symbolists saw an elevated spiritual
meaning  in  her  work;  the  early  Soviet  newspapers  and  magazines  employed
propagandistic rhetoric to justify the invitation of the world-famous artiste at a
moment when the country was suElena Yushkova, Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia  41


Archival materials:
RGALI  (Russian  State Archive  for  Literature  and Arts):  Tikhomirov.
V.D. Programs of performances, collected by V.D. Tikhomirov. 1891–
1952, fund 2729, opis’.1, #. 134, list 38-48
RGALI (State Archive for Literature and Arts, Moscow): Iving (Ivanov)
Viktor Petrovich, fund 2694, list. 2, document 18
State  Bakhrushin  Theater  Museum  (Moscow):  Makarov  V.V.  Isadora
Duncan. Clips from newspapers, yle 152. list 342-352, ¹ 252504/4291-

Newspapers and magazines:
Severnye zapiski
Aisedora. Gastroli v Rossii. (Isadora. Tours of Russia). Collection of Reviews. Ed.
T. Kasatkina. Preface by E. Surits. M. ART, 1992
Antichnost’  i  Kultura  Serebryanogo  Veka  (Antiquity  and  Culture  of  the  Silver
Age). Moscow. Nauka. 2010—in Russian
Azadovsky, K.N., Maximov D.E. Bryusov i Vesy (Bryusov and Vesy) (M.: Nauka.
Literaturnoe nasledstvo.1976, p. 257-324
Bowlt,  John.  Russia’s  Silver  Age:  Moscow  and  St.  Petersburg,  1900–1920.
Thames & Hudson. 2010
Bresciani, Jeanne. A Catalog of the Isadora Duncan Library in the Victor Sero42  Journal of Russian American Studies 2.1 (May 2018)
LaMothe, Kimerer L. Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham,
and the Revaluation of Christian Values. New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
Levinson, A. Staryi i Novyi Balet. Mastera baleta (Old and new ballet. Ballet
masters) SPB. Moskva. Krasnodar. Lan’. Planeta muziki., 2011
McVay, G, Moskovskaya Shkola Aisedory Dunkan (Moscow School of Isadora
Duncan)  Pamyatniki  kultury.  Novye  otkrytiya.  Pismennost.  Iskusstvo.
Archeologiya. Yezhegodnik—2003. Moscow. Nauka. Ed. T.B. Knyazevskaya.
P.. 326-475
Misler, N. Vnachale bylo telo. Ritmoplasticheskie eksperimenty nachala XX veka
(Body was yrst. Rhythm and plastique experiments of the beginning of the
20th century). M.: Iskusstvo—XXI vek, 2011
Nelidova, L. Pis’ma o balete. Pis’mo pervoe—idealy khoreograyi i istinnye puti
baleta (Letters on ballet—ideals of choreography and genuine ways of ballet
development). M. Tipogra


Articles by diferent authors included in the collection of works Aisedora. Gastroli
v Rossii (see above)
Carbonneau,  S.  and  Michel  Fokin.  International  Encyclopedia  of  Dance.  Ed.
Selma Jeanne Cohen. Volume 3, N.Y., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998
Duncan, I. Chto ya dumayu o tantse (What I think about dance). Severnye Zapiski,
1916, February–March, ¹ 2, p. 7-38, ¹ 3, p. 24-52, ¹ 4-5, p. 50-78
Heinrich Heine on Isadora Duncan. Vesy, 1905, ¹ 4, 85-86
Ivanov, Vyach. Predchuvstviya i Predvestiyua. (Presentiments and premonitions),
in  Vyacheslav  Ivanov.  Collections  of  works.  Ed.  D.V.  Ivanov  and  O.
Deshart.  Brussels,  1974  Volume  2,  http://www.v-ivanov.it/brussels/
Lavrov, A.V., Maximov D.E. “Vesy”. Russkaya literatura i zhurnalistika nachala
XX  veka  (Russian  literature  and  journalism  of  the  beginning  of  the  20th
century) M.: Nauka, 1984, p. 65-136
Roslavleva, N.P. Prechistenka 20: The Isadora Duncan School in Moscow. Dance
Perspectives. Vol. 16, Winter, New York: M. Dekker, 1975
S. S. Aisedora Duncan v Moskve. Vesy. 1905. ¹ 2, p. 40
Sirotkina I. Dance-plyaska in Russia of the Silver Age. Dance Research. Volume
28, Page 135-152, November 2010
Souritz,  E.  Isadora  Duncan  and  Prewar  Russian  Dancemakers.  The  Ballets
Russes and Its World. New Haven and London, 1999;
Suritz  E.,  Roslavleva  N.,  Petrov  O.,  Baletovedenie  (Ballet  studies)  in  Ballet:
M.  Sovetskaya  entsiklopedia.  1981,  http://dancelib.ru/baletenc/item/f00/s00/
Vechera Aisedory Duncan v Moskve . Iskusstvo. 1905, volume. 1. p. 48-51, p.50-
Vil’kina, L. Aisedora Duncan. Vesy, 1905, ¹ 1, 40
Yushkova, Elena. Isadora Duncan in Soviet Criticism (1921–1927). Sergey Es-
enin and arts. Series Sergey Esenin in the 21st century. Moscow-Ryazan’-
Konstantinovo. Institute of World Literature, Russian Academy of Sciences.
2015, p. 528-543

Elena Yushkova. Isadora Duncan’s Dance in Russia. First Impressions and Discussions.


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