Nietzschean Influences in Isadora Duncan’s Dance Philosophy

On the 27th of May 1877, the great American dancer, considered the creator of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, was born in San Francisco, California. Her whole life was devoted to dance, it represented an extension through which she connected with the outer world, a channel for expressing her innermost yearnings, emotions and passions. She revolutionised dance by seeking, as she stated herself, “the divine expression of the human spirit through the body’s movement,” which meant allowing the body to ‘tell’ a story dictated by personal mood, music and the general ambience created by minimalistic sets and lighting. This does not mean, however, that Duncan was a mere “dancer to the music”, as is often suggested in related literature. In fact, Duncan’s choreography was very complex, inspired by the classical Greek arts (hence all of her costumes were variations of the ancient Greek tunic), folk and social dances, taking inspiration from nature and natural forces. In her style there is also a traceable influence from the new American athleticism which included skipping, running, jumping, leaping and tossing.

41aG2hG06eLThrough her dance, Duncan expressed not only her own personality but, most of all, the changing spirit of her times, especially the changing attitudes towards religion and the human body. “Modern culture was in the throes of a crisis. Its forms of religion and art, Christian in particular, were failing to provide people, especially women, with the inspiration or guidance they needed in order to honor their own bodies. In the quest for enlightenment of various kinds, people were educating themselves to ignore their bodily being and to abide instead by the stern power of their brains, imposing codes of morality onto themselves. She was aware of the cost: “[V]ery soon the movement is imposed from without by wrong theories of education, and the child soon loses its natural spontaneous life, and its power of expressing that in movement” (AD 77). Duncan, raised to think of religion as a human creation, responded with a call to reinvent religion: nothing less than a “great renaissance” or rebirth of values was necessary to help people appreciate and love human bodies as partaking in what she perceived as the highest values of humankind: Beauty and Holiness. …Duncan insisted that dance must serve as the conduit of such a renaissance. This art whose medium is bodily movement, could provide a unique opportunity for humans to come to know their physical beings as source and site for creating values, including values of beauty and holiness. Dancing, she believed, could provide a model for what religion should be – an “expression of life.”” (Kimerer L. LaMothe, Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values)

This particular relationship between religion and dance was noticed by Duncan in classical ballet. She “observed how dancers exercised the same relation to their bodily selves she criticized in Christian morality – they imposed formal codes onto their bodies in order to project images of the body as weightless, ethereal, offering little resistance to mental direction. Such forms of dance, she argued, reinforced perceptions of dance as a physical activity, as mere amusement. Thus, Duncan’s vision for dance was a double vision. Her call for a “dancer of the future” was also a call for a renewed religion.” (LaMothe). This double vision was reinforced after reading Nietzsche, whose writing became her ultimate credo. In her essays, Duncan referred many times to Nietzsche, calling him a “great Master” of the dance or a philosopher who understood the “spirit” of dance, often using quotations from Zarathustra to support descriptions of her dance process. “She writes about Dionysian energies, free spirits, and healing art. In fact, his name appears more frequently in her writings than any of her other “teachers,” a list that includes Ludwig Beethoven, Walt Whitman, Richard Wagner, Charles Darwin, Ernest Haeckel, and Jean Jacques Rousseau.” (LaMothe).

41levsip6kLDuncan tied her vision with that of Nietzsche, who, as she understood it, perceived humans as dancing beings and dancing as integral to the process of fulfilling human kind. She believed that her vision of dance was capable of generating and realizing an alternative morality to the one offered by Christian religion. Hence, she thought of herself not only as a dancer but a philosopher and a visionary too. In her autobiography she wrote: “In the month of June we gave a festival at the Trocadero. I sat in a loge watching my pupils dance. At certain parts of the programme the audience rose and shouted with enthusiasm and joy. At the close they applauded at such length that they would not leave. I believe that this extraordinary enthusiasm for children who were in no wise trained dancers or artists was enthusiasm for the hope of some new movement in humanity which I had dimly foreseen. These were indeed the gestures of the vision of Nietzsche: ‘Zarathustra the dancer, Zarathustra the light one, who beckoneth with his pinions, one ready for flight, beckoning unto all birds ready and prepared a blissfully light-spirited one.’ These were the future dancers of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.” (Isadora Duncan, My Life)

Film Credit: sylviagold1