Tchaikovsky — Marche Slav, Op. 31

First performed in celebration of the Tsar's abdication in 1917.


Nadia Chilkovsky Nahumck

Reference: Nahumck, Nadia Chilkovsky. Isadora Duncan: The Dances. Washington DC: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1994.

Only verbal accounts have survived of this dance, which probably aroused more intense emotions on both sides of the Atlantic than almost any other Duncan work. The few fragments from the opening of the dance may have been salvaged through the memory of Maria-Theresa, or may be merely her own impression.

Isadora Duncan ascribed the inspiration for her first extemporaneous performance of this work in New York in 1917 to the public announcement of the success of the Russian Revolution. Memories of the aftermath of the 1905 "Bloody Sunday" overwhelmed Isadora and, as she explained, the dance which "has been fermenting inside me for a long time... burst out of me" (Duncan, My Life).

Ilya Schneider gives an emotional account of Isadora's performance of this dance at the Bolshoi Theatre on November 7, 1921, in his book Isadora Duncan: The Russian Years. It is not surprising that under the influence of Tchaikovsky's music and the historical events of the time, the dance emerged as a drama of social protest. Early in his career the composer was convinced that there existed a strong bond between art and the life of a people. Turning to Russian folk music, he helped to awaken interest in developing a new tradition based on indigenous culture. It was largely through his music that artistic contact was effected between Russia and the West. The music of Marche Slav was an inspired choice for Duncan's dance at that time and place.

In manipulating the music to the needs of her dance, she deliberately created a "dissonance of gesture against music" (Duncan, My Life). She followed the naturally strong beat in the music by a forward, heavy step as though the body were propelled into motion by the stroke of a knout across her abased, stooping back. The opening fragment of this dance provided by Maria-Theresa, together with the verbal descriptions cited, offer some insight into the power of a few Duncan steps.

Isadora Duncan

Reference: Duncan, Isadora. My Life. The Restored Edition. Introduction by Joan Acocella, Prefatory Essay by Doree Duncan. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013. ISBN 978-0-87140-318-6 (pbk.)

On the day of the announcement of the Russian Revolution all lovers of freedom were filled with hopeful joy, and that night I danced the "Marseillaise" in the real original revolutionary spirit in which it was composed, and followed it with my interpretation of the "Marche Slave," in which appears the Hymn to the Tsar, and I pictured the downtrodden serf under the lash of the whip.

This antithesis or dissonance of gesture against music roused some storm in the audience.

It is strange that in all my Art career it has been these movements of despair and revolt that have most attracted me. In my red tunic I have constantly danced the Revolution and the call to arms of the oppressed.

Cynthia Splatt

Reference: Duncan, Dorée; Carol Pratl and Cynthia Splatt (eds.) Life Into Art. Isadora Duncan and Her World. Foreword by Agnes de Mille. Text by Cynthia Splatt. W. W. Norton & Company, 1993. ISBN 0-393-03507-7

Isadora had first danced the Marche Slav in celebration of the Tsar's abdication in 1917. The use of Tchaikowsky's militant music with its echoes of the tsarist hymn was mordant social commentary. Her portrayal of a serf in bondage gaining her freedom was Isadora's first explicitly political choreography. It remains as powerful today as it was over seventy-five years ago.

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