The repertory of Isadora Duncan is a global treasure, a legacy of artistic genius that is shared across cultures and across generations. Isadora Duncan created hundreds of dances during her decades-long career in the early 20th century, many of which survive to this day due to the diligent efforts of the subsequent Duncan dance practitioners, starting with her adopted daughters, the Isadorables, to their students and through to the Duncan dancers active today.
Process of Learning the Dances
The long-standing tradition in the Duncan community is the transmission of dances from teacher to student, from dancer to dancer. Because the Duncan work is such a complete fusion of not only the steps and gestures of the physical movement, but the emotional, spiritual, artistic, and archetypal context of the dance as well as the individual dancer’s personal interpretation and expression, dances in the Duncan repertory should only be passed on directly from a master Duncan dance teacher to a student. Development of deep knowledge of and skill in the Duncan technique as the foundation for learning any repertory work is essential and highly encouraged.
While videos of Duncan dances can be found online, and are featured on the Archive as well, the Duncan community strongly recommends that videos only be used as reference material only, and discourages the learning of dances from video exclusively. Guidance and coaching from an established master Duncan dance teacher is essential to the learning and effective transmission of Duncan dance repertory, thereby maintaining the highest possible quality and beauty of Isadora’s timeless and classic art legacy.
It is our hope that this resource inspires you to seek out a qualified Duncan educator to experience firsthand how moving and relevant the philosophy, technique and choreography of Isadora Duncan continues to be.
Versions, Variations, and Stagings
The transmission of these dances from body to body, from teacher to student, from person to person, has led to the presence of “versions.” Each of Isadora’s original students, mainly Anna, Irma, Lisa, and Maria-Theresa Duncan, remembered these dances differently, or had different approaches to the dances. This is an accepted practice in the Duncan oeuvre because of the inherent value that the Duncan technique and philosophy places on the expressive differences of the individual Duncan dance artist and performer. Because each individual is unique, it is expected that each performance of a choreography will be likewise unique.
Additionally, it is believed that Isadora herself danced her choreographies differently from performance to performance and over time as she developed as an artist. So the dances could have been passed on in different ways by Isadora herself to her students. Therefore the current community of Duncan dance practitioners acknowledge the presence of versions and variations, and work to identify and credit the lineage from which they learned a dance, and make efforts to transmit versions and variations as clearly as possible.
In general, “variations” are defined as dances which have essentially the same structure and gestural content, but with mild to moderate differences as opposed to “versions” which are dances that use the same music and may have the same thematic subject, but are largely different in structure and gestural content. Additionally, dances can be presented with alternative “stagings” in which a Duncan dance practitioner presents the work in different formats, such as making a traditional solo into a group piece or a duet, or performing as a solo what was originally choreographed as a quartet; changing facings, directions or floor patterns, or adapting the piece for a site specific location. These terms align with the standard use of choreographic terminology and practice in the larger field of dance.
The Repertory section of the Isadora Duncan Archive includes the dance title, as well as alternative titles for variations and versions, the musical designation, factual information (date or location of premiere, subject matter and so forth) as well as descriptions of the dances from archival material (press clippings and reviews) and from various Duncan dance practitioners who have learned and performed the dances. In many cases, a dance may have more than one title, more than one variation, more than one version and more than one description or interpretation. The Repertory section works to provide as much of this information as possible for the broadest and deepest possible understanding of the dance itself.
In learning or performing dances, the Duncan dance community encourages the acknowledgement of crediting the lineage of the variation or version that is being performed, and also recommends that versions or variations be performed as taught as directly as possible, without changes or mixing variations or versions, outside of the expected and desired individual artistic expressive quality and the requirements of a particular performance setting or venue.
Composers and Isadora’s Relationship to Music
One of Isadora’s greatest contributions to the field of dance was her breakthrough and revolutionary use of concert music which previously had not been used for dance. She profoundly felt the connection between the music of the “great masters”—classical composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Chopin—and her dance was essential. Therefore, the Repertory section is organized according to composer name.
In many cases, the dance is known by the musical designation itself. For example, “Eccosaise” is the dance title of the dance performed to Franz Schubert’s Ecossaise, D. 734, No. 1, but is often described as a dance about the Four Winds. Where possible, the Repertory section includes a brief musical sample, as well as links to any related items in the Archive collection that reference that dance.
Dances that Isadora choreographed to silence have not survived, and are not listed in this current Repertory section. Eventually, the Archive hopes to produce a complete list of Isadora’s known choreography repertoire, even those that have not been passed down and have been lost to time.
Stages of Isadora’s Life and Work
Isadora Duncan’s choreographic understanding and explorations greatly evolved over the course of her nearly 30 year career, as she was exposed to the work of other great artists and writers, as her own life experiences influenced her and as her own skill and proficiency as a choreographic master grew.
Her career has been broadly divided into the following three periods: Lyrical (1877-1903, dances of innocence, nature, poetry, light and flow); Dramatic (1903-1913, dances of Greek myths, archetype, love, universal emotions); and Heroic (1913-1927, dances of nationalism, politics, militarism, revolution).
Dances in the Repertory section have been designated as falling into these three categories. Additionally, there are dances that were created as class studies or dances for children, or that have been lost. To aid in the searching for dances, as well as the understanding of the roles dances play in the Duncan oeuvre, the dances listed in the Repertory section have been tagged with the following categories:
- Class studies
- Dances for children
- Lyrical period
- Dramatic period
- Heroic period
- Lost choreography
The labels are fluid in their application. Often, Isadora created dances with lyrical qualities during her Dramatic period, for example. Likewise, class studies and dances for children have become commonly performed by Duncan dance companies and artists today.