Chopin — Mazurka in B minor, Op. 33, No. 4 (Death and the Maiden)

Reconstructed versions by Maria-Theresa Duncan and Julia Levien. Isadora's original version was done in silence. She preferred the dance called "Life and the Maiden."


Isadora Duncan

Reference: Duncan, Isadora. My Life. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927; Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Company, 1927. 0-87140-158-4

When I was sixteen I danced before an audience without music. At the end some one suddenly cried out from the audience, 'It is Death and the Maiden' and the dance was always afterwards called 'Death and the Maiden.' But that was not my intention, I was only endeavoring to express my first knowledge of the underlying tragedy in all seemingly joyous manifestation. The dance, according to my comprehension, should have been called 'Life and the Maiden.'

Nadia Chilkovsky Nahumck

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

While [the version re-created by Maria-Theresa Duncan] falls short of the "awesome and gripping" description of the dance provided by Ilya Schneider, strong contrast is suggested int he youthful high spirits (snatches of mazurka and waltz steps and rhythmic tapping together of the wrists) and in the more somber, dramatic moments. An Irma Duncan version, as reconstructed by Julia Levien, proposes a more creditable ending.

Nicolai Georgievitch Shebuyev

Reference: Shebuyev, Nicolai Georgievitch. Review of Isadora dancing in Russia. Petersburg Gazette. 1904.

With the Mazurka in A-flat (op. 33 no. 4) she danced an entire tragedy. As she entered, consternation was on her face -- the face of a bewitched Trilby; in her dancing, fear, tears, horror alternated with a morbid, decadent, compulsive Presto. And when, with this tragic look in her eyes, she approached the footlights and rose on her toes, she seemed to grow taller -- majestic, fateful. This number moved the audience more than any of those preceding it.

Jeanne Gazeau

Reference: Gazeau, Jeanne. Les entretiens idealistes. 1909.

I know of nothing more beautiful than the sudden transformation of this young creature, dancing and laughing at life, who suddenly feels herself seized by death. It is only a shudder, than an effort to shake off the cold embrace, finally a desperate hardening of her whole being and a supreme convulsion, when she seems to shrink into herself like a flower against the blow, then falls dead. It is the eternal mystery of death in all its anguished simplicity...I am only reporting the facts: I saw people weeping who were laughing when it started.

Fredrika Blair

Reference: Blair, Fredrika. Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986. ISBN 0-07-005598-X.

[Isadora] felt that the dance must express all the great emotions, heroic as well as lyrical, not simply gaiety, flirtatiousness, yearning, love, but suffering, hatred, despair, resignation, courage, religious ecstasy. She could either dance such feelings without accompaniment or she must use music expressive of these emotions -- in short music of the great composers. She used the first alternative in her early composition, 'Death and the Maiden,' but it was not a completely satisfactory solution, particularly for audiences accustomed to thinking of the dance simply as an entertainment. They needed the emotional cues provided by the music.

...the development of an element in Isadora's choreography which was to have a profound effect on the modern dance -- that is, the use of ugliness and weightiness for the sake of expression. She had already used ugliness for dramatic effect in the early 'Death and the Maiden' (spasmodic movement and rigidity of the limbs as Death overtakes the dancer), but there it served as a contrast to the predominantly graceful gestures of the girl.

Valerie Durham

This dance interplays the innocence and vulnerability of youth with the fearful reality of life and mortality. The choreography includes gestures of openness and reaching, paired with hesitation, retreating and fearful avoidance. This tenuous interplay explodes into a driving, almost wild frenzy of movement, with sweeping figure eights, sharp points, quick gathers of the feet, and upward thrust of the head and arms. The interlude allows the maiden to explore her environment, and reaches with almost a pleading to the world around her, before succumbing to the unassailable marking of death, symbolized with a contrasting downward thrust of the wreath removed from the maiden's head.

Irma Duncan

Reference: Duncan, Irma. Duncan Dancer: An Autobiography. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1966, 1980.

Isadora once remarked that she did not call this dance "Death and the Maiden" when she composed it, but that she had some vague idea of it as Maiden and brutal reality, and it was the audience who named it Death. If one recalls her own tragic end, the dance seems almost prophetic.


Title Date Dancers Full Dance? Notes
Common Shade July 2015 Catherine Gallant Yes
Dances by Isadora: Death and the Maiden 2009 Catherine Gallant Yes
Isadora and the American Jewish Intelligentsia 2000 Adrienne Ramm Yes
S.F. Duncan Dancers, 6/23/91, Hotel Nikko Ballroom 1991-06-23 Ann Cogley Yes Mignon called this dance "Wreath".

Related items in the Archives

The San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design > Programs > Isadorables — Dec 28, 1919

The Collection of Christy Cornell-Pape > Programs > Chopin and Schubert — Isadora Duncan — Jul 29, 1908

The Collection of Christy Cornell-Pape > Programs > Irma Duncan — Isadora Duncan Dancers — Mar 13, 1932

The Collection of Christina Fessenden > Programs > Performance by Ann Cogley and Chris Fessenden — Jul 18, 1999

The Collection of Mignon Garland > Programs > S.F. Duncan Dancers, Palo Alto — Jan 1982

The Collection of Mignon Garland > Programs > S.F. Duncan Dancers, Hotel Nikko — 1991

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Programs > Isadora Duncan — 1908

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Programs > Isadora Duncan Centenary Dance Company — Jun 24, 1978

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Programs > Linda Elkin — Isadora Duncan Dancers — Nov 05, 1987

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Programs > Starry Night — Barbara Kane — Dec 20, 1991

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Programs > Retrospective Isadora Duncan — 1993

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Programs > Isadora Duncan Dance Group Gala Ball — Barbara Kane — Isadora Duncan Dance Group — Sep 27, 1996

The Collection of Janaea Rose Lyn (McAlee) > Programs > Isadorables

The Isadora Duncan Archive Collection > Programs > Isadora Duncan in the 21st Century — Jan 20, 2017

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