Friday, October 23, 2009

Classic Dancer: Isadora Duncan

Our final classic dancer feature for this week is on Isadora Duncan, who many consider the inspiration for modern dance. Born in 1877, she was the epitome of a powerful artistic spirit whose legacy continues to be felt today. For hip hop and street dancers, we can look at her artistic revolution as an inspiring story for our own path. (Photo above is taken from her Wikipedia entry.)

While much has been written about the drama and tragedy of her personal life, Isadora Duncan paved the way for a non-traditional path to be taken from classical ballet. Fed up with its rigid forms, she sought inspiration in natural movements as inspired by classical Greek culture. She favored flowing outfits, loose hair, and bare feet to the stringent standards of her time. Her basis for starting a revolution was that ballet's rigid forms were unnatural. In response, Duncan introduced a new athleticism into her style bringing leaps, runs, reclining, and high-energy natural moves into her repertoire. For her, the origin of one's dynamic movement came from the solar plexus and torso. Everything else emanates from this core. This echoes a similar approach as used by classic mime technique as practiced by Etienne Decroux and his artistic descendants. Like the Renaissance painters, Duncan turned to the Greek ideal for her inspiration, which could be an interesting reference for today's hip hop and street dancers especially if we choose to experiment with different forms and lines in our bodies. Isadora Duncan was a passionate artist who shaped a strong aesthetic and philosophy to her approach. If we want to advance hip hip and street dance further, we'll find it easier if we embrace a strong aesthetic sensibility.

For Isadora Duncan, education of the young was equally important in her work. She is known to have started various schools in Europe to raise a new generation. Most notable are the Isadorables, six dancers from a school in Germany, who would go on to perform with her. Her teaching legacy underlies the importance for our street culture to continue the teaching and mentoring traditions. Even with the spread of dance knowledge via online videos, nothing can ever replace a focused teacher-student relationship. Perhaps we need to hark back to this model and prepare a future generation of hip and street dancers by advocating mentorships. The tradition of passing on history, technique, aesthetic sensibilities, and a willingness to creatively problem solve are all tools that a teacher can bestow upon a prepared student. Isadora Duncan had the opportunity to develop her technique with the setting up of these schools in Europe. The result was a radical departure from classical ballet - a true break in form. How amazing would it be to finance and provide resources for the different street dance teachers worldwide? For example, many styles within the popping community would be more easily preserved and passed on if we had this academic structure. Currently, there are debates about popping styles from the Bay Area as potentially being lost to the new generation due to lack of exposure. We need to find a way to learn these styles and to appreciate them.

And lastly, in a modern world where we often experience dance in media - unless we see a live production - it's a shame that we cannot see Isadora Duncan in person. Her approach and sensibility lives on through the generations of students who took up her mantle. But it is her fiery disposition and desire to make social and political statements with her dance, that can't be replaced. She imbued a gravitas into her work and made us see that dance truly matters in the fabric of our everyday society. Dance is for everyone and can speak to everyone. Thank you, Isadora, for showing us the way.

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