Dancing for the Masses

In 1921 Isadora Duncan journeys to the Soviet Union in search of a more meaningful career.

By Julia L. Mickenberg

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

 Isadora Duncan photographed during her 1915–18 visit to America, by Arnold Genthe. New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division

In the spring of 1921, the American dance pioneer Isadora Duncan accepted an invitation from A.V. Lunacharsky, Soviet commissar for the enlightenment, to open a children’s dance school in Moscow. She was “sick of bourgeois, commercial art…sick of the modern theater, which resembles a house of prostitution more than a temple of art.” She wanted “to dance for the masses,” for those “who need my art and have never had the money to come and see me.” And she wanted “to dance for them for nothing, knowing that they have not been brought to me by clever publicity, but because they really want to have what I can give them.” If the Bolsheviks could give her this opportunity, then, she promised, “I will come and work for the future of the Russian Republic and its children.”

Although Russia was renowned throughout the world for its dance, after the revolution American dancers were drawn to Russia less to see innovative dance forms than to experience life under socialism and to dance for a revolutionary audience. Despite striking innovations like Nikolai Foregger’s dancers, whose mechanical movements mimicked those of machines, for the most part Russian dance was still dominated by ballet in the 1920s and 1930s, even as modern dance took other parts of the world by storm. Indeed, some of the most radical innovators in Russian ballet, most notably Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, performed only outside of Russia: Russian ballet traditions were so entrenched that this effort by primarily Russian-born choreographers, dancers, and composers to “extend the expressive possibilities of ballet” defined itself in terms of “secession” from Russia proper. Thus although the revolutionary dance movement in the United States was directly inspired by events in the Soviet Union, it was American dancers, most of them directly or indirectly influenced by Isadora Duncan, who brought revolutionary forms of dance there.

François Delsarte’s popularity in the United States and in Europe helped elevate dance as an expressive art in the early twentieth century. Indeed, Havelock Ellis, a sexologist, Fabian socialist, and freethinker, described dance as the most elemental and essential form of art. The theory of metakinesis, developed by John Martin, the most influential American dance critic of his day, suggested dance’s uniquely expressive properties: “Because of the inherent contagion of bodily movement, which makes the onlooker feel sympathetically in his own musculature the exertions he sees in somebody else’s musculature, the dancer is able to convey through movement the most intangible emotional experience.” Such understandings of kinesthesia, and its relationship to empathy, suggest that the “qualitative dimensions” of bodily movement—“the kind of flow, tension, and timing of any given action as well as the ways in which any person’s movement interacts and interrelates with objects, events, and other people”—are elemental components for the expression and comprehension of revolutionary desire.

Modern dance is often described as a feminist form, “pioneered by women” in the early twentieth century. While ballet typically featured women performing dances created by men, modern dance most often featured female choreographers and dancers. Moreover, the reliance in modern dance on improvisation and the loose, flowing costumes challenged older models of spectatorship that made the dancer more an object of spectacle rather than a powerful subject. Isadora Duncan had predicted “the dancer of the future” as early as 1903: “The free spirit, who will inhabit the body of new women; more glorious than any woman that has yet been; more beautiful than…all women in past centuries: The highest intelligence in the freest body.” This dancer of the future—implicitly Isadora herself—dancing a self of her own creation, unashamed of her body or her sexual urges, revealing, as lyrical leftist Floyd Dell put it, “the goodness of the whole body,” powerfully embodied the promise of the new Soviet woman for cultural rebels in the United States. To physically move in ways that expressed a revolutionary ethos could be tremendously liberating; for this reason alone dancers from the United States felt drawn to the Soviet Union where they could experience and attempt to embody that ethos. They also had the precedent of Isadora Duncan’s Russian days to follow.

Duncan had been influential in Russia as well as the United States before the revolution; her work and her very persona represented the utopian “Dionysian ecstasy” that fit especially well with Russian “prewar aesthetic ideals.” In the years following the revolution, “dance schools and studios grew like mushrooms after a warm rain,” many of them run by dancers trained in Duncan technique. Duncan, it is said, “danced [her] personality into the soul of Russia.” Still, although Duncan never renounced her years in Bolshevik Russia, they were marked by disappointments. She charted a rocky path in the Soviet Union that several modern dancers would follow, unconsciously or consciously.


“She was our symbol,” one of Duncan’s contemporaries declared, “the symbol of a new art, a new literature, a new national polity, a new life.” Duncan popularized the idea of dance as a gateway to the soul. Inspired equally by ideas of ancient Greek dance and rhythms of nature, Duncan “sought a liberated way of moving that would express a range of emotions. Although her choreography was simple, based on walking, skipping, and running, those steps, combined with pantomimic gestures, a highly expressive face, eloquent stillness, and personal charisma made an extraordinary impact on the audiences of her day.” She used plain sets (usually nothing more than a blue curtain) and most often danced to symphonic music solo (but never alone, she would say, for she claimed to embody the collective).

Though born in San Francisco in 1877 or 1878, Duncan lived for extended periods in Germany, Greece, France, England, and Soviet Russia. She was at once an American in the spirit of Walt Whitman and a citizen of the world. She embraced free expression and pioneered a worldwide revolution in dance. Duncan had little interest in politics per se, but she thought of herself as a revolutionary. “I have constantly danced the Revolution and the call to arms of the oppressed,” she insisted, linking “dancing revolution” to performing the essence of the liberated self. She claimed that her sympathies had turned toward the “downtrodden” when, on her first visit to Saint Petersburg, she witnessed a nighttime funeral cortege for victims of the January 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre, which sparked the failed 1905 revolution. Twelve years later, “on the night of the Russian Revolution I danced with a terrible fierce joy,” she recalled. “My heart was bursting within me at the release of all those who had suffered, been tortured, died in the cause of Humanity.”

After dancing “the ‘Marseillaise’ in the real revolutionary spirit in which it was composed,” she performed what has been called the first “revolutionary dance,” to Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, enacting the Russian people’s movement from oppression to liberation. She hailed the Bolshevik revolution several months later as “the birth of the future international community of love. A new world, a newly created mankind; the destruction of the old world of class injustice, and the creation of a new world of equal opportunity.” Duncan aimed to bring her dance, “a high religious art,” to this new mecca, where her “dancer of the future” could help fulfill “the ideals of the new world.”


On her tours through prerevolutionary Russia, Duncan tapped into and came to embody the popular spirit of rebellion during Russia’s Silver Age (late 1890s–late 1910s), a period marked by an outpouring of creativity in the visual arts, literature, and performing arts comparable to the Golden Age of Russian literature (1810s–1830s). Her ideas and work drew on influences that likewise fed the Russian revolutionary spirit, most notably Nietzsche’s philosophy, but she herself had a tremendous impact on Russia’s intellectual and artistic avant-garde. In Silver Age Russia, “Duncan’s ideas appealed to all who went against obsolete traditions, old standards. The free movements of a body liberated from restraint, her constant reaching upwards, represented a chance to form emancipated individuals.”

Sergei Diaghilev said Duncan’s first performances in Saint Petersburg and Moscow “gave an irreparable jolt to the classic ballet of Imperial Russia.” And Michel Fokine felt Isadora embodied the idea of a dance that was expressive, “the poetry of motion.” Vsevolod Meyerhold was “moved to tears” the first time he saw Duncan perform. And Konstantin Stanislavsky said Isadora had found the “creative motor” he had so long been seeking. Other Russian critics emphasized the “revolution in choreographic art” she had initiated, in part by exposing her feet and legs, thus revealing the false conceits of the contemporary ballet. The few negative comments about her “coarse sensuality” seem only to confirm the idea that failure to appreciate Duncan’s dancing was a marker of decadence.

Isadora Duncan and the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, whom she married in 1922.

Duncan’s popularity in Russia in the decades leading up to the Bolshevik revolution was tied to Silver Age Russians’ attraction to plyaska, or movement that “celebrates freedom from the prohibitions imposed by the repressive authorities of the official culture,” in contrast to tanets, which usually refers to ballet, ballroom, and other more scripted forms. Indeed, “one cannot ‘perform’ plyaska, one can only give oneself to it as one gives oneself to passion or ecstasy.” Plyaska connotes wholeness, nature, collectivity, and freedom from repressive authority, which “found its embodiment in Duncan and her dance.” Isadora’s expressiveness filled a popular yearning for authentic experience to counter a morally bankrupt society.

Duncan made much of the notion that her introduction to Russia coincided with the events of Bloody Sunday, though her initial performances in Saint Petersburg actually came before that day. In her autobiography she marvels:

How strange it must have been to those dilettantes of the gorgeous ballet, with its lavish decorations and scenery, to watch a young girl, clothed in a tunic of cobweb, appear and dance before a simple blue curtain to the music of Chopin; dance her soul as she understood the soul of Chopin! Yet even for the first dance there was a storm of applause. My soul that yearned and suffered the tragic notes of the Preludes; my soul that aspired and revolted to the thunder of the Polonaises; my soul that wept with righteous anger, thinking of the martyrs of that funeral procession of the dawn; this soul awakened in that wealthy, spoilt, and aristocratic audience, a response of stirring applause. How curious!

During her 1904–1905 tours, she met the ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, the great costume designer and artist Leon Baskt, Diaghilev, and other prominent cultural figures. On her second tour, in 1908, she met Stanislavsky, with whom she formed a deep connection. Duncan began visiting Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre any evening that she was not dancing herself. One night, she went up to Stanislavsky, placed her “hands on his shoulders and entwine[d] them about his strong neck,” and proceeded to kiss him on the lips. Stanislavsky returned Duncan’s kiss, but then drew back and, looking at her with “consternation, exclaimed, ‘But what should we do with the child?’ ‘What child?’ ” she asked. “Why, our child, of course.”

Isadora’s union with Russia’s artistic and intellectual avant-garde would in fact produce many children. In addition to the dance studios she inspired, Duncan also had a transformative effect on flesh-and-blood children, both those she taught and those she influenced through her example. Young Stefanida Rudneva (1890–1989) and several teenaged friends, for instance, moved by Duncan’s early performances, formed the dance group, school, and commune Heptachor (“Dance of Seven” in Greek).

Seeing Duncan dance convinced Rudneva—who had no dance training—that she “could no longer be the same person.” It was her mission in life to dance. She and her friends began having “ ‘white gatherings,’ where, dressed in tunics, they improvised to piano accompaniment, to their own singing or to ‘inner music.’ It gave them ‘the feeling of catharsis’ and . . . ‘protected them from flirtatiousness’: from a superficial, petty relationship with life.” In halting English the seventeen-year-old Rudneva wrote to Duncan in 1907, “I have seen you 3 times and from the first moment I saw you I thought: ‘this is what I looked for, this is what I dreamt about!’ When you first came out a new world appeared before me…I was like one in a dream. I could not speak, I only longed to look at you and to feel in my heart all of your genial beauty.” Duncan represented the possibility of another life: “For see—our land is so miserable, our life is full of such dreadful reality, that every moment of forgetfulness for us is much more than you may think it is. That is why every one of us, who are tired and suffering, love you and thank you for your art, for your beauty.”

Duncan remained Heptachor’s principal inspiration. In 1934, when Soviet authorities shut down nearly all avenues of expression not seen to be properly embodying the ideal of socialist realism, Heptachor nonetheless helped perpetuate the legacy of Duncan’s work, through published writings and through Rudneva’s students, and their students, whose work continues to this day (an Isadora Duncan Museum is Saint Petersburg is perhaps the most visible manifestation of Duncan’s legacy).


Reprinted with permission from American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream by Julia L. Mickenberg. Published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2017 the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.