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Dance - The Romantic Revolution

( Originally Published 1924 )



There are few people who are complete in any one direction. The statesman hesitates at a measure that will wreck his political organisation, unless he is a complete statesman. The yachts-man will lose a race to pick up a man overboard, unless he is an unscrupulous or complete racing fiend. A corporation manager who disregards every consideration except his end may be a law-breaker, but before that he is a complete business man. Cromwell and Luther were complete reformers. Most people in the arts are incomplete artists, because they hesitate to depart from accepted means of expression. They cripple impulse with logic, and accommodate their course more or less to other people's opinions. Noverre was a complete stage director. Isadora Duncan is a complete disciple of beauty.

Beauty in all its natural manifestations is her religion. Waves and clouds and running water, the nude body and its natural movements are the tokens by which it is revealed to her. Its high priests, by her creed, were the Greeks of old. And, conversely, all other priests are false. In the soul afire with a cause there is no room for adjustment of points of view; such adjustments bear the form of compromise. That which is not right is wrong—not even partly right, but hopelessly, damnably wrong. A state of mind exactly as it should be in a person with an idea, and exactly as it must be if he is going to carry the idea to fruition.

Miss Duncan is not in attunement with the ballet, and never was. She is a worshipper of nature; not as translated into abstract terms, but as nature is, as revealed in the waves and clouds and running water. If she were a leader in a logical controversy instead of, one of taste, it would be in order to question how she tolerates modern music, instead of insisting on a reversion to the music of the winds in the trees; for certainly the piano is no less a man-made convention than the dancer's position sur la Pointe, and orchestration is far from the sounds of nature. But the controversy is not an affair of logic, and it follows that any question prompted by logical considerations becomes illogical, automatically. The point at issue is that Miss Duncan, complete disciple of beauty, is a complete opponent of beauty expressed otherwise than in the way revealed to her. Again, lest this analysis bear any resemblance to criticism, let it be affirmed that her attitude is exactly as it should be in relation to her destiny.

At an early age she was fascinated by the representations of dancing to be found on Greek ceramics, and in Tanagra and other figures. A work of art means many things to many people. What Miss Duncan saw in the early representations was a direct and perfect ex-, pression of nature. Among other elements, she noted in them a full acknowledgment of the law of gravity, which is an obviously natural quality. Now, Miss Dun-can's essay The Dance shows in her mind not the first stirrings of a question as to whether gravity may not be an unfortunate mortal limitation. On the contrary, it is natural, therefore right. Therefore the ballet, in denying gravity, is wrong. The Greeks. usually danced without shoes; bare went the feet of Miss Duncan.

Let it not be supposed that her ideal contemplated an imitation of natural actions, or had any relation to realism. Natural qualities, not actions, she proposed to interpret, not imitate, by means of natural movements. That is at least the inference pointed by the essay referred to, confirmed by her work. "Natural movements" would be defined, if the same process of inference may be followed, as movements whose execution are possible by a normal body without special training. From this it does not follow that uncultivated movements would be acceptable by the terms of the proposition. To raise an arm is a natural movement, hence acceptable to this code. To learn to raise it gracefully, a Duncanite would need to put in just as much time and thought as a ballet student, standards of grace being equal. It does, however, follow that any gravity-defying step would be unacceptable by the terms of the proposition. Without special training it cannot be executed, badly, or at all; which, from the Duncan point of view, would throw it into the class of unnatural movements.

To fix the meaning of the idea of interpreting natural qualities, nothing better can be done than to quote a paragraph of Miss Duncan's own words: "These flowers before me contain the dream of a dance; it could be named: `The light falling on white flowers.' A dance that would be a subtle translation of the light and the whiteness—so pure, so strong, that people would say, `It is a soul we see moving, a soul that has reached the light and found the whiteness. We are glad it should move so.' Through its human medium we have a satisfying sense of the movement of light and glad things. Through this human medium, the movement of all nature runs also through us, is transmitted to us from the dancer. We feel the movement of light intermingled with the thought of whiteness. It is a prayer, this dance, each movement reaches in long undulations to the heavens and becomes a part of the eternal rhythm of the spheres."

Fifteen years ago a creed of interpreting qualities in the manner above indicated, by means of dancing, was quite as alien to the United States as was the Greek costume that left the legs uncovered and the feet unshod. The costume probably was as surprising on the stage then as it would be in a ballroom now. And tight there comes in the complete artist. Miss Dun-can knew she was right, and she went ahead. Perhaps she anticipated the snickers with which a new idea is usually greeted; more likely she was sublimely heed-less of immediate effects.

It was in 1899, or thereabout, that she gave a recital in the little theatre of a dramatic school in Chicago, before an audience principally of dramatic students, painters and sculptors. After the performance, which took place in the morning, the painters and sculptors unconsciously grouped themselves into informal committees to exchange verdicts. The general conclusion —arrived at after hours of acrimonious argument, in most cases--was that the young woman had an idea, but that clairvoyancy was required to understand it. At that time, it should be added, Miss Duncan was far from mature in grace, surety or any other of the technical qualities; and her art, naive though it be, has its technical requirements just as surely as any other art.

It is now necessary to transfer attention to certain people whose path and Miss Duncan's were beginning to converge.

In Russia the ballet is as definitely a ward of the government: as the army is. No more carefully are candidates for a national military academy selected than are applicants for admission to the Imperial Ballet Academy.

Those admitted are cared for as though each were an heir to the throne, given an all-round art education that could not be duplicated anywhere else in the world, and rigourously drilled in dancing six days a week for seven or eight years. As they qualify for it, they appear on occasion in the corps de ballet of the Imperial Opera, dear to the hearts of nobility and a theatre-going public. By the terms of agreement with the government, they are assured employment at specified pay for a specified number of years in the ballet, after which they retire on a pension. The pay is not high, but with it is an assured career and an honourable one, and a likelihood of considerable emolument through instruction, imperial gifts and government favours. Withal a thing not lightly to be thrown away.

Like their contemporaries in Paris and Vienna, the people of St. Petersburg and Moscow (homes of the two Imperial Opera Houses and of the two arms of the Academy) were dissatisfied with their ballet. Beyond the vague charge of lack of interest they could' not analyse their complaint. They were puzzled. Training more careful than that given in their Academy could not be. Nor was any school of the dance superior to the composite French-Italian on which the Russian ballet was based. Each detailed objection was answered; yet a decided majority agreed that something was wrong.

Miss Duncan, rightly believing that Europe was more attentive than America to a new idea, had left her native land after a period of neither success nor failure in any pronounced degree. She had interested Paris, startled Berlin, and set Vienna into a turmoil of wrangling. St. Petersburg waited, with interest aroused by echoes from Vienna.

Before the end of the St. Petersburg performance, M. Mikail Fokine, a director in the Academy, had not only declared. Miss Duncan a goddess, as he had a perfect right to; he, with others, had invited her to give a special performance in the Academy, and that was against the rules.

The special performance was given; the Romantic Rebellion dates from that hour. In no time at all the secessionists were a body including some of the ablest of both masters and pupils.

With Miss Duncan's technical limitations or virtuosity they were not concerned. What she brought them was the vision of the ballet now known to the world as Russian. To lost pensions and the certain displeasure of a firm-handed government they gave no heed. They were complete idealists, bent on a big purpose. Of the stories of that secession that we have had from various participants, not one shows the faintest reflection that any of the band thought of the possible sacrifice of his career. They were not estimating material prospects. They simply saw the vision of something that looked better to them than the art they had known; into the path indicated by that vision they turned without vacillation, and without emotion save enthusiasm.

With the fact that they were the advance guard of a movement that was about to assume a significance equal to that of the Barbizon School in painting and of Victor Hugo in literature, these Russians—boys and girls in age, most of them—were as supremely unconcerned as were Adam and Eve with the destiny of the race of which they were founders. To a group of in-complete artists the epic romance of the thing would have appealed, and there would have resulted columns and reams of print to tell about the inspiration, and all the rest of it. In the consciousness of these Russians —and make no mistake, most of them are alert, intellectually vigourous people—there was no concern about their own value as figures in a romance. They were filled with the excitement accompanying the possibility of radically improving their work.

Spontaneously the pieces of the new structure came together. To M. Fokine the group looked as head. In him they had a choreographer of the highest order, with the imagination of an epic poet. Nijinski and Bolm were prominent men of the group; heading the list of women were Mlles. Pavlowa, Lopoukowa, and Karsavina. As a matter of exact history, Mr. Joseph Mandelkern points out to us that the enlistment of Mordkin, Volinine and other important recruits occurred somewhat later; being in the Moscow arm of the school, their first receipt: of the romantic impulse was connected with Miss Duncan's appearance in Moscow, which occurred after the St. Petersburg engagement. The secession at Moscow was largely a repetition of the occurrences at St. Petersburg.

The new cause gained, without delay, the alliance of the musical composers, Glazounov, Rimski-Korsakov. Tcherepnin, and others of stature little less.

Among the forces most important in contribution to the new-born art, moreover, was Leon Bakst, the decorator. M. Bakst, for a number of years, had enjoyed a high and steadily improving position in his craft; he had been variously honoured, he had executed responsible commissions to the satisfaction of every one—with the possible exception of himself. In a comparatively recent interview he is quoted as saying —in effect—that he believed that the function of a painter was to express emotion rather than to record fact. Taking as an instance an architectural sketch before him, .he said that if a change of certain classic architectural proportions would add impressiveness, he would not hesitate to make the necessary changes. In other words, he regarded fact as material and not as an object to be recorded for its own sake. SO it may be inferred that his success in rather conservative decoration, notwithstanding that it did not lack the note of individuality, was not satisfying to him.

For material for new compositions in which the new creed could be exploited, ballet-master, musician and painter turned unanimously to the legendary lore of Russia and Persia, the intervening land of the Caucasus, and the near-by realm of Egypt. Strange new plots they found; plots of savagery, passion, and mystery. While dancers translated lofty motives into choral and solo steps, musicians worked with mad zeal to render them into tone and tempo. New music was composed, old was seized with avid hand and pounded into its appointed place in the new romantic structure. Bakst—and other painters allied with him—revelled, now in a deep and ominous palette that should spell mystery, again in ardent and seemingly impossible harmonies that sang wild opulence.

In short, the secessionists had attained to a point that marked nothing less, and something more, than a re-creation of the mimetic drama of the best days of Athens. They had achieved that at which the early patrons of opera had consciously but unsuccessfully aimed. The Russian achievement is not to be measured except by a glance back into history.

In the great spaces of the Greek outdoor theatres, actors found their voices inadequate. In consequence, we must accept as essentially true the belief that dramatic representation underwent a more or less definite division into two forms. One body, complying with the world-old demand for explanatory statement to accompany dramatic action, adopted a device to magnify the voice; that device was a small megaphone, concealed by means of a mask. To the unimaginative audience, the resulting falsification of the voice was not objectionable. That species. of audience, to this day, is deaf and blind to the message of quality or to delight in it. Its interest centres on narrative and it welcomes diagrammatic aid to its understanding of that narrative. The mask, therefore, was rather satisfying than otherwise to the patrons of the drama that it typified. In labelling character, it was a boon to the intellectually toothless; to whom, moreover, its immobility of expression would not be offensive. That the spoken drama was the popular form, the mimo-drama the aristocrat, seems an unavoidable inference.

To artists and audience versed in the language of symbol, as opposed to imitation; of suggestion, as op-posed to diagram; of abstraction, as opposed to material fact—to such performers and connoisseurs the vastness of stage and auditorium presented no inconvenience whatever. To both performer and auditor, the eloquence of pose, step and gesture was sufficient. Indeed, we may suppose that they regarded the spoken word as limiting, rather than amplifying, the meaning of the action it accompanied. The high-heeled cothurnus the pantomimist avoided, for the sake of perfect freedom of foot. To him was open the full resource of facial expression, posture and dance. All of these means, in whole or in part, were denied the wearer of mask and cothurnus.

Rome, consistent with its own level of artistic mentality, chose the less imaginative of the Greek forms. It follows that Greek popular drama is identical with the so-called classic Roman drama.

When the originators of opera set themselves, in the seventeenth century, to the task of recreating a classic form, it is a matter of record that they turned to Rome for their model.

Thus, in availing themselves of advances in the arts of music, scenery and costume, both opera and ballet have strayed from pure classic tradition. And there is no harm in that, per se. But a point to be most strongly emphasised is this: that the Russian ballet has re-created, in its essence, the best of classic drama.

Employment of the full eloquence of step, pose and facial expression, without the restriction that the spoken word imposes upon meaning—that is the paramount distinction of the Russian ballet's dramatic form. Hardly second in importance is its independence of elaborate stage mechanism as a means to effects. The first opera busied. itself with mechanical contrivances to an extent that was commented upon—with amusement—by writers in its time. How far its originators were justified in believing that they had re-created a great classic form needs no further comment. That the Russians, searching for the great fundamentals of art, devised a form practically coincidental with that accepted by the best intelligence of the best period of Athens, is a chapter of dramatic history whose importance is not likely to be exaggerated.

We left the secessionists, on an earlier page, in the position of having defied a strong-handed government. In this crisis, M. Sergius Diagilew enters the narrative, not as an artist, but as one of art's indispensable allies. He it was who, some years before, had arranged the exhibitions that first acquainted western Europe and America with modern Russian painting. When the rift occurred in the Ballet Academy, M. Diagilew, by virtue of experience and sympathies, was the one man to per-form certain needed diplomatic services in the interest of the rebels. Their situation lacked little of being politically serious. M. Diagilew performed the felicitous miracle of turning a fault into a virtue.

To proper government authorities he outlined a plan which in itself deserves a place in diplomatic history. "Contract-breakers these people are," he admitted, "and on a par with deserters from the army. But in-stead of punishing them, have another suggestion.

"They have created a new and great art. Their combined work represents a greater expression than any living man has seen, perhaps the finest thing of its kind that ever has existed in the world.

"Europe respects Russia for her force, not for her thought. Its common belief is that Russia is a nation of savages, because it has seen no purely Russian art that it would call great.

"My proposal is that these people be reinstated in the Opera and the Academy, that they be granted a long leave of absence, and that I be commissioned to arrange for them a season in Paris, as an exhibition of representative Russian art, sanctioned by the Russian government."

The capital necessary for a full equipment of costumes and scenery was provided by Baron Ginsberg. And there followed the first season of le Ballet Russe at the Chatelet Theatre, in 1909. Park, like every other progressive city in the world, was surfeited with plays that would better have been enclosed between the covers of books on law, sociology or medicine. Its ballet, though fighting valiantly against the effect that time works on old governments, old religions, old institutions, had settled into the ways of habit, and could no longer fire the mind or the imagination. As to all that miscellany of "musical comedies" that, with their concomitant novelties, were wallowing in a gaudy slough of despond ten years ago, Parisians had come to regard them as a highly improbable means even of amusement, leaving edification quite out of account.

The success of the Russians was assured from the first curtain. Here was something that conveyed a message of noble beauty, executed with the skill of the craftsman possessed of all that education can give, fired with enthusiastic genius. Above all, it was a thing that released thought from earth-bound conditions and, with the persuasion of its multiple beauty, invited it to roam the unlimited domain of poetry and magic.

Full appreciation required time, naturally. Here was a creation new in freedom of movement and pantomimic vocabulary: dressed in costumes never seen before; backed by scenery in colours never dreamed of, with a species of line-composition like an alien language; and accompanied by music of a type unfamiliar, to many individuals unknown. Wagnerian music to the unaccustomed ear is confusing as well as overpowering. The Russian ballet presented its equivalent in three different forms acting simultaneously.

The Russian ballet season is now one of the institutions of the French capital. The Russian government annually grants several months' leave of absence to the necessary number of artists, and Paris for several months crowds their performances. The annual in-crease in quantity and depth of thought bestowed upon them, as measured in magazine writings, indicates that public satisfaction with the organisation and its work has not yet found its limits.

The seasons of 1909-10 and 1910-11 found a small but admirable Russian ballet in the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Pavlowa, Lopoukowa, Mordkin, Volinine and Geltzer were of the number. They presented many divertissements in opera performances as well as a number of ballet pantomimes. As to their impression on the public, it is most briefly to be ex-pressed by calling attention to the fact that the dancing enthusiasm now strongly rooted in America dates directly back to these Russian ballet seasons in the Metropolitan Opera. Naturally, the public's lack of knowledge of the language of pantomime and choreography stood in the way of such an immediate "hit" as the same company had made in Paris. But in spite of incomplete understanding, New York was charmed from the first, and appreciation grew rapidly through the two seasons.

The contract was not renewed, nor has the Metropolitan Opera undertaken anything great in choreography since that time, in which it is probably right. Not-withstanding the popularity of the Russians, they did not increase box-office receipts commensurately with the heavy cost of salaries, transportation and incidental. expenses.

It is natural, when service is needed, to turn to those whose fitness for such service has been proven. But the opera company, by its service to music, has earned exemption from added responsibilities to art. Since its organisation, the stockholders' dividends have had the form of deficit statements every year until two years ago. Every year the stockholders wrote their checks to aggregate a quarter of a million dollars or more that opera cost in excess of its receipts. The past two years have turned the balance into the other column. If they chose to, the same set of gentlemen could, in a few years, put the ballet-drama on the same footing; but the sacrifice of money and effort is more than the public has a right to ask. Against appalling odds, the Metropolitan took up the cause of popularising opera. That the task proves other than a labour of love is due neither to skimping nor to lowering of standards, but to quite the contrary policy. The undertaking has succeeded; those connected with it are entitled to a period of enjoyment of their rewards. The American Academy of Dancing, when it is organised, is not morally their responsibility. For its own good, moreover, it had best be an independent organisation, with music definitely relegated to the secondary importance. As an auxiliary to music, the dance has not progressed as it should; only as the sole occupant o f one of the pedestals to which the great arts are entitled will it receive the attentive care that it deserves and needs. But this is anticipation of the matter of another chapter.

Since the Metropolitan engagement, Russian ballets have seldom been seen in America except under misrepresentative conditions. Not through intentions to misrepresent, but through tactical errors easily understood in the light of subsequent knowledge, they have been too often advertised in such terms as to prepare their audiences for sensationalism rather than art.

A company including some of the best dancers that Russia has produced was headed by a vaudeville per-former whose prominence proceeded from genius in imitations, and whose choreographic aspirations were based on two years (the programme confessed the period) of ballet study. It was believed that her name would be of service to the box-office; it was demonstrated that, by the standards of the supporting company, she was not a dancer. So she did not dance. Obviously, the function of subordinates is to be subordinate; so, perforce, they did not dance, either. People who came expecting to see great things inevitably felt that the Russian ballet was, to say the least, an overrated institution. A con-sequence even more unfortunate is that many managers draw, from this hapless alliance and its consequences, the deduction that Americans do not like high-class dancing.



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