The Dance of the Future
March 5, 1903 — Berlin Press Association, Architectenhaus, Berlin, Germany
I am asked to speak upon the “Dance of the Future”, — yet how is it possible? In fifty years I may have something to say. Besides, I have always found it indiscreet for me to speak on my dance. The people who are in sympathy with me understand what I am trying to do better than myself, the people who are not in sympathy, understand better than I why they are not.
A woman once asked me why I dance with bare feet and I replied, “Madam, I believe in the religion of the beauty of the human foot” — and the lady replied, “But I do not,” and I said, “Yet you must, Madam, for the expression and intelligence of the human foot is one of the greatest triumphs of the evolution of man”. “But”, said the lady, “I do not believe in the evolution of man.”’ At this said I, “My task is at an end. I refer you to my most revered teachers Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Ernest Haeckel” — “But”, said the lady, “I do not believe in Darwin and Haeckel” —. At this point I could think of nothing more to say. So you see, that to convince people, I am of little value and ought not to speak.
But, I am brought from the seclusion of my study trembling and stammering before a public and told to lecture on the dance of the future.
If we seek the real source of the dance, if we go to nature, we find that the dance of the future is the dance of the past, the dance of eternity and has been and will always be the same.
The movement of waves, of winds, of the earth is ever in the same lasting harmony. We do not stand on the beach and inquire of the ocean what was its movement of the past and what will be its movement in the future. We realize that the movement peculiar to its nature is eternal to its nature. The movement of the free animals and birds remains always in correspondence to their nature, the necessities and wants of that nature and its correspondence to the earth nature. It is only when you put free animals under false restrictions that they loose [sic] the power of moving in harmony with nature and adopt a movement expressive of the restrictions placed about them. So it has been with civilized man. The movements of the Savage, who lived in freedom in constant touch with Nature were unrestricted, natural and beautiful. Only the movements of the naked body can be perfectly natural. Man, arrived at the end of civilization, will have to return to nakedness, not to the unconscious nakedness of the savage, but to the conscious and acknowledged nakedness of the mature Man, whose body will be the harmonious expression of his spiritual being.
And the movements of this Man will be natural and beautiful like those of the free animals.
The movement of the universe concentrating in an individual becomes what is termed the will; for example, the movement of the earth, being the concentration of surrounding forces, gives to the earth its individuality, its will of movement; as creatures of the earth, receiving in turn these concentrating forces in their different relations, as transmitted to them through their ancestors and to those by the earth, in themselves evolve the movement of individuals which is termed the will.
The dance should simple be then the natural-gravitation of this will of the individual, which in the end is no more or no less than a human translation of the gravitation of the universe.
— It is noticed that I speak in the terms and views of Schopenhauer. His terms are more convenient for what I intend to express. —
The school of the ballet to-day vainly striving against the natural laws of gravitation or the natural will of the individual, and working in discord in its form and movement with the form and movement of nature, produces a sterile movement which gives no birth to future movements but dies as it is made.
The expression of the modern school of ballet wherein each action is an end, and no movement, pose, or rythm [sic] is successive or can be made to evolve succeeding action, is an expression of degeneration, of living death. All the movements of our modern ballet school are sterile movements because they are unnatural, their purpose is, to create the delusion that the law of gravitation does not exist for them.
The primary or fundamental movements of the new school of the dance must have within them the seeds from which will evolve all other movements, each in turn to give birth to other in unending sequence of still higher and greater expressions, thoughts and ideas.
To those who nevertheless still enjoy the movements from historical or coreographic [sic] or whatever other reasons, to those I answer: They see no farther than do the skirts and tricots. But look — under the skirts, under the tricots are dancing deformed muscles. — Look still farther — underneath the muscles are deformed bones; a deformed skeleton is dancing before you. This deformation through incorrect dress and incorrect movement is the result of the training necessary to the ballet.
The ballet condemns itself by enforcing the deformation of the beautiful woman’s body! No historical , no coreographic [sic] reasons can prevail against that!
It is the mission of all art to express the highest and most beautiful ideals of man. What ideal does the ballet epress? [sic]
No — the dance was once the most noble of all arts — and it shall be again. From the great depth to which it has fallen it shall be raised. The dancer of the future shall attain so great a height that all other arts shall be helped thereby.
To express what is the most moral, healthful and beautiful in art — this is the mission of the dancer, and to this I dedicate my life.
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 ondulations [sic] to the heavens and becomes a part of the eternal rythm [sic] of the spheres.
To find those primary movements for the human body from which shall evolve the movements of the future dance in ever variating natural unending sequences, that is the duty of the new dancer of to day.
To give an example of this, we might take the pose of the Hermes of the Greeks. He is represented as flying on the wind. If the artist had pleased to post his foot in a vertical position he might have done so, as the god, flying on the wind, is not touching the earth; but realizing that no movement is true unless suggesting sequence of movements the sculptor placed the Hermes with the ball of his foot resting on the wind, giving the movement an eternal quality.
In the same way I might make examples of each pose and gesture in the thousands of figures we have left us on the Greek vases and bas reliefs; there is not one which in its movement does not presuppose another movement.
This is because the Greeks were the greatest students of the laws of nature, wherein all is the expression of unending ever increasing evolution, wherein are no ends and no stops.
Such movements will always have to depend on and correspond to the form that is moving. The movements of a beetle correspond to its form. So do those of the horse. Even so the movements of the human body must correspond to its form. They should even correspond to its individual form. The dance of no two persons should be alike.
People have thought that so long as one danced in rythm, [sic] the form and design did not matter; but no . . . one must perfectly correspond to the other. The Greeks understood this very well. One of our illustrations shows a dancing Cupid. It is a child’s dance. The movements of the plump little feet and arms are perfectly suited to its form. The sole of the foot rests flat on the ground, a position which might be ugly in a more developed person, but is natural in a child trying to keep its balance. One of the legs is half raised: if it were outstretched it would irritate us, because the movement would be unnatural. The satyr in the next illustration shows a dance that is quite different from that of the Cupid. His movements are those of a ripe and muscular man. They are in perfect harmony with the structure of his body.
The Greeks in all their painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, dance and tragedy evolved their movements from the movement of nature, as we plainly see expressed in all representations of the Greek gods, who, being no other than the representatives of natural forces, are always designed in a pose expressing the concentration and evolution of these forces. This is why the art of the Greeks is not a national or characteristic art but has been and will be the art of all humanity for all time.
Therefore dancing naked upon the earth I naturally fall into Greek positions, for Greek positions are only earth positions.
The noblest in art is the nude. This truth is recognized by all, and followed by painters, sculptors and poets; only the dancer has forgotten it, who should most remember it as the instrument of her art is the human body itself.
Man’s first conception of beauty is gained from the form and symmetry of the human body. The new school of the dance should be that movement which is in harmony with and will develop the highest form of the human body.
I intend to work for this dance of the future. I do not know whether I have the necessary qualities: I may have neither genius, not talent, nr temperament, but I know that I have a Will; and will and energy is sometimes greater than either, genius or talent or temperament.
Let me anticipate all that can be said against my qualifications for my work in the following little fable:
The Gods looked down through the glass roof of my studio and Athena said: “She is not wise, she is not wise, in fact, she is remarkably stupid”.
And Demeter looked and said, — “She is a weakling small thing — not like my deep-breasted daughters who play in the fields of Eleusis; one can see each rib, she is not worthy to dance on my broad-wayed Earth”. And Iris looked down and said: “See how heavily she moves — does she guess nothing of the swift and gracious movement of a winged being?” And Pan looked and said “What, does she think she knows ought of the movements of my satyrs, splendid twyhorned fellows who have within them all the fragrant life of the woods and waters.” And then Terpsichore gave one scornful glance: “And — she calls that dancing! Why, her feet move more like the lazy steps of a deranged turtle”.
And all the Gods laughed: but I looked bravely up through the glass roof and said:
“O, ye imortal [sic] Gods who dwell in high Olympus and live on Ambrosia and Honey-Cakes and pay no studio rent nor bakers bills thereof, do not judge me so scornfully. It is true O, Athena that I am not wise, and my head is a rattled institution; but I do occasionally read the word of those who have gazed into the infinite blue of thine eyes and I bow my empty gourd head very humbly before thine altars. And, O, Demeter of the Holy Garland,” I continued, “it is true that the beautiful maidens of your broad-wayed earth would not admit me of their company: still I have thrown aside my sandals that my feet may touch your life-giving earth more reverently and I have had your sacred Hymn sung before the present day Barbarians and I have made them to listen and to find it good.
“And, O, Iris of the golden wings, it is true that mine is but a sluggish movement; — others of my profession have luted more violently against the laws of gravitation, from which laws, O, glorious one you are alone exempt. Yet the wind from your wings has swept through my poor earthly spirit and I have often brought prayers to your courage-inspiring image.
“And, O, Pan, you who were pitiful and gentle to simple Psyche in her wanderings, thing more kindly of my little attempts to dance in your woody places.
“And you most exquisite one, Terpsichore, send to me a little comfort and strength that I may proclaim your power on Earth during my life; and afterwards, in the shadowy Hades my wistful spirit shall dance dances better yet in thine honor —.” Then came the voice of Zeus the thunderer:
“Continue your way and rely upon the eternal justice of the immortal Gods: if you work well they shall know if it and be pleased thereof.”
In this sense then I intend to work and if I could find in my dance a few or even one single position that the sculptor could transfer into marble so that it might be preserved, my work would not have been in vain; this one form would be a gain; it would be a first step for the future. My intention is, in due time, to found a school, to build a theatre where a hundred little girls shall be trained in my art, which they in their turn will better. In this school I shall not teach the children to imitate my movements, but to make their own, I shall not force them to study certain definite movements, I shall help them to develop those movements which are natural to them. Whosoever sees the movements of an untaught little child cannot deny that its movements are beautiful. They are beautiful because they are natural to the child. Even so the movements of the human body may be beautiful in every stage of development so long as they are in harmony with that stage and degree of maturity which the body has attained. There will always be movements which are the perfect expression of that individual body and that individual soul: so we must not force it to make movements which are not natural to it but which belong to a school. An intelligent child must be astonished to find that in the ballet school it is taught movements contrary to all those movements which it would make of its own accord.
This may seem a question of little importance, a question of differing opinions on the ballet and the new dance. But it is a great question. It is not only a question of true art, it is a question of race, of the development of the female sex to beauty and health, of the return to the original strength and to natural movements of a woman’s body. It is a question of the development of perfect mothers and the birth of healthy and beautiful children. The dancing school of the future is to develop and to show the ideal form of woman. It will be as it were a museum of the living beauty of the period.
Travellers coming into a country and seeing the dancers should find in them that country’s ideal of the beauty of form and movement. But strangers who to-day come to any country and there see the dancers of the ballet school would get a strange notion indeed of the ideal of beauty in this country. More than that, dancing like any art of any time should reflect the highest point the spirit of mankind has reached in that special period. Does anybody think that the present day ballet school expresses this?
Why are its positions in such a contrast to the beautiful positions of the antique sculptures which we preserve in our museums and which are constantly represented to us as perfect models of ideal beauty? Or have our museums only been founded out of historical and archeological interest and not for the sake of the beauty of the objects which they contain?
The ideal of beauty of the human body cannot change with fashion but only with evolution. Remember the story of the beautiful sculpture of a Roman girl which was discovered under the reign of pope Innocent VIII and which by its beauty created such a sensation that the men thronged to see it and made pilgrimages to it as to a holy shrine, so that the pope, troubled by the movement which it originated, finally had it buried again.
And here I want to avoid a misunderstanding that might easily arise. From what I have said you might conclude that my intention is to return to the dances of the old Greeks or that I think that the dance of the future will be a revival of the antique dances or even of those of the primate tribes. No, the dance of the future will be a new movement, a consequence of the entire evolution which mankind has passed through. To return to the dances of the Greeks would be as impossible as it is unnecessary. We are not Greeks and cannot therefore dance Greek dances.
But the dance of the future will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks. For art which is not religious is not art, is mere merchandise.
The dancer of the future will be one whose body and soul have grown so harmoniously together that the natural language of the soul will have become the movement of the body. The dancer will not belong to a nation but to all humanity. She will dance not in the form of nymph, nor fairy, nor coquette but in the form of woman in it greatest and purest expression. She will realize the mission of woman’s body and the holiness of all its parts. She will dance the changing life of nature, showing how each part is transformed into the other. From all parts of her body shall shine radiant intelligence, bringing to the world the message of the thoughts and aspirations of thousands of women. She shall dance the freedom of woman. O, what a field is here awaiting her! Do you not feel that she is near, that she is coming, this dancer of the future? She will help womankind to a new knowledge of the possible strength and beauty of their bodies and the relation of their bodies to the earth nature and to the children of the future. She will dance the body emerging again from centuries of civilized forgetfulness, emerging not in the nudity of primitive man, but in a new nakedness, no longer at war with spirituality and intelligence, but joining itself forever with this intelligence in a glorious harmony.
This is the mission of the dancer of the future. O, do you not feel that she is near, do you not long for her coming as I do? Let us prepare the place for her. I would build for her a temple to await her. Perhaps she is yet unborn, perhaps she is now a little child, perhaps O, blissful — it may be my holy mission to guide her first steps, to watch the progress of her movements day by day until, far outgrowing my poor teaching, her movements will become godlike, mirrowing [sic] in themselves the waves, the winds, the movements of growing things, the flight of birds, the passing of clouds and finally the thought of man in his relation to the universe. O, she is coming, the dancer of the future: the free spirit, who will inhabit the body of new women; more glorious than any woman that has yet been; more beautiful than the Egyptian, than the Greek, the early Italian, than all woman in past centuries: The highest intelligence in the freest body!
Source: Der Tanz Der Zukunft, Eine Vorlesung (Leipzig: Eugen Diederichs) 1903, pp. 11-26. (Druck von Brietkopf & Härtel)
Also: The Dance, by Isadora Duncan, (Forest Press) 1909, pp. 11-28.
Also: The Art of the Dance, ed Sheldon Cheney (New York: Theatre Arts Books) 1969 pp. 54-63.