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Short-Term Research Fellows

Isadora Duncan and Her Collaborators

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Guest post by New York Public Library Short-Term Fellow Chantal Frankenbach, California State University, Sacramento

The American modern dancer Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) was one of the most acclaimed and influential artists of her time. Notorious for her romantic involvements with the likes of British theater critic Gordon Craig, German biologist Ernst Haeckel, and millionaire Paris Singer, Duncan also attracted artists and intellectuals as collaborators in her work as a dancer. These collaborations have a great deal to tell us of her wide-ranging ideas about the importance of dance art in modern culture and her enduring influence on the art of dance. In July and August 2016, with the support of a New York Public Library Short-Term Fellowship, I traveled to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in search of information on Duncan’s collaborations with two of her lesser-known collaborators: one a German archaeologist, the other a German-American orchestral conductor. The archaeologist, Adolf Furtwängler (1853–1907), came to know Duncan in 1904 after she had journeyed to Greece and then settled in Germany.  German sources report that he lectured at one of her concerts and supported her public campaign for clothing reform. As a well-known public figure, Furtwängler brought impressive credentials to bear on Duncan’s choreographic interpretations of ancient Greece and her campaign for less restrictive modern clothing. To add to the evidence from German sources, I hoped Furtwängler’s name might surface in the handwritten essays Duncan composed for speaking engagements in Munich and Berlin, or in lists of ticket holders for her concerts. While I found no mention of their work together in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division collections, important ancillary evidence of Duncan’s abiding interest in the archaeological remains of ancient Greece did appear in a collection of postcards she acquired in Greece and reportedly carried with her during her 1903–1904 tours of Germany. 

“Maenad in Frenzy,” from the postcard collection of Isadora Duncan. Irma Duncan Collection, MGZMC-Res. 23–183.
“Maenad in Frenzy,” from the postcard collection of Isadora Duncan. Irma Duncan collection of Isadora Duncan materials, 1914-1934, (S) *MGZMC-Res. 23, folder 183.

Further, her essays on the relationship between the ideals of ancient Greek movement, her own choreographic ideals, and modern clothing reform—found in the blue notebook she kept from 1902–1904—confirm the motivation for her artistic collaboration with Furtwängler. This notebook is one of two in the Irma Duncan collection of Isadora Duncan materials, 1914–1934 (materials saved by Duncan’s pupil and adopted daughter, Irma) and includes Isadora Duncan’s notes for numerous essays and speeches she gave during this time. 

Page from Isadora Duncan’s “Blue notebook,” (1902–1904). Irma Duncan collection of Isadora Duncan materials, 1914-1934, *MGZMC-Res. 23, folder 141.
Page from Isadora Duncan’s “Blue notebook,” (1902–1904).
Irma Duncan collection of Isadora Duncan materials, 1914-1934, *MGZMC-Res. 23, folder 141.

Duncan’s later collaboration with the German-American orchestra conductor Walter Damrosch (1862–1950) is well-documented in several of the Library’s collections, and offers exciting insights into her effort to bring dance up to the artistic level of European concert music. Damrosch first saw Duncan when she returned to the United States in 1908. In spite of her poor showing  at the Criterion Theater in New York that summer, Damrosch invited Duncan to perform with his New York Symphony Orchestra, giving the dancer a much-needed boost in prestige with New York audiences and critics. The impromptu agreement for their first set of concerts is written in Damrosch’s hand on New York Symphony Orchestra Fund stationary and signed by both. 

October 10, 1908 contract between Walter Damrosch and Isadora Duncan. Walter Damrosch papers, *MNY-Amer. (Damrosch, Walter), box 6.

October 10, 1908 contract between Walter Damrosch and Isadora Duncan. Walter Damrosch papers, *MNY-Amer. (Damrosch, Walter), box 6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 10, 1908 contract between Walter Damrosch and Isadora Duncan. Walter Damrosch papers, *MNY-Amer. (Damrosch, Walter), box 6.

A program saved in the Irma Duncan collection shows the equal billing Damrosch afforded his collaborator.  

Program for Duncan’s appearances with the New York Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Walther Damrosch, 1909. Isadora Duncan clippings, *MGZRC 78.
Program for Duncan’s appearances with the New York Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Walther Damrosch, 1909. Isadora Duncan clippings, *MGZRC 78.

Several other more official contracts in the Music Division’s Walter Damrosch papers stipulate the terms for a tour in which Duncan accompanied Damrosch and his orchestra throughout the Midwest in fall 1909. 

Damrosch’s interest in Duncan represents a notable departure from the well-established resistance to dance in elite musical circles, and an equally notable menace to his professional standing. Press releases and correspondence in the Library’s Walter Damrosch papers chronicle his struggle with allegations from American critics that he had “degraded” the New York Symphony Orchestra by putting this elite musical organization in the service of a dancer. Nonetheless, his steadfast support of Duncan’s endeavor offered an important precedent to future choreographers and conductors, and helped to propel dance into the forefront of the 20th-century performing arts.

The Damrosch papers contain further evidence of the conductor’s continuing interest in dance and in Duncan’s legacy. In 1932, Damrosch sought the help of Irma Duncan to stage a massive pageant-pantomime at Madison Square Garden for the benefit of the Musician’s Emergency Fund. This undertaking, titled “A Dream of Universal Peace,” brought Isadora Duncan’s never-realized dream of staging Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to reality. 

Playbill for “A Dream of Universal Peace,” January 25, 1933. Walter Damrosch papers, *MNY-Amer. (Damrosch, Walter), box 23.
"A Dream of Universal Peace," January 25, 1933. Walter Damrosch papers, *MNY-Amer. (Damrosch, Walter), box 23.

Damrosch’s correspondence and notes on this production offer a tantalizing look at how their alliance continued to resonate long after the dancer’s death.

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