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  • Isadora Duncan in the 21st Century: Capturing the Art and Spirit of the Dancer’s Legacy by Andrea Mantell Seidell
  • Kirsten Pullen
Isadora Duncan in the 21st Century: Capturing the Art and Spirit of the Dancer’s Legacy. By Andrea Mantell Seidell. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016; pp. 272.

Isadora Duncan “moved from instinct, imagination, ideals, and inspiration” (16). Despite Duncan’s disavowal of specific dance training and technique, Andrea Mantell Seidel argues that her dances, methods, and techniques are systematic and repeatable, meaning that authentic Duncan dance continues to be practiced nearly a hundred years after her death. In fact, Seidel is herself a Duncan dancer, and her solo work and her tenure as artistic director of the Isadora Dance Ensemble is the research foundation for this book.

Seidel’s immersion in Duncan dance is responsible for its strengths and limitations. Most of her research is drawn from her work as a “fourth-generation” Duncan dancer. As is the case with Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Katherine Dunham—as well as drama teachers like Stanislavski—classroom techniques, as well as specific dancers, are transmitted kinesthetically in a chain of discipleship. Method, technique, training, and the dances themselves are passed from the original performer/choreographer to students, who in turn pass their knowledge to new students and performers, who continue to teach and perform themselves.

Therefore Seidel’s understanding of Duncan dance is based on Duncan’s own writings, but also depends very heavily on Julia Levien, a third-generation Duncan dancer who studied and performed with Duncan’s daughters Irma and Anna. This kind of kinesthetic research offers the promise of authenticity, but it affords little critical distance or contextualization. Even so, Seidel makes a persuasive case for a specific and reproducible Duncan technique, despite many critical and scholarly assumptions that Duncan’s dance was so personal and individually expressive that it did not have an internal system of movement or gesture, nor that it could be danced by others.

First, each chapter begins with a subjective description of a specific Duncan exercise, portion of a full dance, or a Duncan dance class. For example, she describes the opening moments of the Isadora Dance Ensemble’s recreation of Duncan’s Ave Maria, where she danced the part of the Mother:

Rising upwards to my knees, I raise my arms heavenward with palms uplifted in silent conversation with God. … I rise to standing again, this time in iconic relief with arms extended by my side. As memory can quickly pierce the heart, prayer and silent adoration dissolve into a contemplation of the sorrow of death. I am Mary. … My open cupped palms throb with empathic pain at the horrific thought of nails piercing through skin and bones.


This passage is useful for scholars and dancers researching the embodied experience of Duncan dance. More than a description of movement, it offers the emotional score necessary to successfully reproduce the Mother at the opening of Ave Maria. These chapter introductions provide a necessary embodied and expressive perspective on Duncan technique. Even those unfamiliar with Duncan, or modern dance in general, would be able to recreate many of the movements Seidel describes, albeit limited by their own body’s physical ability and emotional expressiveness. More importantly, these passages offer scholars, dancers, and students a visceral sense of Duncan dance in practice.

Second, Seidel closely and coherently describes several of Duncan’s dances, based on her own recreations. (She provides a short discussion of the problems of reconstruction and recreation to frame her work.) In addition to Ave Maria, Seidel focuses on Blessed Spirits (ca.1910) in order to explain Duncan’s use of images from Greek tragedy, myths, and art, as well as her understanding of group dance as indicative of Greek tragic choruses; solo dances set to Brahms, Chopin, and Gluck and the group dances The Strauss Waltzes (ca.1905–15) to demonstrate how music fueled Duncan’s choreography; Bacchanal (1903), a celebration of femininity, female sexuality, sensuality, and community; dances of maternal grief choreographed in the late 1910s that drew on Duncan’s own experience, as well as her ideas about universal femininity; and dances, choreographed in the...


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pp. 371-372
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