Isadora Duncan in Greece

The articles in South‘s Domino section function like a domino game, inviting us to follow the paths of some of the main actors in the cultural history of the southern part of Europe, and beyond. Altogether, they will form a possible cartography of the South and the artistic, political or philosophical initiatives that shaped it

by Florence Derieux

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Isadora Duncan Dancing
Photo by Arnold Genthe, created/published between 1916 and 1942


This is an excerpt from Isadora Duncan’s autobiography, My Life (1927). She recalls her family’s arrival and stay in Greece in 1904. 

In Patras a real battle was fought in us whether we would go to Olympia or Athens, but in the end our eager anticipation to see the Parthenon prevailed, and we took the train to Athens. We crossed a brighter Hellas. Sometimes we could see the summit of Olympus covered with snow, sometimes we were surrounded by nymphs and dancing hamadryads came from olive trees groves. Our joy knew no bounds. Often our emotions were so violent that in order to express them, we only knew to embrace in tears. The heavy peasants were watching us in amazement in the small train stations. They probably thought we were drunk or crazy, when we were only excited by the expectation of the highest and brightest of wisdom, by the expectation of blue-eyed Athena.

We arrived that evening in Athens crowned with purple, and dawn found us trying to climb the steps of his temple, not the trembling, the failing heart of worship. As we climbed it seemed that all the life I had known until then stood out to me as a garment variegated, that I had never lived before, that I was born for the first time in this long breath of beauty, in this first contemplation. The sun rose behind the Pentelic, revealing his amazing clarity, the splendor of its marble sides which sparkled under the first rays of day. We climbed the last step of the Propylaea and we admired the temple shining in the morning light. By tacit agreement, we were staying silent, each of us was alone in front of Beauty! The time was too sacred to be expressed in words. It filled our hearts with a strange terror. No more cheers, no more embraces. Each of us had discovered his worship, and we remained for a long time immersed in meditation where we went out as weakened and undermined. I often wonder why mortals who have reached such heights must come down. Why cannot we be transformed by some magic into Temple priests and remain forever in the divine service of clear-eyed Athena, to gain wisdom by ecstasy?

We were now all together, my mother and her four children. We decided that the clan was sufficient in itself, that other people only had us deviate from our ideal. It also seemed, in contemplating the Parthenon, that we had reached the pinnacle of perfection. We wondered why we should now leave Greece, as we find in Athens everything we needed to satisfy our aesthetic sense. It is surprising that after all my success, after my passionate interlude of Budapest, I had no desire to retrace my steps. When I was a party to this pilgrimage, I was not looking for any spiritual, and it seemed that the spirit I was looking for was the invisible goddess Athena who lived in the ruins of the Parthenon. We decided that the clan Duncan would remain forever in Athens, and it would build a temple that would mark our genius. […]

Athens was then, as usual, in revolution. This time the revolution was based on a difference of opinion between the royal family and students, on the question of whether we should give a version in Greek tragedy or a modern version of ancient Greek. Crowds of students marched through the streets with banners in favor of ancient Greek. The day we returned to Kopamos, they surrounded our car, we cheered our coats and asked us to join in their procession, which we did gladly for love of ancient Hellas. That day was organized representation at the municipal theater by students. The ten boys and the Greek Byzantine seminarian, all dressed in flowing tunics and colorful, sang the chorus in Aeschylus’ ancient Greek, and I danced. A delirious joy broke out among students. […]

When these various events took place, I discovered that our bank account was nearly depleted. I remember that during the night after the royal representation, I could not sleep, and at dawn I went alone on the Acropolis. I entered the theater of Dionysus and I danced. I felt that this was the last time. So I climbed the Propylaea, and standing, I contemplated the Parthenon. Suddenly it seemed that all our dreams burst like shiny soap bubbles and that we were not, we could not be anything but modern.



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