Duncan Interprets Chopin in Her Russian Debut

Audiences were startled and inspired by Isadora Duncan’s first performance in Russia, in which she introduced a unique style of movement danced to the music of Frédéric Chopin.

Summary of Event

By 1904, Isadora Duncan was a riveting one-woman revolution in Europe in the art of the dance. Shamelessly rejecting traditional ballet, she shocked many conservative observers. Her style of movement, choice of music, scandalously scanty costume, and theories on dance, which she readily expounded, made her an object of acute interest. Her first performance in Russia in December, 1904, was no different. She startled and inspired those who witnessed her innovative program of dances to the music of Frédéric Chopin, Chopin, Frédéric including dancer-choreographer Michel Fokine and impresario Sergei Diaghilev. With these performances, Duncan emerged as a symbol of a new dance form in Russia, just as she was becoming in the West. Dance;modern
Modern dance;Isadora Duncan[Duncan]
Interpretive dance
Choreography;modern dance
[kw]Duncan Interprets Chopin in Her Russian Debut (Dec. 26, 1904)
[kw]Chopin in Her Russian Debut, Duncan Interprets (Dec. 26, 1904)
Modern dance;Isadora Duncan[Duncan]
Interpretive dance
Choreography;modern dance
[g]Russia;Dec. 26, 1904: Duncan Interprets Chopin in Her Russian Debut[01110]
[c]Dance;Dec. 26, 1904: Duncan Interprets Chopin in Her Russian Debut[01110]
[c]Music;Dec. 26, 1904: Duncan Interprets Chopin in Her Russian Debut[01110]
Duncan, Isadora
Fokine, Michel
Diaghilev, Sergei

Since first sailing from New York to London in 1899, Duncan had toured extensively in Europe. In each new place, she shared her theories of expressive dance and “natural” movement (as opposed to the “artificial” posturings of ballet) with initially intrigued and then adoring audiences. Her range of influence across Europe among the artistic and cultural elite was broad, as is evidenced by the prolific responses of critics and the fact that the concert halls in which she appeared were typically sold out for her performances. Indeed, her Russian debut on December 26 was met with such acclaim by St. Petersburg audiences that a second performance was added three days later.

Her arrival in St. Petersburg on the morning of December 25 followed a tearful parting from her new love interest, actor and stage designer Gordon Craig. Craig, Gordon Duncan and Craig had met earlier that month following one of her performances in Berlin. Instantly they discovered in each other a passionate soul mate, and for Duncan, separation from Craig on this Russian trip was torture. Nevertheless, she managed to rally enough to give an impressive performance.

Her concert, which took place in the elegant Salle des Nobles (Hall of Nobles), was a benefit for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Hosted by Grand Duchess Olga, sister of the czar, the event was assured patronage by St. Petersburg’s artistic, intellectual, and social aristocracy. In addition, news of Duncan’s astonishing dance had traveled to Russia through published reviews and word of mouth, prompting attendance by a flood of curious theatergoers. Tickets for Duncan’s debut performance quickly sold out.

Her surprising use of movement, music, and stage decor immediately captured the attention of her audience. What she termed “natural impulses” formed the basis of her dance, as she intently explored the gestures and movements that accompany various human emotions. For Duncan, dance was an art of personal expression, free from the formalized technique and stereotypical theatrics that were common in ballet. Like many of her contemporaries, she turned to the literature and art of ancient Greece for clues to this “natural” movement. She rediscovered such unastonishing activities as running, skipping, and making modest leaps, and her uplifting gestures and expressive face and hands transformed the simple into the heroic.

Also startling was her choice of accompaniment, which included the classical music of Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven and the operas of Richard Wagner and Christoph Gluck. For the St. Petersburg performance, she chose the mazurkas, polonaises, nocturnes, and waltzes of Chopin. Her daring use of classical compositions caused outrage among some viewers, who found her appropriation of such music to be improper, but Duncan’s use of and deep respect for this music revealed her artistry as well as her ambition.

Interpreting music, instead of employing it as an accessory to the dance, was a concept unique to Duncan and foreign to the Russians (although Fokine was beginning to think along the same lines). Duncan’s dancing provided an additional dimension to the music’s rhythm as she used its phrasing to help structure her movements. For example, a decrescendo in the music might be accompanied by a fall to the floor. Repeated dance movements would correspond with repeated musical phrases. Duncan’s new form of dance and its relationship to music clearly distinguished her from other dancers of the day.

Another distinguishing feature was her choice of decor. Her stage decorations consisted of simple blue curtains that traveled with her from stage to stage. Her costume was a flowing, transparent Grecian-style tunic that had a tendency to slip off one shoulder; gone were constricting corsets and stockings. She danced in sandals or barefoot, with bare legs, on a blue carpet.

Audiences responded to Duncan’s singular expressiveness, which was all the more apparent because of her exposed arms, legs, and feet. Like her movement, her revealing tunic pointedly contrasted with the tights, toe shoes, and full-length dresses of her ballet counterparts. Duncan’s style of dress reflected her personal philosophy of life, which was as revolutionary as her style of dance. She lived by her own rules, constantly seeking freedom from convention and restricting traditions (as is apparent by her early avoidance of marriage and the birth of her children out of wedlock).

Observers were quick to say, however, that her dancing was not offensive or sexual. One Russian critic rationalized Duncan’s physicality in this way: “This is not a nudité that arouses sinful thoughts but rather a kind of incorporeal nudity.” Duncan’s dancing was thus relegated to a spiritual, even ethereal, realm.

Most viewers were enthusiastic about her performances, although some questioned her copying of “Greek” poses or found her dancing monotonous. Even more controversial, Duncan embodied an ongoing argument between tradition and change. She represented a challenge to the sacred and idealized ballet world by presenting an alternative dance form. This challenge had long-lasting repercussions. On the whole, however, Duncan’s first performance in Russia was met with loud applause.

So successful was this concert and her encore on December 29 that she was invited to return to St. Petersburg and to appear in Moscow the following February. Diaghilev later summarized the significance of her success: “Isadora gave an irreparable jolt to the classic ballet of Imperial Russia.” This jolt would be felt intensely.


A critic who watched Duncan’s interpretations of Chopin’s music at her first St. Petersburg performance declared that she made a “shocking” first impression. With each step, however, he found the shock diminishing: “As Mme. Duncan became alive and began to dance, the first impression faded away. Before us was not a woman creating a sensation. Before us was an artist.”

Duncan herself realized the phenomenon she was creating. She later recalled her Russian debut in her 1927 autobiography, My Life:

How strange it must have been to those dilettantes of the gorgeous Ballet, with its lavish decorations and scenery, to watch a young girl, clothed in a tunic of cobweb, appear and dance before a simple blue curtain to the music of Chopin; dance her soul as she understood the soul of Chopin!

Certainly, her choices of movement, music, and decor were unusual for the time, as was such an outward display of one’s innermost soul. In fact, Duncan’s dance represented a dramatic departure from traditional dance of the day, dominated in European theaters by the Romantic, if formalized, ballet. It must have been strange for the Russian audience, indeed.

Classical ballet was particularly entrenched in Russian society, where the Franco-Italian traditions of the Russian Imperial Ballet were safeguarded by venerated dance master Marius Petipa, and the czars paid dearly for extravagant productions of ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. When Duncan arrived, the Imperial Ballet, in its famed Mariinsky Theatre (now the Kirov), boasted such stars as Fokine, Anna Pavlova, Mathilde Kschessinska, and Tamara Platonovna Karsavina. Vaslav Nijinsky would appear shortly thereafter. Closely connected with the ballet were painters Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois, as well as producer Sergei Diaghilev.

Isadora Duncan.

(Library of Congress)

The courageous Isadora made her debut in Russia against this backdrop of popular talent and established art. Her simple, expressive movements stood in sharp contrast to the acrobatic feats, pirouettes, and toe dancing of the Imperial Ballet’s stars. Undoubtedly, the revelation that such simple movement could be powerful influenced Fokine and Diaghilev.

Also influential was Duncan’s choice of music. Russian audiences were accustomed to seeing evening-long spectacles performed to music made to order for the dance—literally measure for measure—by Léo Delibes, Ludwig Minkus, or Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Duncan presented a new option and a new theory: that dance and orchestral, symphonic, or operatic music could exist side by side. Fokine and Diaghilev’s later productions clearly reflected this new outlook.

At the time of Duncan’s first Russian performance, the twenty-five-year-old Fokine was a rising young dancer in the Imperial Ballet with an agenda for change of his own. Whereas Duncan was a revolutionary in her attempts to abandon the ballet, however, Fokine wanted to reform it. The same year that Duncan jolted Russian society, Fokine wrote his famous manifesto to the Imperial Ballet inveighing against artificiality and unquestioned tradition. He maintained that dancing should be interpretive rather than merely mimetic and that its expressive and rhythmic qualities should be glorified.

The similarity between Fokine’s thinking and Duncan’s is evident. Although Fokine had not seen Duncan perform before he wrote his manifesto, it is probable that he had read of her theories or lectures as early as 1902 (the date of Duncan’s first public solo appearance in Europe). The extent to which Fokine’s initial dissatisfaction with the ballet was stimulated by what he read about Duncan prior to seeing her, however, cannot be determined.

Even if Fokine arrived at his suggestions without awareness of Duncan’s work, her Russian performances certainly paved the way for the reforms he advocated. Duncan’s new style of dance psychologically prepared audiences and artistic authorities for Fokine’s desired changes. Before Duncan’s December engagement, Imperial Ballet directors had not even bothered to answer Fokine’s letter. Soon afterward, Fokine was allowed to present his first choreographic works, among them several that surely reflected Duncan’s influence: Les Sylphides (1909; originally called Chopiniana), with music by Chopin, and Acis et Galatée (1905), with a Greek theme. His Carnival (1910), without a literary subject, and Cleopâtre (1909), also with a Greek theme, seemed to be directly influenced by Duncan as well. In his choreography, Fokine utilized music that had not been originally composed for dance, and he incorporated free, expressive movement that was clearly reminiscent of Duncan.

In 1907, Fokine presented his ballet Eunice, which dancer Tamara Platonovna Karsavina called a tribute to Duncan because of its Greek theme. (Even then, dancers were not permitted to dance barefoot as Fokine wished. Instead, they penciled in ten toes over their pink tights.) A Russian critic wrote in 1912 that “Fokine was the first independent propagator of these [Duncan’s] principles on a wider scene. Fokine’s Eunice not only does not move away from Duncanism, but indeed bears manifest traces of it.”

Diaghilev, creator and director of the legendary company the Ballets Russes, whose innovative performances and extensive tours had helped to revive the art of ballet, agreed that Duncan’s influence was significant in Fokine’s reforms and his own later theatrical experiments. Moreover, observer and writer Prince Peter Lieven credited Duncan with inspiring a new spirit in the Russian ballet: “The beginning of the new outlook must be ascribed to Isadora Duncan. She was the first to dance the music and not to dance to the music. She altered the whole direction of the dance.”

Duncan’s new form of movement juxtaposed to classical music, her theory that dance is an art of self-expression, and her refreshing sense of simplicity in design made her a front-runner in the revolution that was soon to be called modern dance. She dramatically set the stage for its next pioneers, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Duncan’s sweeping impact on the art and attitudes of a changing society, along with her direct influence on Fokine and Diaghilev, are significant legacies. Her vital performances, including the one in St. Petersburg’s elegant Salle des Nobles, cast new light on an art form that would never again be the same. Dance;modern
Modern dance;Isadora Duncan[Duncan]
Interpretive dance
Choreography;modern dance

Further Reading

  • Blair, Fredrika. Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986. A readable biography that represents thorough scholarship on Duncan. Blair places Duncan’s debut in Russia in 1904, unlike previous accounts that use the date 1905 or later. Chronicles Duncan’s life, work, and loves and also provides a social and historical framework for her dance and range of influence. Contains extensive notes and bibliography.
  • Daly, Ann. Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002. Daly examines Duncan’s international fame as well as her profound influence on a generation of American women. Includes black-and-white photographs.
  • Duncan, Irma, and Allan Ross MacDougall. Isadora Duncan’s Russian Days. London: Victor Gollancz, 1929. Cowritten by one of Duncan’s adopted daughters, this lengthy book focuses on Duncan’s life in Russia in the 1920’s. The dancer had hoped to begin a school in postrevolutionary Russia but instead met with political turmoil and opposition to her ideas.
  • Duncan, Isadora. My Life. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927. Duncan’s autobiography, released after her tragic death by strangulation in 1927, provides revealing and intimate description of her thoughts, theories, and love affairs. Some dates and events are obscured through recollection and may have been edited, but the whole offers valuable insight into the dancer’s personality and purpose.
  • MacDougall, Allan Ross. Isadora: A Revolutionary in Art and Love. Edinburg, N.Y.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1960. The author, once Duncan’s secretary, writes an inspiring biography. He offers the date 1905 for Duncan’s first visit to Russia, moving it up from previously accepted accounts that set the event in 1907 or 1908. MacDougall places her performance in historical context and aptly describes her legacy.
  • Roseman, Janet Lynn. Dance Was Her Religion: The Spiritual Choreography of Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Martha Graham. Prescott, Ariz.: Hohm Press, 2004. This book explores the pioneering approaches to spiritual choreography of the three women named in the title, all of whom believed in the sacred and liberating aspects of dance. Includes quotes about and interviews with the subjects.
  • Seroff, Victor. The Real Isadora. New York: Dial Press, 1971. A lengthy and detailed biography that includes an interesting account of Duncan’s Russian performances (although this author places her Russian debut in 1905, immediately following the tragic “Bloody Sunday”). Includes captivating photos of Duncan, her pupils, and her lovers.

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