Monday, November 22, 2010

Dionysus and Devotion

Isadora Duncan was certainly aware of yoga. In fact, “The Mother of Modern Dance” was developing her work about the same time Krishnamacharya, “The Father of Modern Yoga,” was reinvigorating the asana aspect of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yogic path and introducing yoga to the mainstream. At the turn of the twentieth century, yogic practices and ideas were filtering westward, and dance scholar Nancy Ruyter cites Genevieve Stebbins’ early encounter with yogis in London and her incorporation of pranayama (breathing) exercises into her version of the Delsarte system, which she eventually called “psycho-physical culture.”

Duncan studied images
like this lunging Maenad
for the line in her dances.
Stebbins authored numerous pamplets and books explicating French actor and orator Francios Delsarte’s laws governing human expression, including an 1893 publication entitled Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics (Rutyer, The Cultivation of Mind and Body in Nineteenth-Century American Delsartism). Ruth St. Denis actually saw Stebbins perform some of her Greek statue dances onstage, and Duncan, who early in her career acknowledged Delsarte’s influence on the development of her ideas (but later denied knowledge of his system), was likely also familiar with Stebbins’ publications.

To my knowledge, there is only one direct reference to yoga in all of Isadora’s writings—a small snippet in a letter to artistic soul mate Edward Gordon Craig. Duncan wrote of her difficulty in sitting still in an attempt to meditate, and described the capabilities of yogis as “beyond nature.” She writes, “Well, unless one can be a Yogi, one must live according to one’s nature—only the Yogi lifts above all and I haven’t yet heard of a woman Yogi” (ed. Francis Steegmuller, “Your Isadora:” The Love Story of Isadora Duncan and Gordon Craig).

Peaceful Warrior Pose
Photograph by Deanne Clark
Of course, in 1906 when that letter was written, yoga practice was still largely limited to men. Duncan, in her search for natural dance movements, focused first on the needs of women, and for her, movement of the body through space, motivated by the solar plexus (which she called “the central spring of all movement…the unity from which all diversities of movement are born” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance)), was the key to experiencing mind/body unity. In her essay “The Philosopher’s Stone of Dancing,” Duncan identified three different types of dancers, one physical, one emotional, and one spiritual. This last dancer, she claimed, had the ability to “convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance). In my opinion, Duncan’s dance practice, with its goal of luminosity, is a practice of devotion, in line with bhakti yoga practices.

So, Austinites, what then would Isadora have thought of Dave Stringer’s kirtan Friday night at East Side Yoga? Kirtan, a devotional singing practice, certainly raises energy in the spiraling-up-and-out pattern that Duncan insisted music should accomplish. Likely, Isadora would have taken Stringer up on the opportunity to fade to the back of the crowd, where there was room set aside for inspired dancing.

But, she might have disagreed with his assertion that the chanting, the singing, is the pinnacle of ecstatic expression. Following Nietzsche, Duncan identified ecstatic expression with Dionysus and Dionysus with the dance, insisting, “Man must speak, then sing, then dance. But the speaking is the brain, the thinking man. The singing is the emotion. The dancing is the Dionysian ecstasy which carries all away” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance).