Dancing in the Temple of the Arts in Athens
On a high hillside in the Athens municipality of Byronos stands a Mycenaean stone building that once was the home of the flamboyant dancer, Isadora Duncan. It’s a steep climb up the hill, but the view from the top is worth the effort, with vistas out over almost the entire city. The house, once known as “The Temple of Dance” was built for Isadora by her brother Raymond. It’s a building of unique historical and architectural interest, designed according to the specifications of an ancient Mycenaean mansion. Today, in honor of them, the name changed to “The Isadora and Raymond Duncan Dance Center.”
Isadora Duncan’s Early Life and Career
As I walk around the building, I notice graffiti scrawled on one wall, usually the mark of Athens’ anarchists. Although I am somewhat shocked to see the building defaced, I can’t help but wonder what Isadora’s reaction would be. After all, she was well known as a free-thinker and an activist in her own right, a champion in the struggle for women’s rights, and an ardent revolutionist.
Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco, California on May 26, 1877. After her parents had divorced, her mother raised her and her three siblings. Isadora was a rebel from an early age and dropped out of school at age ten to be self-educated at the Oakland public library under the guidance of poet laureate Ina Coolbrith. Isadora and her elder sister Elizabeth earned money by teaching dance to children. For awhile she studied ballet but dropped out as she considered ballet ‘affected’ and ‘artificial.’
By the time she was twenty-two, the family had moved to France, and she began dancing to her own free-flowing, expressive style of choreography. Even though Isadora was bisexual and declared she would never marry, while in France she gave birth to two children by two different liaisons. Sadly, when she was away on a dance tour, the children and their nanny drowned when their car went into the river. Isadora was heartbroken. Two of her dances, “Mother” and “Marche Funebre” were inspired by her loss.
Isadora Duncan’s Love Affair with Greece
She made her debut performance in Budapest in 1902 which was a critical success. After that, she decided to visit Greece to follow her life’s ambition and steep herself in Greek art and architecture. It had always been her dream to dance in the “Temple of Art,” the Parthenon. There are many photos of her, slim and graceful, dancing there, her chiffon dress billowing around her slender body, or posed beside the ancient pillars as elegant as a model, her hair bobbed and a smile on her heart-shaped face. Here dances were free-flowing, telling her own story through abstract movement and expressions. Some were shocked by her style of choreography; others were inspired by it. She was described as being “poetry personified” as if she were all nine Muses in one.
Her brother Raymond built her a “House of Dance” in 1903, located on the high hill in Byronos, a part of Athens where later many refugees from Asia Minor came to live. The house style mirrors ancient Mycenaean houses, with stone walls and a flat, tiled roof. They lived there for several years while Isadora pursued her nomadic lifestyle. She traveled around Europe training young dancers in a company she called “the Isadorables.”
Isadora Duncan’s Later Life and Career
She achieved celebrity status among the artistic and cultural elite of her day. Eventually, she traveled to Russia where she operated a dance school in Moscow. There, she embraced Communism and proclaimed herself “a revolutionist.” In spite of her vow to never marry, in 1922 she met a young poet, Sergei Yesenin. He was 18 years her junior. She married him so that he could travel with her on tour to America. The marriage didn’t last, and in 1923 he returned to Russia and later committed suicide.
Isadora’s life came to a tragic end on September 14, 1927. In Nice, France she accepted a ride with a young man in his open-air Bugatti sports car. As the car pulled away from the curb and sped off, her long trailing scarf tangled in the rear wheel spokes and she died instantly of a broken neck. She was just 50 years old.
The Isadora and Raymond Duncan Dance Center
Her “House of Dance” in Greece stood empty for some years and eventually fell into disrepair. Restorations began in 1980 and ended in 1992. The Ministry of Culture declared it a Modern Monument. The dancer’s home is now the Isadora and Raymond Duncan Dance Research Center of Athens. It is a residency center for individual artists or dance companies and a platform for the presentation of small-scale works. It is also a place for the exchange of critical discourse and ideas among artists and the public. The Dance School has over 400 students, children, and adults, participating in their educational program which melds dance with theory.
Inside, the receptionist welcomed me and allowed to browse around. There are two studios and two meeting rooms. Children and amateurs can take classes. They also offer workshops for professional dancers, as well as research projects, lectures, and residencies.
When I enter the large exercise room with the barres around the wall, I imagine Isadore in her chiffon gown twirling and leaping across the polished floor. 100 years later, it is Duncan’s vision of a space where dance is in a relationship with day to day life. It completes Isadora Duncan’s dream of a “Temple of Art, ” and her legacy continues to inspire contemporary artists.
If You Go: The Isadora and Raymond Duncan Dance Center is on Chrysafis 34, Byronos district. Buses No 227 and 854 run from Syntagma Square. If you don’t like a long uphill walk, t may be preferable to take a taxi.
Written by and photos by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com. She also wrote the following books about Greece and Greek History: