Sunday, May 3, 2009

Success with Isadora Duncan

In response to Kostis Kourelis’ call to 'reclaim the city' over at Objects-Building-Situations, my weekend included a quest for the long-ago home of dancer, feminist, hippy-before-there-were-hippies, Isadora Duncan.

In one respect, finding Duncan’s old house had less to do with the house itself and more to do with the act of finding it (insert references to the Odyssey and the ‘journey being more important than the destination’ here). Physically wandering the terrain in search of a place known only from books is practically the earliest calling of Classics as a discipline. After all, from the first we, as students, hear tales of our predecessors traipsing the countryside with a battered copy of Pausanias or the likes of Colonel William Leake scouring Greece in the 19th century.

Topography, the study of place, has been central to our endeavor. But for most people, topography is a foreign idea. After all, why would you walk somewhere when you could drive? For most of us, myself included, my knowledge of the land in which I live is shaped by a framework of sidewalks, roads, streets and parking lots. If there are ravines and dips and rivulets and, most indecipherable of all, mountain passes, I would have no idea. In cities we’re encouraged to stay OFF the grass and in the wilds we’re advised to stay ON the path. And it’s a lot harder to meander through fields and hollows when you’ll get arrested for trespassing. But over the last few years I’ve started to really get an idea of this ‘topography’ thing, thanks to Denver Graninger, John Lee, Tim Gregory and most especially Pierre MacKay.

But my search for Isadora Duncan’s house did not start out in a romantic expedition-y sort of way. Instead, it started with about 5 hours of arguing with the internet, ripping my hair out, and lamenting the useless information highway. But success was at hand, since, after all that, my Google skills had become honed to a fine and deadly point. When I finally set out, it was not in my motley jogging outfit with an ipod strapped to my arm and a playlist at full volume, but with a backpack filled with a packed lunch (trailmix!), water, camera, a map and an address. Unfortunately, it was an address I could not match to the map; there was a period of wandering around, asking directions and feeling lost. But in the end, we did indeed find Isadora Duncan’s house: 34 Chrysofis and Dikearchou, Byron.

So, that should cover the journey part of the story, now here’s a little bit about the destination.

Isadora Duncan was a famous American dancer at the end of the Victorian era. With her brother Raymond, she developed a philosophy of movement that not only inspired the entire phenomenon of ‘Modern Dance’ but also an untold number of artists for whom she was a ‘Muse.’ She was revolutionary in a number of really remarkable ways, whether in her rejection of fussy structured ballet, tightly-bound Victorian clothing, or traditional gender roles. In 1903, Isadora and her brother were obsessed with ancient Greece and travelled there to frolic in ancient garb at the theatre of Dionysius. They decided to be pagans and to create their own utopia. Upon finding a hill that provided a fantastic view of the Parthenon, they planned to build a Temple for their ‘clan,’ modeled on the Palace of ‘Agamemnon.’

Isadora calls the spot Kopanos Hill, claiming that such was its name since ‘ancient times (Duncan, My Life, 93).’ Of course, despite all my attempts at figuring out what her source for this bit of info is, the most I could find, with the help of philologist Dan Leon, was that ‘kopanos’ might be related to the word ‘mallet/pestle’ but has no obvious links to a hill in Athens. It also means ‘jerk,’ ‘asshole’ or ‘prick’ in Modern Greek…it’s a good thing I didn’t go around asking people where Kopanos Hill was - that could’ve been awkward.

After a few years of trying to build a structure on a hill which had no natural source of water, the expense became so astronomical that Isadora (who had been funding the project) had to shut the dream down. She opined, “Kopanos has always remained a beautiful ruin on the hill, since used by each faction of Greek revolutionaries as a fortress. It is still standing there, perhaps as a hope for the future (129).”

Regardless of her nostalgic and wistful view, she came back at the end of WWI with a gaggle of students and the dream of opening a dance school. “We found Kopanos a ruin, inhabited only by shepherds and their flocks of mountain goats…We laid a dancing carpet in the high living room and had a grand piano brought up…with the gorgeous view of the sun setting over the sea…in the cool evenings we wreathed our brows with circlets of the lovely white jasmine flowers that the Athenian boys sell in the streets… (250-1).” For Isadora, dancing was fine, but dancing in the Greek landscape, with its blue sky and ancient marbles, was entirely different. Place was essential. The landscape as a backdrop shaped the dance.

Her relationship with the Greek landscape would end in 1920 when Venezelos left the country in exile, and her with him, as she had been his guest there. What exactly the history of Isadora’s house was thereafter I have not been able to determine, at least not until the story picks up again in the early 1980s. Now the structure’s located in the modern Municipality of Byron (named after, yes, that Lord Byron). When Clan Duncan moved in, it was a barren hill, but presently it’s a packed section of downtown Athens. The Municipality, recognizing that the house had historic value, restored it and turned it into a modern dance studio.

It’s now called the Isadora and Raymond Duncan Dance Research Centre and their website stresses the fact that it’s not just the studio that’s important, but its location - its value is ‘site specific’ both physically and in the cultural memory associated with Isadora and her family cavorting on the rocky hillock.

The mount really does boast a spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea, but the substantial presence of the Acropolis that was so palpable to Raymond and Isadora has gone the way of tall apartment buildings.

The studio sits upon an open terrace. Although it’s well-cared for, the building is covered in graffiti tags. In an empty lot abutting it and separated by a metal fence, a strange bomb-shelter-like structure hunkers down.

Polished wooden floors gleam behind curtained windows and the website indicates that the studio is active both locally and internationally. In 2003, the Center produced Her Topia: A Dance Architecture Event, a performance meant to engage the modern dancers’ connection to Isadora, to the space on the hill, to the rooms within and to the neighborhood itself. Carrying rocks meant to mirror the blocks that Raymond Duncan carted in to build his house, the dancers moved within the different parts of Isadora’s ‘Temple to Dance,’ then on to the terrace, to the bunker and even to the roofs of the surrounding apartment buildings.

In her own way, dancing across from the Acropolis while the sun went down, Isadora Duncan tried to forge a connection between movement and her surroundings. During her time in Athens she was struck by ancient tragedy, by mythology and by the illustrated visions of maenads dancing on ancient pottery. She and her clan traipsed about, barefoot, looking for boys to fill their chorus and theatres to haunt. It was in the Greek countryside and in the ruins of its ancient cities that she experienced an almost religious connection to an ancient ideal. She found that ideal in a movement and dance that incorporated the surrounding Greek environment, her house upon the hill, and her own human, free, unconstrained manner of motion.

And this is where I bring it back to topography. Isadora, my feminist ancestor, employed topography for dance. My academic ancestors employed topography for history. If you’re in Athens and want to experience a topographical mish-mash of your own, all you have to do is jog from the Stadium down Dikearchou St, up and over a few rises, and you’ll find yourself where Isadora Duncan and her brother Raymond once placed their temple of dance. The much lauded view of the Acropolis is gone, but at least there still exists a mutation of Duncan’s Clan there, moving about on the concrete hillock as the sun goes down, thinking about landscape, buildings and situations.



WOW!!!! Brilliant. I can't believe you figured this out so quickly. All my internet searches had failed miserably. -Kostis said...

I can't say it better than Kostis has already said it. This is a triumph. I have no idea about how Gene Vanderpool would have thought about the Isadora Duncan world, but he would have been delighted by your search and its success.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Antiquated Vagaries said...

You're welcome!

Danila Merino said...

Good Job! Hope I can see it one day soon...
I wonder if water came out difficult it was to 'find' it by Raymond..