Therese Duncan’s Reaching Arms was the first image I saw from the series of time-defying, lucid dream-evoking images that resulted from two dancers exploring the Acropolis with photographer Edward Steichen. Therese’s pose is so free and energised against the weary, armless Caryatids of the Erechtheion and the tanned, bare skin contrasts their drapery but I knew nothing about Edward Steichen, Isodora Duncan or Therese Duncan.
Edward Steichen - Therese Duncan’s Reaching Arms-The Parthenon (1921)
Therese Duncan was a dancer, originally named Maria-Theresa Kruger and from Germany, whose dancing was seen by Isodora Duncan when she was ten years old. She became Isodora’s student and continued to dance with her for sixteen years. Therese was the last of Isodora’s legally adopted daughters who were known as “les Isadorables”. An image of her by Edward Steichen which was dubbed “Wind Fire" by the poet Carl Sandburg became the most famous of those from the Acropolis. She was a renowned solo dancer, dancing at Carnegie Hall in 1922 and the White House in 1934, at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt. She died in Manhattan in 1987 at the age of 92.
Edward Steichen - Isadora Duncan at the Portal of the Parthenon, Athens (1921)
Isodora Duncan was a pioneer of modern dance and such a proponent of Greek revivalism that travelling to Greece to immerse herself in the marble and myths of the Acropolis was a spiritual pilgrimage for her. She used a style of movement which rejected the classical ballet of her era; she danced with a fluidity which she believed projected truth through a Dionysian ecstasy.
“All energy expresses itself through this wave movement, for does not sound travel in waves, and light also...? And when we come to the movements of organic nature it would seem that all free natural movements conform to the law of wave movement. The flight of birds, for instance, or the bounding of animals...”
- Isadora Duncan, “My Life”, New York: Boni and Liveright (1927)
Physical contact with nature was a large part of Isodora Duncan’s practice as she danced barefoot, outdoors and shockingly did not include a corset as part of her costume, preferring flowing tunics inspired by the Ancient Greeks and the undulating lines of natural phenomena,
Edward Steichen - Therese Duncan - The Parthenon (1921)
Edward Steichen was a Luxembourg-born American artist who was a key figure in the development of photography. He developed his photography practice between America and France, returning to New York in 1902 and began working as a commercial photographer, gaining particular fame for his portraits, which included J P Morgan and Auguste Rodin. Steichen met Isadora when she was in Venice with her dance troupe. He then followed her to Greece in the hope of being able to photograph her dancing on the Acropolis. In 1921, Duncan and her coterie insisted that Steichen accompany them at the Acropolis and photograph them in the setting of the Parthenon.
"..She [Therese Duncan, pupil of Isadora] was a living incarnation of a Greek nymph.... We went out to a part of the Acropolis behind the Parthenon, and she posed on a rock, against the sky with her Greek garments. The wind pressed the garments tight to her body, and the ends were left flapping. This gave the effect of fire -- 'Wind Fire'"
- Edward Steichen, A Life in Photography
Edward Steichen -Therese Duncan -The Parthenon (1921)