Florent Schmitt’s Reflets d’Allemagne, Op. 28, inspired by his travels throughout Central Europe during his Prix de Rome period (1900-04), is a suite of eight waltzes originally written for piano duet — and music that fairly cries out for ballet treatment. By turns the pieces are whimsical and elegant, but also shot through with notable flashes of originality that hint at the composer who would produce strikingly inventive works just a few years hence.
Notably, the first public performances of the complete set of waltzes in Paris and elsewhere in France were presented by Florent Schmitt and his friend and fellow-composer, Maurice Ravel, in 1907.
Schmitt himself was given the opportunity to orchestrate several of numbers from the set of piano pieces for a new ballet, title Reflets, that was presented at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra-Comique in 1932. But a full two decades before that, the music – or at least a portion of it — had already been given dance treatment by none other than Isadora Duncan, the American-born woman famous for her pathfinding approach to dance movement — freeing it from the formality and constraints of “grand ballet” and moving it firmly in the direction of “modern dance.”
When Isadora Duncan arrived in Paris in the years before World War I, Florent Schmitt and other French composers were busily carving out a distinctly “French” style of music in contradistinction to the Austro-German tradition that had dominated orchestral music in France up until the late 1800s. No doubt this new French music came to Duncan’s attention as she developed her own unique style of fluid, liberating choreography.
Duncan’s staging of Reflets d’Allemagne was presented during the 1910s and 1920s, but the work appears to have been forgotten following the death of the dancer in 1927. That neglect would continue for some seven dacades, until the early 1990s when the choreography was reconstructed, and then in 2011 when the Duncanesque dances to Schmitt’s music were presented in performance in New York City.
And then … a decade later choreography for the entire set of Schmitt waltzes was prepared by dancer and choreographer Francesca Todesco, and premiered by the Dances We Dance troupe in three performances in New York City in 2022.
Arts critic Barney Yates wrote these words in New York Theatre Wire following a 2021 program that featured various works choreographed by Isadora Duncan and her acolytes:
“Praise [to] all of these artists for undertaking the practice of conservatorship and for offering audiences these faithful reproductions of classic dances. The study of classical dance forms is a gateway to the practice of what we now call Modern Dance — not only in the sense of the Duncanesque genre we call by that name, but also with respect to nearly all the disparate genres that we enjoy today. It is interdisciplinary by nature, involving the study of some of the greatest and most influential forms of performance and art, along with 20th century history and the study of social issues …
Artists who study these modern classics are motivated by the desire to understand their cultures, and [they] also find that this study leads to an examination of questions that are relevant to all human cultures — the nature and limits of human nature … the place of literature and myth in civilization, and so on. Thanks to work like this, our understanding of dance, and indeed all modern performance, can have a ballast it would not have without it.”
I was introduced to Francesca Todesco by the French pianist Bruno Belthoise, who has worked with the dancer to present new repertoire. A native of Switzerland, Ms. Todesco has been based in the United States since the mid-1990s, including working with the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble and Dances by Isadora. My contact with her resulted in an interview about the Florent Schmitt work she produced in 2022. Highlights of our very interesting discussion are presented below.
PLN: How did you came to know of Isadora Duncan and her artistry? What drew you to her pioneering work in dance?
FT: My introduction to the technique and repertoire of Isadora Duncan was by happenstance; it was in 1999, a year after I had moved to New York City, when I was asked to learn a new contemporary piece in exchange for Duncan classes. Catherine Gallant, who became my primary teacher, was crucial in my learning and development of this style, which I found fascinating and have studied passionately ever since.
I was immediately struck by the musicality of Isadora’s work and the way my body fell easily into the movement; the connection just made sense to me. I loved the challenge of making difficult movements seem easy.
As with many of the Duncan dances, the apparent simplicity of the movement gives the audience the sense that the dances can be performed by almost anyone. With this technique, the use of relatively uncomplicated movements such as waltzing, running steps, skips and others, focuses the dancer’s attention on fully incorporating the Duncan technique and making the dance appear, to the audience, almost effortless.
In reality, the importance of the musical phrasing, the lightness of the upper body strength in contrast with the grounded and rhythmical lower body, and the focused connection of all the elements all combine make her dances more complex than one might suppose from simply observing the movements.
Beyond the physical dancing aspects, I also enjoyed learning about Isadora Duncan’s life and the scope of her work. My training in the Duncan style has been mainly through physically learning her choreography — and although I’ve also read extensively about her life, I’m not a scholar on the subject.
PLN: When did Isadora Duncan come to Paris? Was she already famous before her arrival? What were her activities in Paris once there?
FT: In a nutshell, Isadora arrived in Paris around 1900 after living in London along with her family. I wouldn’t say that she was already famous, but I think London is where she started to fully develop her own philosophy and style of dance, which she expanded in later years, especially while living in and around Paris.
This was an exciting time for artists of all kinds, especially in Paris. I imagine it wouldn’t have been hard to find a coterie of different artists all hanging out together at a salon performance, maybe attending a gallery or exhibit opening, or simply meeting in a bar.
Isadora and her family spent most days in museums and parks researching, reading, learning, and thoroughly developing what would become her signature technique and style — the birth of a new way of moving and thinking about dance — which would eventually come to be known as “modern dance.” Both in London and Paris she made several important professional and personal acquaintances, some of which she kept up all her life. After a short tour with Loïe Fuller’s company, Isadora was invited to perform her own program. Her first full European performance in a theater with a full orchestra was actually held in Austria-Hungary rather than in France or England (in Budapest in 1902).
PLN: Turning to Isadora Duncan’s work in bringing Florent Schmitt’s Reflets d’Allemagne waltzes to the stage, is there any evidence of her working with the composer in preparing the pieces for her production?
FT: Unfortunately, I do not have any information about how Isadora discovered the music — or even if she knew Florent Schmitt. It is likely that she attended concerts or stage productions in Paris where his music was being performed, or they could possibly have met at one of the many parties or gatherings attended by Paris artistes.
It’s also conceivable that one of her piano accompanists would have introduced her to his music — or even to the composer himself.
PLN: Which numbers from the eight-movement set did Isadora Duncan choreograph, and when and where were they first presented?
FT: It’s important to realize that we have no film footage of any of the original dances by Isadora, nor any specific notations from that time. Most choreography was “passed down” by her students — specifically her six pupils called the “Isadorables” — simply by teaching the dances they had learned themselves, and then their students to others, and so on.
Some dances were recreated from memory or from someone’s recollection of having seen them on stage. Sometimes we have copies of programs, or writings of first-person recollections of the dances. And in some cases, we have drawings that give an idea of the movement.
That said, we know of three movements from the set of waltzes (Lübeck, Dresden and Nuremberg) that Isadora choreographed. She may well have choreographed all eight, but they are either lost or otherwise impossible to trace.
I’m not aware of where these dances were premiered and if they were danced to piano or orchestral accompaniment at the premiere, but based on information given to me by Katharina Van Dyk, a French dancer and scholar who is researching and writing a dissertation on Isadora Duncan, we do know that these dances were prepared during the time Isadora started to work at Bellevue outside Paris (beginning in 1912).
There is a brief reference to the work in Frederika Blair’s book Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman, mentioning a Florent Schmitt waltz dance titled “Ballets d’Allemagne” on her first American tour with her dancers, the Isadorables, in a performance at Carnegie Hall in November 1914.
It was not until 1992 that Julia Levien (a second-generation Duncan dancer) reconstructed these three sections. Levien was a student of Irma Duncan, who had been one of the Isadorables. She would have been too young to see the premiere in 1914, but she might have learned it later with Irma Duncan. Her reconstruction premiered at Dance at Holy Trinity in NYC with the Duncan Dance Continuum directed by Judy Landon and produced by Lynn Parkerson. Among the dancers were Adrienne Ramm, Thea Keats, Catherine Gallant, Patricia Adams and Lynn Parkerson.
Catherine Gallant presented them again in 2011 with live piano accompaniment – this is when I learned the dances — and later I decided to choreograph and present all eight sections in 2022 with my company, Dances We Dance.
PLN: Are you aware of music of other French composers besides Florent Schmitt that Isadora Duncan choreographed during her time in France?
FT: There are several French composers mentioned in her repertoire history, including Berlioz, Godard, Gounod, Debussy and others in addition to Schmitt. But unfortunately, most of the dances have been lost. It is possible that some of this music was used in classes or salon performances but never documented or revived later. Also, often Isadora would perform or improvise alone, and frequently those dances would not be taught, documented, or recreated by her dancers.
PLN: From news reports I’ve read, Isadora Duncan brought Reflets d’Allemagne with her when she returned to the United States upon the outbreak of World War I, which were presented in December 1914. I’ve also read several New York Times reports about stagings of the ballet in New York City in June 1919 prior to the Isadora Duncan Dancers’ international tour, and again in March 1920 following their return from the tour. Was the original Bellevue choreography used for these stagings, or were there alterations made — such as to accommodate either fewer or more dancers in the productions?
FT: Cast alteration was possible, but probably not in the first few performances. I can say that Julia Levien probably saw these dances staged as trios, presented by dancers of the original casts that toured the U.S. Perhaps she learned them later, and that’s likely why she taught them as trios.
Unfortunately, we have little information about the Reflets dances, as they are not well-known and thus rarely performed in the Duncan world. This is one of the key reasons why I wanted to bring them back, in fact.
PLN: What particular aspects of the choreography for Reflets d’Allemagne make the work worthy of resurrecting and presenting today?
FT: As I said, most Duncan pieces are well-known and performed frequently, but this is not the case with Reflets d’Allemagne. In general, dancers have tended to favor more famous composers or the more familiar musical compositions which Duncan augmented with her movement.
Regarding Schmitt’s Reflets, despite their obscurity, the different waltz tempos and changing “feeling” in each piece make it fun to follow. In the Duncan style, the use of skipping and waltzing is very common; Isadora created many different combinations using these steps, and I believe that the Schmitt dances are a very good example of her clever use of them.
Speaking personally, I enjoy the music and welcomed the challenge to complete the lost sections — not trying to “copy” the Duncan style but using my experience as a modern dancer to incorporate both my movement and hers.
I’m not a musician, but I am an enthusiast and I can appreciate a good piece, which this one most certainly is. I also have ample knowledge of the Duncan repertoire and seek to revive or “re-imagine” pieces of choreography that are not well-known, as well as to shed light on lesser-known composers and pieces.
PLN: How did you prepare your new choreography in a way that would be faithful to the original vision of the dances?
FT: Only three pieces survived, and we do not know if what has come down to us is exactly the original version. We do not have any original film or written notes from the time. Often in dance, steps and choreography have been altered to apply to new bodies or to fit different performance spaces or numbers of dancers.
When I first learned of the three pieces in 2011, there were already modifications that had been made. I made some different choices as well — however small. Often in Duncan choreography we encounter extensive repetitions of the same movement, following the musical score. But to keep the dances a bit more interesting and less repetitive for today’s audiences, sometimes we modify each repetition slightly.
Many Duncan dancers would attempt to remain completely faithful to the original piece of choreography (or what they originally learned). I agree with this perspective to a certain degree, but I think that in dance as in music, bodies and instruments change and so does the “realization” of the composition.
In a way, it’s difficult to label the choreography of any of Isadora Duncan’s pieces as “original”; perhaps it’s best to view it “as close to the original interpretation as possible.” After Isadora’s death in 1927, her disciples went on to spread her choreography all over the world. As it happens, we can now see that dancers who learned the same dance from various sources differed in their interpretations of it.
PLN: As for the additions to the Reflets waltzes choreographed by Isadora Duncan, what was your approach to choreographing these new items?
FT: I have added three dances to the three originally choreographed by Isadora. I purposely presented it with live music (four-hand piano duet) to shine a light on the music itself. I used one of the pieces to introduce the dancers and another for piano only, thereby making up the entire set of eight pieces as composed by Schmitt.
However, I chose not to stage the pieces in their original published order, but rather to complement the choreography and to give a moment of rest to the dancers. Here is the order that the eight waltzes are presented in our production:
- Heidelberg – piano and dancers’ improvisation
- Dresden – choreography by Isadora Duncan (ca. 1914) – trio of dancers
- Koblenz – choreography by Francesca Todesco (2022) – quartet of dancers
- Werder Island – choreography by Francesca Todesco (2022) – trio
- Vienne – choreography by Francesca Todesco (2021) – quartet
- Munich – piano only
- Lübeck – choreography by Isadora Duncan (ca. 1914) – trio
- Nuremberg – choreography by Isadora Duncan (ca. 1914) – trio into final quartet
As a side note, I did some reading on how Florent Schmitt came to write this music, followed by researching the towns that gave the titles to his pieces. Apart from Vienna, I found all the other places fairly unremarkable aside from their uncomplicated beauty and natural surroundings. (I would have loved to visit them to get more of a feeling of the places.)In the end, I simply took a few inspirational elements from each town and began creating the dances inspired by Isadora’s movements in conjunction with my own choreography. For example, I used images of water for Koblenz, as it has two rivers diverging. I adopted petals blown by the wind for Werder, as it is an island town with many fruit trees.
The idea of changing costumes for each dance was something I also considered, but I also wanted the eight sections to proceed smoothly without long breaks in between them, so I ended up going with minimum costume changes.
I also didn’t want to diverge too much from Duncan movement. Instead, I tried to develop off of that and focus more on the choreography and staging aspects — not relying too much on repetitive movement as Duncan did, but more of a progression of movement.
I was also able to set various lights on the stage, creating a slightly different atmosphere for each section.
PLN: Does your most recent New York City staging differ from the one done in 2011?
FT: The biggest difference is that in 2011 we presented only the three Isadora Duncan dances that had been reconstructed and recreated from past recollections. In 2022 with my company, I presented all eight sections. Both the 2011 and 2022 performances were presented with live music (four-hands piano).
PLN: What has been the reaction to Reflets d’Allemagne among your fellow dancers, and with audiences?
FT: Everyone has enjoyed the dances and the staging with live music, costumes, and lighting. The best compliment choreographically speaking, is seeing the progression of the Duncan movement into the new pieces. I think people (dancers especially) who had already been exposed to many Duncan pieces were happy to see something new and different.
PLN: Do you have future plans to present Reflets in other venues – either in the United States or abroad?
FT: Reflets d’Allemagne is not a well-known piece in the Duncan world. So far, we’ve only performed it during one season (three performances in 2022). There are no firm plans yet to present it again but we look forward to that opportunity. It was extensive work to put it together, and now it’s in the repertory and available to us.
I’m also hoping that other companies or dancers will become interested in learning it, including being able to present it overseas — perhaps in Paris or, even better, on a tour of Germany and Austria, dancing in every town included in Reflets!
PLN: Are there other points you would like to share about the music or the choreography – as well as the importance of Isadora Duncan in the history of dance more generally?
FT: I must acknowledge that there is a challenge teaching Reflets d’Allemagne in that the piece contains both Duncan and more complex choreography; not many dancers can do both well. Many Duncan dancers aren’t trained beyond the Duncan technique, and most well-trained dancers are not familiar with the details and nuances of the Duncan style. But this is a particular attribute of my own company and the dance companies I was part of previously — the ability to dance different techniques and styles.
Isadora Duncan, who is considered by many the “mother of modern dance,” was extremely important in the development of dance both in Europe and the U.S. She had a profound impact on many lives and in many aspects of life. Most importantly, Isadora elevated dance to a high art and inspired the generations of dancers and choreographers who came along later.
Notably, she changed the way dancers present themselves onstage: barefoot and without corsets or other constraints. Artistically, her use of gravity and her connection to nature was particularly innovative, liberating dance from the restraints of ballet.
Lastly, Isadora was the first person to choreograph to music not originally written for dance, including works of Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms and Scriabin. She stepped away from choreographing to music written expressly for ballet and fairy tales, moving beyond to explore and expand on themes ranging the gamut from literature and poetry, the liturgical world, mythology and philosophy to real-life matters. As dancers and artists, we are all indebted to her.
Similarly, we are indebted to Francesca Todesco for bringing Florent Schmitt’s music to vibrant life on the stage, augmenting the potential that Isadora Duncan saw in Reflets d’Allemagne by adding new choreography to encompass the entire set of eight waltzes — and in the process creating an integrated whole bridging more than a century’s time.
For those who wish to view the inspired result, one of the June 2022 Dances We Dance performances in New York City was filmed and has been uploaded to YouTube.