In the Athens of the North, the answer this Friday morning is “no”. In the Athens of the South (or, “Athens”), Greeks – with their customary fearlessness in the face of controversy – want to engage the Partner and self in conversation about the Scottish referendum as soon as they hear us speaking English. In the cafés, we needn’t even tax our (very) rudimentary Greek to discern the day’s other main topic of conversation: Lady Gaga, just arrived in the city to perform.
But we are here in a south-eastern stretch of the seemingly limitless Athenian sprawl to stalk the sandalled footsteps of her earlier compatriots.
On the eve of the 20th century, dancer Isadora Duncan set sail for the Old World with her brother Raymond. Soon the two were in thrall to a world older still, spellbound by the ancient Greek artefacts in the British Museum and the Louvre. They were possessed by the idea of reviving antiquity, Isadora in her art, Raymond in his life. At the time they were hardly alone in regarding earlier, simpler ways as the key to the future. It was Raymond’s encounter in Paris with one such lifestyle reformer, Gusto Gräser, which proved decisive. And although Isadora took to twirling around Europe in Loie Fuller‘s troupe, she was born to lead, not to follow (and would soon acquire her own Little Monsters, the “Isadorables”). By 1903 the Duncans could resist the lure of Greece no longer.
“We arrived at violet-crowned Athens […] and the daybreak found us, with trembling limbs and hearts faint with adoration, ascending the steps of her Temple.” There are few pages in Isadora Duncan’s My Life which don’t inspire eye-rolling in the contemporary reader; she makes Bullets over Broadway‘s Helen Sinclair seem down-to-earth. And the prose is never more purple – engorged, even – than when addressing “radiant Hellas”. But while the exaggerations may be sweeping and the verbiage overwrought, the rapture is real.
“We asked ourselves why we should ever leave Greece,” recalled Isadora, “since we found in Athens everything which satisfied our artistic sense.” They set about examining “all the valleys of Attica” (a typical Isadoran embellishment) until they found a suitable eminence outside the city limits, Avra Hill. Raymond, to his delight, noted that its peak was level with that of the Acropolis, four kilometres away. Alas the nearest source of water was at a similar remove.
Undaunted, they bought the barren land from bemused goat farmers and a house soon rose, inspired by Agamemnon’s Mycenaean palace and built to Raymond’s instructions. He took to the experiment with a rigour to cow the most ardent classicist. While Isadora adopted a highly influential mode of stage dress inspired by the ancients, and sometimes even ventured onto the streets of Athens in flowing robes, Raymond abandoned modern dress altogether. He required the same of visitors to the modest house, where each room was dedicated to a different artisanal activity as practised in antiquity (with the addition of printing). He and his family lived on a modest vegetarian diet, surrounded by Raymond’s handiwork.
But the expense and impracticality of it all proved insuperable. Isadora, whose performance fees were bankrolling the venture, cut the purse strings and the site was abandoned. Returning in 1920, she found the house a ruin, reclaimed by the farmers, but restored it sufficiently that her lover Walter Rummel could perform a recital on a grand piano dragged to the site for the purpose.
Before the decade was out, Isadora would have her fatal rendezvous with la gloire. Although Raymond moved between Paris and the US with his Greek wife Penelope, he never abandoned his chitons, nor his wildly impractical ideas (in 1949, for instance, he declared that all the lawyers, merchants and civil servants of Paris should be replaced by philosophers, painters and poets). By the time he died in 1966, his austere antiquarian principles had found an echo in the Aquarian longing for a simpler life.
Meanwhile, Raymond’s house resumed its imitation of the ruins which inspired it, and slowly the site was consumed by the city it once admired from a respectful distance. But miraculously, much of the house survived, its hand-hewn stones and uncompromising lines a mute reproach to the ranks of indistinguishable machine-tooled white apartment blocks tumbling down the hill, all veiled against the sun. In 1992 the building was restored and extended, although it has not completely escaped the graffiti ubiquitous throughout Athens.
On this bright Friday morning a lovely staff member takes us around and explains all of this; she seems pleasantly surprised that it is above all our interest in Raymond which has lured us to this obscure corner of the city. But it is to his sister’s art that the building is now dedicated. At the Isadora and Raymond Duncan Dance Research Center, as it is now known, performers from around the world come to rehearse or give small-scale performances in homage to the mother of modern dance. During our visit a Czech troupe limbers up in one of the skylit studios.
Outside, the fabled view of the Parthenon is now obscured by modern development, but the Saronic Gulf still twinkles in the distance, fringed by the vast port of Piraeus – it, too, swallowed up by the expansion of the Greek capital. Along with the cypresses which guard the building is a towering eucalyptus, another transplant from the New World responding to the congenial light shining on this ancient hill. The area where we stand is now known as Vyronas, named for an earlier Philhellene, Lord Byron. Isadora and Raymond, who kissed the ground and recited a passage from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage when they first alighted on Greek soil, would doubtless approve.