Thursday, January 9, 2020


Artemis Leontis, Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. xvi, 339. ISBN 9780691171722. $35.00.

Reviewed by Samuel N. Dorf, University of Dayton (

Version at BMCR home site


Eva Palmer Sikelianos (1874-1952) was an actress, a writer, a lover, a dancer, a mother, a choreographer, a wife, a composer, a weaver, a church musician, an American, a Greek, a Parisian, a political radical, and so much more. However, for decades she has played the role of supporting cast member in the stories of other people's creative and political lives. In Artemis Leontis's beautiful new book, Eva Palmer Sikelianos will find her rightful seat at the center of numerous critical debates across scholarly fields.

Eva Palmer, a wealthy American girl with an interest in ancient Greek poetry performed and embodied Sappho's verse along her friend, Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) at her father's country club in Bar Harbor, Maine. The pair later performed similar work in Barney's backyard in Paris, France. Through Barney, she met Penelope Sikelianos Duncan and followed her and her husband, Raymond Duncan (brother of dancer Isadora Duncan) to Greece, where she took up weaving her own dresses and tunics using ancient Greek designs and techniques. She subsequently married Penelope's brother, the poet Angelos Sikelianos, and with him founded the First and Second Delphic Festivals (1927 and 1930) where she directed and choreographed performances in modern Greek of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound and The Supplicants. Returning to America she staged Greek drama and dance at her alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, and collaborated with dancer and choreographer Ted Shawn (1891-1972) and his Men Dancers. Her final years were marked by a renewed interest in writing and affected by poverty, as her wealth ran dry. She died in her beloved Greece.

Artemis Leontis' elegantly written and richly researched book provides a rare glimpse into the life and works of this impressive woman. Making sense of such a life with its intersecting parts, the remnants of which are scattered in archives across the world, is no easy task. Leontis opts to organize her chapters around materials and media with which Eva Palmer Sikelianos (in the book often simply referred to as "Eva") engaged throughout her life: (1) amateur Sapphic performances, (2) dress-making and weaving, (3) music, (4) dance, and (5) writing. The resulting narrative is only roughly chronological, twisting back on itself, like thread in a loom. We can revisit the same scenario, the same situation multiple times across chapters in the rich context of modern Greece, the reception of ancient Greece, and women's art and lives: "it opens a space for a critical engagement with classical learning that considers how the field—through its complex layering of discourses of privilege, class, race, nation, sexuality, power, freedom, and resistance—empowered people to reinvent their place in the modern present even as it marginalized them" (p. xxvi).

In chapter 1 "Sapphic Performances" Leontis places Eva at the center of Natalie Barney's circle. Based upon Eva and Natalie's correspondence, she paints an alternative curriculum, a different way women saw philology and Greek learning separate and parallel to the ways of men. Many of the materials used in her study have been only recently made available, including a trove of letters between Barney and Eva housed at the Center for Asia Minor Studies. It is this only recently available correspondence, the material evidence of their friendship and love affairs, that fascinates Leontis. It is voluminous, and corrects the paucity of scholarly attention to Eva as a lesbian in the historiography of sexuality in the early 20th century. She argues that Eva and Barney found freedom in the gaps of history. Close readings of Barney's play Equivoque (1906) highlight the complex relationship between the participants and the life and work of Sappho in the spinning of new narratives and new lives for Eva and Barney.

Chapter 2, "Weaving," looks at the function of creating and wearing ancient Greek clothing in Eva's life and work. On arrival in Greece in 1906 Palmer adopted an ancient Greek form of dress. It was not merely an early adventure in experimental archaeology, or a high-fashion statement, but part of her daily practice, a practice that, as Leontis describes, "turned her body in to a manifestation of Greek culture and its relevance in an increasingly industrialized world (p. 42)." This chapter in particular places the focus on the reception of antiquity not in terms of traditional texts, but of actions and materials understudied in the history of reception: somatic practice, weaving, quotidian affairs (discussed in the press, in letters and memoir), actual fabrics, personal photographs, love letters.

Eva's role as musician is touched on in chapter 1, but it is really the third chapter, "Byzantine Music," where Leontis examines her musical contributions through her collaborations and studies with three musicians—Penelope Sikelianos Duncan, Konstantinos Psachos, and Khorshed Naoroji. She traces her musical journey through them, each of whom, Leontis argues, shaped Eva's journey, "causing her to change the orientation of her musical pursuits from an initial disorienting pleasure that beguiled her (Penelope), to an essential part of the curriculum of becoming Greek (Psachos), to the basis of a social movement (Khorshed Naoroji) and ground for staging the Delphic Festivals (p. 80)." The author readily acknowledges that she is not a music scholar and so no examples of her music receive analytical treatment in the book.

While subtitled, "Drama," chapter 4 focuses on dance, notably Isadora Duncan's work, Palmer's choreography in Bar Harbor, Maine, and scholarly influences (Maurice Emmanuel). Unlike the unanalyzed musical compositions, Eva's dance (evidenced in reviews, photographs, films, and choreographic notes) receives detailed discussion by Leontis. It is surprising that more pages were not dedicated to Sikelianos' work on the Delphic Festivals, arguably her most famous choreographic work; however, readers have so many other wonderful accounts of her work for the two Delphic Festivals to explore. Dance scholars in Greece have done much to place Eva Palmer Sikelianos within modern dance history, but English-reading audiences need to be aware of Sikelianos' great contributions to the modern dance movement vocabulary. Leontis examines the tensions between archaeology and modern drama in the reception of the theatrical components of the Delphic Festivals and place them in the context of Eva's long life. Her analysis looks at "how creative work happening near ruins yet outside the formal discipline of archaeological discoveries, (p. 139)" complicates the narrative of classical reception and modern drama. Leontis also offers a reading of Sikelianos and Ted Shawn's collaboration for Jacob's Pillow in 1939 based upon letters, photographs.

Chapter 5 follows Eva in her final years, and her posthumously published autobiography. Toward the end of her life writing took over her life. Upward Panic, her memoir is a final clarion call for action cum biography written on the eve of the Greek civil war. As Leontis reconstructs the last years of Eva's life, weaving takes a central place, not as a "self- creative exercise," but an act of labor in order to sustain her life amidst "poverty, damaged relationships, old age, and ill health (p. 191)." An epilogue examines the afterlife of Eva's belongings and post-Cold War legacy as well as the author's own experiences in the archives. The book also includes a very useful chronology, and cast of characters (as an appendix).

It is in these final two chapters of the book that Leontis addresses her own positionality more clearly, questioning her previous assumptions and continually reexamining her reading of Eva's life, beliefs, and works. Touching bits include Leontis retelling the moment when a group of scholars not only got to hold some of Eva's handwoven fabric, but to wear it. Led by dance scholar Ann Cooper Albright, the group got a chance to "play at putting on the cloth in various attitudes (p. 229)."

Leontis's book weaves together the various aspects of Eva's life, it includes the rougher threads, and the threads that lay plain her polyamorous relationships with women. In previous studies, those rougher threads, the challenging bits, those countercultural, subversive elements were neatly smoothed over. For scholars of the reception of the classical world, Leontis' book is a challenge to others to move outside their comfort zone, to engage more deeply with nonspecialists, and examine the moving, dancing, loving bodies of their subjects.

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