WOW

Anne Hollander

Isadora Duncan refused to be filmed while she danced. The most eager prophet of modern bodily movement avoided the great new vessel of the truth a motion – unwilling, it would seem, to do without the audience rapport that was indispensable to her success. Her reluctance went with her noticeably religious attitude toward her own dancing, and toward art in general. She found she rather liked going to the pictures, but the entertaining movie-camera was certainly not the thing to register the sacred communion between Isadora, her muse and her followers. That, rather, was for fellow artists to attempt.

The visual record of her work consists of artists’ renderings, posed and unposed photographs and written descriptions – much the same as that of Nijinsky’s appearances in the same era. But Isadora was a true original, a real prophet, and she had none of Nijinsky’s quality of being a rare flower tended by responsible others; nor did she work in a known tradition that later generations could use as a reference in the absence of any film-footage. Her admirers wrote of her in cloudy superlatives rather than in detail, just as Nijinsky’s did of him, but Isadora Duncan, unlike Nijinsky, had detractors too.

She still does, in the sense that her name is not unreservedly synonymous with greatness, but carries some whiff of the ridiculous. Why is this so? In trying to determine the reason, the lack of any comprehensive, mobile visual evidence is all the more tantalising: the great photographs by Genthe and Steichen lend Duncan their own dignified, suggestive beauty, but some of the indifferent posed shots or amateur snaps verge on the funny. The drawings and watercolours are more interesting. They give a pretty good idea of the flavour of her dancing, and their own flavour lends support to the ecstatic tone of many descriptions, since all three are products of the same epoch and emphasise the same kind of aesthetic interest.

It’s evident from old reproductions, old magazines and old posters that a draped female figure with one raised knee, outflung arms and a tipped-back head frequently appeared toward the end of the last century as a generalised emblem of aesthetic freedom with a tinge of sexual licence, a discreetly Dionysiac vision – flying drapery, mobile seminudity, but no blood, no dirt, no gracelessness. The artists who drew Isadora from life seem to be pursuing the ideal into this century, as if they viewed her new propositions for the dance with recognition, not surprise – as if, in fact, both she and they were continuing something that had already begun.

In all the renderings of Duncan actually dancing, despite their great variety of personal style, there is a curious uniformity in the poses. All the artists caught the same moments – and they were the ones you can already see in the academic and popular art of the previous generation, where Duncan herself must have seen them. Duncan’s first European admirers, in 1903 and after, saw this ideal of natural sexuality and creative freedom coming to amazing life – besides coming from America, the home of Daisy Miller and other free female spirits of the 19th century.

Apart from Isadora’s imprint on all of modern dance, and on written and pictorial history, there exists the physical memory of the actual Duncan dances, which still dwells in the bodies of her artistic descendants, the students of the students of her original six pupils, the famous Isadorables. Of the genealogically transmitted dances, there are indeed videotapes. The works are still being taught, and Duncan classes are still being held. What emerges from all this is the strong, music-like construction of the dances and the complex physical training Duncan developed for herself and her pupils; and yet in both scornful and enthusiastic descriptions, she was always perceived to be improvising, re-inventing the music through her body as she heard it. Clearly she was a great genius of stage performance: almost nobody can achieve the effect of inspired improvisation, in any stage medium. Her pieces were very carefully composed and rehearsed, but none of the work showed at all.

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