There is only one piece of film that shows Isadora Duncan dancing.It is four seconds long, the very end of a performance, and it is followed by eight seconds in which Duncan accepts applause. This small celluloid footprint – light-struck in the manner of Eugène Atget – contains quite a bit of information. It is an afternoon recital, early in the 20th century, and it takes place en plein air, trees in the background, like so much of the painting of the day. Duncan enters the frame turning, her arms positioned in an upward reach not unlike ballet’s codified fourth position, but more naturally placed. She wears a loose gown draped crosswise with a white veil, a floating X over her heart. Coming out of the turn and moving in the direction of the camera, her arms melt open as her head falls back. The white column of her neck, the spade-like underside of her jaw, the lifted breastbone crossed in white gauze: had any female dancer before Duncan projected such ecstatic presence and concrete power? Because of her thrown back upper body it seems as if she is running, but she is actually slow and steady, offering herself to something so large she doesn’t need to move fast. The dance over, she stands simply and acknowledges her audience with a Christ-like proffering of her palms. In fact, her classical garb is as much that of the sandalled shepherd of men as it is a barefoot goddess of Greek mythology. ‘I have come,’ she once said, ‘to bring about a great renaissance of religion through the dance, to bring the knowledge of the beauty and holiness of the human body through its expression of movements.’ Thus spake Isadora.
We have no more than four seconds of Duncan dancing because she did not like the medium of film as it existed in the years of her solo career, which began in the 1890s, peaked between 1910 and 1920, and continued intermittently until her death in 1927, at the age of 50. In those days film was in its infancy and still silent (The Jazz Singer was released the year Duncan died). Because music – Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven, Wagner – was the spiritual inspiration for so much of what she did, Duncan couldn’t imagine dancing on film without it. But more than that, the absence of archival footage, she said, would ensure that future generations remembered her ‘as a legend’. She was keenly aware of history and presented herself and her art, from the very beginning, as a phenomenon on a continuum with ancient Greece, Renaissance painting, classical music, the Pre-Raphaelites and Auguste Rodin. After her, she believed, would come ‘one who would create the new dance born from the new music’. She thought that her young son Patrick might be that ‘one’.
Photography, too, was suspect, and in many photos she wears an expression of placid forbearance: the smile of Mona Lisa under eyes that are appraising. Her portrait and the sensation of her dancing would be rendered by countless artists in other media, but it turns out that the camera made her selfconscious. A surprise, this, considering how unselfconscious, how shamelessly exhibitionist and inflammatory her behaviour could be. She disdained marriage and went from lover to lover, hundreds of them, with abandon. She bore three illegitimate children without a shred of guilt (the third one died within hours of its birth). She lectured the rich on their selfishness while begging funds for her dance school, her dream of seeing five hundred children – sometimes it was five thousand – dancing to Beethoven’s Ninth. She treated cash and champagne as if both were water from a bottomless well. When it came to the mores of her day Duncan was not so much renegade as indifferent.
But when it came to her art, she was uncompromising and deeply protective. She shied away from the lens, her most recent biographer, Peter Kurth, explains, because ‘she could make no natural motion while posing for the camera.’ Natural motion – as opposed to the engraved arcs and acrobatic tricks of classical ballet, the swooning decadence of the waltz or the silliness of social dancing – was the foundation of her technique. Nature was true, thus movement must be born of locomotion common to all: walking, skips, jumps, turns, sways, lunges, runs. Poses for studio stills were just another form of artifice and therefore untruthful.
Nevertheless, the camera did pull images of magisterial eloquence from Duncan, especially when Arnold Genthe and Edward Steichen were behind the lens. Genthe’s evocation of her dance to the ‘Marseillaise’, taken in 1917, freezes a silent roar of revolutionary fervour. Her dark robe, one-shouldered, bleeds into a still darker background, leaving only the phosphorescent glow of uncovered skin: that strong neck like a tree, foot planted like a trowel, the arms – lathed with power – raised in a V, for victory, chin lifted, and eyes fixed over the horizon. This arms-up position, which Steichen called ‘her most beautiful single gesture, the slow raising of her arms until they seemed to encompass the whole sky’, was made totemic in the photographs he coaxed from her in 1920, in Athens, where she stood in various portals of the Parthenon. Grandiloquent, vainglorious, magnificent, the shots capture Duncan’s kinship with all things Attic: ‘She made a gesture completely related to the columns,’ Steichen wrote. ‘She was a part of Greece and she took Greece as a part of herself.’ They speak as well to the huge scale on which Duncan lived and worked, her vision of herself, her dancing, as the portal to a more liberated and humane civilisation. As Carl Van Vechten said of her maturing body and art, ‘before she had been a nymph from a temple. Now she was the Parthenon itself.’
As with so many artists at the turn of the 20th century, we must take on faith the words that describe Duncan’s power in performance. We must try to understand that for audiences of the Belle Epoque, this woman – her legs and feet bare under flimsy tunics and archaic robes – was first shocking and then stirring. The other great female dance star of the era was Anna Pavlova, best remembered for solos in which she is something other than human: a dying swan, a dragonfly, a fairy doll. Duncan was always human: a woman reliving a story, a woman in league with an ideal, a woman alone with the music.
And where Pavlova was a product of Mariinsky classicism – and thus an artist working within a tradition – Duncan, American-born, mostly self-taught, was attempting to take dance back to its unleavened beginnings in Arcadian pastures and temples, to give it a fresh start, a place of dignity in the pantheon of high art. She drew stylistic guidance for her new language of movement from stillness: the iconic figures circling Grecian urns, the zephyrs and graces in Botticelli, the volumetric musculatures in drawings by Blake. She pulled meaning out of repose – ‘what she gives us is a sort of sculpture in transition,’ Ernest Newman wrote – and may be more truly grouped with Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse (Duncan and Duse were close friends, possibly lovers). Certainly modern dance, which arguably begins with Duncan and is like a torch in the night, passing from one woman to another, has sometimes seemed as much thespian – as in ‘action’ – as it is terpsichorean, ‘relating to dance’. Indeed, Duncan once said: ‘as a dancer I’m really a great orator.’
If, after all the epiphanies described by ardent colleagues, critics and friends, we still can’t ‘see’ Duncan’s dancing, there is yet a very great performance of hers that is available and alive: the memoir she began in 1926 and finished in September 1927. Duncan was desperately down at heel when she wrote My Life – in debt, out of shape, nearing fifty, performing little, drinking – and claimed that it was the only thing she’d ever done ‘just for the money’. She had no illusions that she could write even ‘one simple, beautiful sentence’, and she wept over the infelicity of her opening chapters. They were felicitous enough to win a contract with Boni & Liveright in New York. The rest of the book would be dictated to a procession of secretaries who worked with Duncan through the night. She was aiming, she said, for something ‘like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, only franker’. She did not want to write ‘the chronicle of a female Casanova’, though such a chronicle is what the publishers, who sent telegrams asking for ‘more about your love affairs’, seemed to want. When the book was published in December 1927, however, passages too prurient (i.e. honest) for puritan America had been cut. Duncan couldn’t complain: on 14 September 1927, within a fortnight of finishing the manuscript, she died of a broken neck when the fringe of her shawl caught in the back wheel of a car. This summer, Liveright (revived as a division of Norton) republished My Life in its original form.
Even with cuts, the book made a huge impression. Reviewing My Life in 1928 for the New Yorker, Dorothy Parker called Duncan a ‘generous, gallant, reckless, fated fool of a woman’: an instance of the pot calling the kettle fabulous. She thought the memoir was a ‘mess of prose’, but it didn’t matter because it was ‘profoundly moving’. The scholar Alfred Longueil said My Life was ‘the first statement in our literature of woman as an artist’. The choreographer Agnes de Mille remembers that the public’s response to the memoir showed ‘how we longed for what was passionate, even if outrageous’. The book also, she wrote, ‘proved dreadfully unnerving to the young. Several virgins of my acquaintance went directly astray in the hope of becoming great dancers – a mistaken notion.’
One can see why virgins went astray. It is a splendid book, an inspiring book, doors and windows and eyes and arms wide open to the world (‘according to legend,’ de Mille says of Duncan’s childhood homes, ‘the leaves blew through their domicile’). Her idealism is a growing, stumbling, developing thing, chaste during her ‘nymph from a temple’ days, but sensually softened, coloured and complicated by her initiation into lovemaking, a birthright she saw no reason to keep under lock and key. Under the star of Whitman, she sings the body electric, the soul climactic: ‘I live in my body like a spirit in a cloud – a cloud of rose fire and voluptuous response.’
This feeling for the elemental is alive on page 1 – ‘my first memory is of a fire. I remember being thrown into the arms of a policeman from an upper window’ – and continues on page two with her invocation of water: ‘I was born by the sea … My first idea of movement, of the dance, certainly came from the rhythm of the waves. I was born under the star of Aphrodite … My life and my Art were born of the sea.’ Duncan makes of her own life a creationist tale – geographical, biological, mythological – and the tale is forged by an imagination that works kinetically, in cognitive leaps that make airborne connections: exaggerated, yes, but always coherent.
Duncan’s imagination found support in a unique family situation. She was born in 1877 in California, the fourth and last child of Mary Dora Gray and Joseph Charles Duncan, who divorced when she was a baby. Her father was a poet, editor, banker and ladies’ man who made and lost four fortunes and died in a shipwreck. ‘All my childhood,’ she writes, ‘seemed to be under the black shadow of this mysterious father of whom no one would speak, and the terrible word divorce.’ Here was the taproot of her emancipation. ‘I would live to fight against marriage,’ she writes, ‘and for the right for every woman to have a child or children as it pleased her, and to uphold her right and her virtue.’
The loss of Joseph’s income meant that Mrs Duncan had to work out of the house, teaching music into the evening. This freed the children, who were an optimistic bunch. ‘I have to be thankful that when we were young my mother was poor,’ Duncan writes. ‘She could not afford servants or governesses for her children, and it is to this fact that I owe the spontaneous life which I had the opportunity to express as a child and never lost’ and ‘owe the inspiration of the dance I created, which was but the expression of freedom.’ It was a raw childhood during the day and a rich one at night, when Mrs Duncan would play classical music on the piano or recite Romantic poetry until late. In this family Art, a word Duncan always capitalises, was god.
And the die was cast early. ‘When I was about six years old, my mother came home one day and found that I had collected half a dozen babies of the neighborhood – all of them too young to walk – and had them sitting before me on the floor while I was teaching them to wave their arms … I informed her that it was my school of the dance.’ Duncan actually made money doing this, and by the age of ten told her mother that formal education was useless. She put up her hair, said she was 16, and, with her older sister Elizabeth, expanded the dance school. ‘Our fame as teachers increased. We called it a new system of dancing, but in reality there was no system. I followed my fantasy and improvised, teaching any pretty thing that came into my head.’ There is a fine line between Napoleonic destiny and the charismatic con. It has to do with time and place and talent. Duncan was destined.
And the whole family knew it. Brothers Raymond and Augustin, sister Elizabeth, all would find places in history for their own achievements, but all three respected the will of the youngest. Isadora said it was time to blow San Francisco, so they did. When it was time to blow America, again they did. Duncan’s path goes through Chicago, New York and then on the road with Augustin Daly’s theatre company. But she wasn’t interested in theatre, so often low-brow and pandering; she was an acolyte of Art. She persuaded the clan to decamp to London, where she practically lived among the British Museum’s Grecian urns, then to Paris, and it was there she found her mecca: ‘Paris, which stands in our world, for our times, for what Athens was in the epoch of the glory of Ancient Greece’. Her account of a later clan trip to the real Greece, where she bought land that lacked water and the family spent a year building a very expensive temple, stone by stone, is hilarious. Of Paris she wrote: ‘I, a little, uneducated American girl, in some mysterious manner had found the key which opened to me the hearts and minds of the intellectual and artistic elite of Paris.’ The city of light was taken with the temple nymph, wishing to know her, mentor her, talk to her. Well not always just talk. The mighty Rodin wanted her virginity and she, frightened, didn’t give it to him: ‘How often I have regretted this childish miscomprehension which lost for me the divinity of giving my virginity to the Great God Pan himself … Surely Art and all life would have been richer thereby!’
Duncan’s coming of age in Europe was a tempestuous time when like minds talked until dawn, affinities were instant, and life was Ecstasy or Neurasthenia (one feels bipolar disorder was prevalent in these circles). When it came to sex, she started slow. Her first love and the man who deflowered her at 24 was ‘Romeo’ – actually Oszkár Beregi, a Hungarian actor who was playing Romeo at the time. The first tries weren’t fun, but her eventual experience of ‘the final convulsion and sinking down into nothingness’ was a revelation: ‘Let those judge me who can, but rather blame Nature or God, that He has made this one moment to be worth more, and more desirable, than all else in the universe.’ When Beregi moved on to the role of Mark Antony, his tenor changed and the affair ended. Two years of no sex went by and then ‘Endymion’ – Edward Gordon Craig, the brilliant British set designer (and selfish to a fault) – became Duncan’s second great love and the father of her daughter Deirdre: ‘Gordon Craig appreciates my Art as no one else has ever appreciated it. But his amour-propre, his jealousy as an artist, would not allow him to admit that any woman could really be an artist.’ Her third great love was ‘Lohengrin’ or L., otherwise known as Paris Singer. An heir to the sewing machine fortune, he was worth a million dollars a month and introduced Duncan to high living. Though he fathered her son Patrick and supported her for years, he never turned her head. She refused to marry him or to kowtow to his cash. ‘All money brings a curse with it,’ she writes, ‘and the people who possess it cannot be happy for 24 hours.’
Duncan often made her own huge sums on European and American tours, but she knew nothing of saving or planning for the future. Having lived her life in the now, on the move, at times supporting all the Duncans, the concept of financial security didn’t exist for her and she was frequently broke. When guardian angels gave her money it was usually spent within said 24 hours. What mattered was the next genius, the next lover – often one and the same – and the next artistic breakthrough. Midway through My Life, discussing the first palpable steps towards her distinctive style, she writes of Botticelli’s Primavera, focusing on ‘the central figure, half Aphrodite, half Madonna, who indicates the procreation of spring in one significant gesture … I wished intensely to translate all this to my dance … Everything rustling, promising New Life.’ The goddess of love and the spiritual mother: she has summed herself up.
Duncan’s costumes, as well, would forever reference this rustling figure with the loose white gown girded crosswise between the breasts. That X – symbol of the unknown or of a kiss – made a target of her heart. Love’s arrow pierced deeply at first, but having evolved, at the hands of Gordon Craig and Singer, beyond the notion of a lasting love, there would be many tourists through the Parthenon that was Isadora: ‘Now that I had discovered that love might be a pastime as well as a tragedy, I gave myself to it with pagan innocence … Some people may be scandalised, but I don’t understand why, if you have a body in which you are born to a certain amount of pain … why should you not, when the occasion presents, draw from this same body the maximum of pleasure?’
X also stands for negation. Calling up the deepest, darkest day of her life, Duncan stopped dictating. In her own hand she relives 19 April 1913, the day her two children and their nanny died, drowned in a freak accident that sent their car lurching into the Seine:
Sometimes I have a feeling that the dead do not go to a far country, nor do they hover about us invisible. I have an intuition that at the moment of death they penetrate – possess us – inhabit us, and if they are strong enough they subjugate us, or if not, we dominate them, keeping them in the cellars of our subconsciousness and only allowing them to come out on occasion…. What is this flesh but a house, large enough, perhaps to contain many unsuspected guests.
Even infinite loss is experienced sensually, the children returned to the body, in spectral engagement with their mother.
Liveright’s restored edition contains an introduction by Joan Acocella. Her tone is characteristically droll, except when it becomes strangely grudging, as if she is unconvinced that Duncan was worth all the fuss. It’s odd, considering that Acocella wrote a book on the contemporary choreographer Mark Morris, whose own full-bodied, earthbound style, like his equally full-bodied braggadocio, is reminiscent of Duncan in the extreme: ‘The ghost of Duncan hovers over many of his works,’ Acocella writes in Mark Morris, ‘and certain solos that he has made for himself look like actual tributes to Duncan.’ Apparently what’s good for the gander is not good for the goose. The lack of sympathy is stunning when Acocella takes up the death of the children: ‘It is hard to imagine a worse catastrophe for a parent. It is also hard to imagine anyone’s making a greater display of her grief than Duncan did … But people were less chary of sentimentality in those days.’ No. People made space for sorrow in those days. Consider Parker on the subject: ‘She never recovered from their deaths. Oh, she tried … She drank, and she loved, and she danced.’ But from ‘the day they were killed until the day of her own death, she was Niobe’.
Which is another way of saying that Duncan didn’t, couldn’t, live by halves. In many ways she was like Vaslav Nijinsky, Adam to her Eve in the sense that both left the encircled, Edenic world of classical dance – Duncan rejecting it completely, Nijinsky slipping out by way of his choreography – for a more modern and mortal way of moving. It is said she suggested that they should have a child together, for what a dancer that would be! And while Nijinsky was as verbally slow as Duncan was swift, he too was drawn to the ancient world; he too, for his L’Après-midi d’un faune, lifted a movement style from Grecian urns; he too was never filmed dancing. Nijinsky’s culturally cataclysmic work, Le Sacre du printemps, a ‘ballet’ that had nothing of ballet in it and took earth worship and the pagan sacrifice of a maiden as its subject, was an achievement Duncan would have embraced. But it premiered on 29 May 1913, forty days after the death of Deirdre, Patrick and their nanny. There is no mention of Nijinsky’s ballet anywhere in My Life. Duncan was forty days into her own Sacre, future springs forever in eclipse.
Life goes on. There would be more tours, schools, loves and losings of love. Letting go of her affair with the pianist Walter Rummel, ‘my Archangel’, who on a group trip to Greece turned his affections to one of her protégés, she writes of her jealousy: ‘All my experience availed me nothing, and this was a terrible shock to me.’ Returning to Paris, she ‘believed that the world and love were dead for me. How many times in one’s life one comes to that conclusion! Whereas, if we could see over the next hill, there is a valley of flowers and happiness awaiting us.’ She then sings the body autumnal: ‘I was once the timid prey, then the aggressive bacchante, but now I close over my lover as the sea over a bold swimmer.’ She is creation and destruction.
‘Adieu, Old World! I would hail a New World.’ These are the last words of My Life, a reference to the trip Duncan is about to take in 1921, to newly red Russia, where she’s been invited to start a state dance school. She has ended the memoir prematurely, drawing a curtain over Moscow, where she entered into her only marriage, a disastrous tangle with the wildly unstable poet Sergei Esenin, 18 years her junior. (Explaining the unexplainable to her dear friend Mary Desti, she said: ‘Can’t you see the resemblance? He’s the image of little Patrick.’) Off the page, in real life, she was back in Paris and had finally agreed to be filmed for posterity. If she had lived but one more day, to 15 September, it would have happened. The filmmaker Ivan Nikolenko had won her trust with a few non-dancing test runs – Duncan smoking, Duncan in a car – and the shoot was scheduled. But the gods decided otherwise. Their daughter would be a legend.