- Life into Art: Isadora Duncan and Her World edited by Dorée Duncan, Carol Pratl and Cynthia Splatt
Norton, 198 pp, £25.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 393 03507 7
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.
Many music-lovers hated her habit of imposing female solo dances on the work of Bach and Beethoven, and traditional dancers found her movements sloppy and her aims incredibly pretentious. Her admirers were entranced by what was believed to be her complete naturalness, made evident by the absence of showy technical feats. ‘No leaps! No pirouettes!’ they marvelled; whereas the ballet-master, choreographer and dancer Serge Lifar, in his Ballet Traditional to Modern, says: ‘Isadora Duncan did nothing but run with her knees bent and her head thrown back ... Her movements were of a hopeless poverty and monotony.’ The dances now on tape in fact seem various and complicated. What they do lack is the sharp edge and harsh force so important in most modern Neoclassicism, the unfamiliar and slightly unpleasant formal rigour that distinguished the work of modern artists seeking only the most radical methods, not the most pleasing motifs, in the classicism of the past.
The destruction of traditional styles was a vital theme at the turn of the century, and Isadora Duncan was an artist with advanced creative intuitions; but her Neoclassicism was rather literal-minded, unlike that of Stravinsky and Picasso. Ancient Greece was her model, but she was stuck in the entrenched Romantic idea that because Greek art expounded physical Beauty as Truth, Greek art was the truly natural art. That meant that its sacred visual vocabulary could not be tampered with, or treated with any modern aesthetic distance, or any irony – postures and garments had to be meticulously studied and followed. In holding to this visual idea she was very traditional indeed, and perhaps it was the real secret of her instant success. Studying the Greek friezes and vases as if they held the secret of the human body put her in the same camp as Winckelmann, but at a considerable distance from Cézanne – closer, in fact, to Gérôme and Alma-Tadema.
Nevertheless her performances, which could seem so formless to the artistic avant-garde, so unseemly to staid audiences, were undeniably beautiful, beyond criticism from either side. The movements, however vigorous, were never uncomfortably startling or ugly, always harmonious and decent, like those fondly associated with innocent childhood: her greatest genius seems to have resided in her solitary, rather unassuming physical presence, her tall and well-made body dressed in plain drapery, animated by total conviction and native grace, moved by great music. She wore her straight hair plain, put almost no make-up on her gentle face, and hung up plain blue curtains for a backdrop; but she used the best and most subtle stage lighting available, along with the best works of certified musical giants. She did it all, moreover, with bare feet; and that in itself was both infantile and licentious, faintly penitential, daring, dangerous and inescapably disturbing. It wasn’t entirely authentic, but it was great show-business.
Isadora Duncan clearly appeared at the perfect psychological moment: a generation earlier or later would have been no good. She probably could have pulled it off a century before as a sort of Corinne of the dance, in the full tide of Romantic Neoclassicism; but neither the heavily responsible mid-19th century nor the fully streamlined mid-20th would have welcomed her brand of enthusiastic artlessness, her brave female summons to unconscious forces mediated neither by the established rules of stage artifice, nor by any brilliantly invented new ones.
Unlike that of most dancers, Duncan’s stage career only ended with her life, accidentally truncated in 1927 when she was 50; but the lack of discipline often associated with her art became manifest in her body during her last decade, as she gained weight and lost control of her beauty. She had gone through frightful suffering after the accidental deaths of her two older children, later followed by the death of a third after a few hours of life. She became weighted with sorrow, and incidentally with drink. By then, too, the epoch was no longer congenial to female fleshiness, and everybody’s ideal natural woman was young, sleek and taut, not soft, heavy and mature.
As the Twenties progressed, Duncan, now dancing in a tragic vein, became somewhat laughable on stage, but her influence was already profound and international, assured for a long future. Her pupils in Germany and Russia, France and America were responsible for only part of it: the rest was her legend, the memory and broad effects of her early performances, the record of her relations with the great and small of her day, the pictures and the anecdotes; and the eternal modernity of her message, which in sum consisted of a call for honesty, originality and spontaneity – things often in short supply in the long history of art.
Many books have been written about Isadora Duncan, mainly about her impact, and she wrote an autobiography, mainly about her ideas. The present volume is a work of homage, a latterday memorial edited by three American woman who had separate reasons to admire her, and who all became friends. First among these is Dorée Duncan, granddaughter of lsadora’s brother Raymond, who was himself a fervent and innovative disciple of Ancient Greek modes of life and art. The other two editors came to an interest in Duncan through connections with the theatre and independent connections with Paris, where they met Dorée, who became director or the Akademia Raymond Duncan on the death of her grandmother in the Seventies. Dorée writes the acknowledgments and tells the story of the book’s inception; Carol Pratl is a dance teacher and historian; Cynthia Splatt has written a book about Isadora’s influence on the theatre and her theatrical link with Gordon Craig.
The general tone of the text, written by Splatt, is uniformly and irritatingly adulatory, and somewhat dependent on cliché. There is little historical or cultural background offered to account for what is presented as the comet-like phenomenon of Isadora Duncan. Although her family is credited with a primary effect on her work, she is seen as utterly unprecedented, always an influence on culture, never in any way enabled by its influence, consciously or not. The aim has not been to produce a thorough study, but to register allegiance, in the familial mode. The three editors are creative and strong-minded women like Isadora herself, and they wish to see in her the first apostle of modern female freedom, the forerunner of all contemporary women’s achievements – although this can really mean only personal and artistic achievements.
In this book, Isadora is hailed as yet another to whom the abolition of corsets ought to be attributed, but there is no record of her desire that women be free from any other sort of external constraint. Their right to vote, their claim for effective contraception, their need for wages equal to men’s – none of these appears to have been of any concern to Isadora Duncan. She seems to have cared only about women’s right to free expression, including sexual, of course. Yet here she is celebrated, not as a devoted bohemian in a long tradition, but as an advanced feminist (the best kind, never shrill and strident) – even though she had no political sense at all. She also had rather disastrous and dependent amorous relations with various men, in another old feminine tradition.
Teaching, however, was in her blood, and she made a great leader and missionary. The facts of Isadora’s early life and upbringing in San Francisco are among the good things offered in this book, and they help to explain the force of her later career. They show how lsadora’s performances could have the air of being transcendent lessons, not just shows. After her father abandoned the family, her mother Dora had run a dancing school to make a living, and so had her older sister Elizabeth; Isadora learned dancing, teaching and performing simultaneously, during her earliest years. In the 1890s, all four sisters and brothers appeared in dance concerts up and down the California coast, creating their own material; and this helped to form the content of the dance classes they helped to teach.
Dancing was the stuff of life itself, nothing rare and unusual. Social dancing, waltzes and polkas, was taught at Dora’s school; and for the artistic dancing, the young Duncans made it all up and figured it all out, with the assistance of a bit of ballet training and the applied general principles of François Delsarte, whose originally Parisian school of aesthetic dancing influenced several generations of American dancers and teachers. Eventually, Elizabeth Duncan ran the German school Isadora founded; and Raymond not only founded the Akademia in Paris, but before that set up a colony in Greece, where dancing and music went along with farming, spinning and weaving, all on the ancient models. The other brother became an actor. The whole of this California family seems to have been talented, stubborn and very compelling. In about 1908, Raymond permanently took up draped costume, long hair and sandals, and could occasionally be seen in them on the streets of Paris and New York until his death at an advanced age.
Seizing the spotlight for herself and coming to life under its creative gaze was not the point of Isadora’s artistic mission: dancing was inseparable from getting others to dance. Although she produced her greatest public impact as a solo performer, she gave many concerts with her first pupils and later with large groups of children from her schools. It’s possible that her audiences were carried away by the feeling that they could all he doing it too – could move so freely, could allow themselves to be so transported by music, could even be so beautiful. It was a very different effect from that of the Russian ballet, with its glittering, weightless, whirling creatures from another world, or that of cabaret dancers with their thrillingly shameful displays.
Agnes de Mille’s introduction is another good thing about this book. She, too, cannot praise Isadora enough, but she does it with the advantage of having actually seen her dance. It was 1918, late in Duncan’s career, and de Mille was a child. Isadora’s body ‘shook with fat’, says de Mille, and she reports being unmoved; but her mother was in tears, deeply touched by the grief expressed in Isadora’s movements, and de Mille was impressed by that. De Mille notes that Duncan had no humour, and that her mode was forever heroic or ecstatic; but she reports personally on the impression of simplicity and clarity her dancing gave, with a pure authority in it that kept Duncan herself from ever being really ridiculous – though those of us who never saw her, who can only see the pictures and read about her, can get the feeling that she might have been.
The very best thing about this book is the illustrations, of which there are many never before made public. De Mille says they are all the more important in the absence of films of her dancing – but I would agree with Duncan herself, that movies of her would have been something of a shame. Modern viewers watching them as historical curiosities would find themselves at a great distance from the real Isadora, the exponent of sacred immediacy.
Meanwhile there’s a lot to see. The photographs here include old family pictures, always interesting, and very early shots of the young Duncans dancing together in Spanish costumes, or of Isadora as Primavera, and the like; many unfamiliar posed photographs, early and late, of Isadora promoting her art or her career, and of other people important in it; wonderful blurry snapshots taken by Raymond of Isadora dancing among ancient Greek monuments (in sandals, not barefoot) and many other snapshots of her squinting into the sun at domestic or convivial moments, sometimes dressed in current fashion, sometimes wearing experimental varieties of flowing costume other than Greek. There are photos taken at the Duncan schools of several countries, showing masses of draped children dancing on the grass or posing in attitudes, with a draped teacher looking benign. There are illuminating pictures of Raymond’s colony and academy, with many draped adults weaving and painting on fabric, and some of them dancing too.
Then there are the masses of drawings, watercolours, sculptures and prints – the list of artists include Dunoyer de Segonzac, E.A. Bourdelle, Rodin and Gordon Craig, along with José Clara, Geoffroy de Chaume, and Valentine Lecomte and others. Some of the works are magnificent, like the ones by Abraham Walkowitz, others are dramatic, delicate, sentimental, very realistic or very abstract, or decorative; but all show the thrusting knee again and again, and the bowed or thrown-back head, the open arms, the whirling coloured stuffs veiling the torso. None shows her in mid-air. Along with running, she seems to have done a great deal of skipping and prancing, with her bare knees pushing up through slits in the drapery, but no high or broad leaping at all, no extended legs. Instead she used the floor, kneeling and reclining, collapsing and rising. The face is always blank – attention was riveted on those flashing naked legs and feet, those sweeping arms, that rounded exposed throat. All these artists help one to imagine the intoxicating effect.
Nothing in this book, in pictures or in any quoted accounts, answers the vital question: ‘What did she wear under the drapery?’ When I was about fourteen, having seen pictures and read descriptions of Isadora and being as intensely concerned with feminine habits as with stage custom, I put this question to my grandmother, another eyewitness. ‘She wore ...’ and my grandmother paused delicately. ‘Uh, um, a sort of menstrual bandage.’ Wow.