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Vol. 35 No. 20 Ďă 24 October 2013
pages 13-15 | 4112 words
To the Great God Pan
BUYMy Life: The Restored Edition by Isadora Duncan
Norton, 322 pp, N12.99, June, ISBN 978 0 87140 318 6
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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 Eug?ne 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 circlin