╦¤ 4046. Joan Acocella. The Ecstasy of a Modern Romantic

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The Ecstasy of a Modern Romantic
Joan Acocella

In her youth Isadora Duncan (1877˛1927) more or less created what we now call American modern dance, and she soon became famous for it. She was also a beauty, leaving behind her a trail of glamorous lovers. But by 1927, when she was fifty, all that was over. Duncan was living in a rented studio in Nice. She was barely performing any longer, and years of hard living˛above all, heavy drinking˛had coarsened her looks. Her most recent and thorough biographer, Peter Kurth, quotes Nicolas Nabokov to the effect that, already in the early 1920s, ˛her baggy face was glistening and red.˛ Her hair was patchily hennaed; her body, heavy now, was draped in tatty shawls. She had no money. She went to parties in order to eat the canapes.

Partly, no doubt, to improve her financial situation, she decided to do something that she had talked about for years: write her memoirs. In early 1927 she signed a contract with the Liveright Publishing Corporation, in New York. For six months she worked on the book, dictating, as a rule, and usually after a number of drinks. It is reported that her first typist could be heard saying, ˛Miss Duncan, you don˛t mean to say this˛▓you simply cannot.˛ In August or September, she sent the typescript, entitled My Life, to Liveright. It was brought out that same year. This year, it will be republished, with some changes.

At least during Duncan˛s early career, most concert dance, in both the United States and Western Europe, was a frivolous business, given over to the simplest entertainment values: spectacle, good cheer, thighs. This was the case, preeminently, with classical ballet, which, until Diaghilev˛s Ballets Russes arrived in Paris in 1909, was scorned by people of taste. As for modern dance, it didn˛t exist yet. A few imaginative soloists were at work in the seedbed, notably Loie Fuller and Ruth St. Denis. There were side matters, too. At the end of the nineteenth century, a Swiss music teacher, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, had developed a system, ˛rhythmic gymnastics˛ (widely known as eurhythmics), that, later, would come to seem an antecedent of Duncan˛s Greek-nymph look. In fact, Duncan had developed her style by the time she saw any Dalcroze demonstrations. If anything, Dalcroze took from her.

More important for Duncan was something that, today, seems more quaint, the Delsarte System of Expression, invented by Francois Delsarte, a French teacher of acting and singing, in the late nineteenth century and popular in the United States during Duncan˛s youth. Here the performers, dressed, like Dalcroze˛s students, in Greek tunics, struck poses modeled on ancient sculpture and thereby represented human emotions. One is reminded of Emma Hamilton˛s ˛attitudes.˛

Of the personal qualities that Duncan brought to her art, the most powerful was a species of Platonism, a vision of dance as an exalted and abstract entity that her own creations merely, but nobly, aspired to. Writing about her mid-career collaboration with the pianist Walter Rummel (who was also her lover˛she called him her Archangel) she says:

As sound and gesture flowed up to the Infinite, another answer echoed from above˛▓. Often a curious psychosis existed in the theater such as I had not known before. If my Archangel and I had pursued these studies further, I have no doubt that we might have arrived at the spontaneous creation of movements of such spiritual force as to bring a new revelation to mankind.

To disseminate the revelation she established several schools, where, she said, her purpose was not so much to create dancers as to breed souls. She told her students, ˛You are walking slowly towards the light.˛ She spoke constantly of her ˛Idea,˛ without specifying what it was. Her good friend Max Eastman, editor of The Masses, wrote of the ˛admirable force of character with which Isadora insisted on being half-baked.˛

From childhood, Duncan saw herself as a liberator, opposed but never vanquished by philistines. In My Life she recalls that in elementary school she gave an impromptu lecture in front of the class on how there was no Santa Claus, whereupon she was sent home by an angry teacher. This was not the last of what, with pride, she called her ˛famous speeches.˛ When she became a professional, she routinely ended her concerts by coming out in front of the curtain and describing to the audience, at length, how profound her way of dancing was, as opposed to the triviality of other ways˛she called ballet ˛an expression of degeneration, of living death˛˛and on how, therefore, they should contribute to the expenses of her school. (This declamatory bent was probably the least attractive aspect of Duncan˛s personality, as it is of My Life, and some reviewers had a lot of fun with it.) What appeared to her most vile about ballet was its unnaturalness: the rigid back, the studied positions, the relentless daintiness. Duncan was an exemplary bohemian˛a quality that was partly rooted, no doubt, in the fact that she was from California. (She was born in San Francisco and raised, mostly, in Oakland.) That region has a history of breeding idealists, animists, nonconformists.

In keeping with her lofty aims, Duncan claimed that the source of movement was not the pelvis˛as was, and is, said by most dance teachers˛but the solar plexus, between the two wings of the ribcage. High and in front, it lifted the body up, up, toward the au-dela. The high-held chest can be seen in most photographs of the mature Duncan. Unfortunately there are no films. She thought film was unnatural.

In most of her concerts Duncan, no doubt inspired by Delsarte, dressed in what she called her ˛little white tunic,˛ cinched below each breast, as well as at the waist, and usually descending to about mid-calf. She wore no stockings, no shoes, and, it seems, no bra. She did wear underpants; some say it was more than underpants˛a sort of teddy. In any case, there wasn˛t much between her and her tunic. At that time, such a costume was scandalous, and to make it more so, she often wore it in public as well as onstage. She wanted to shock or, in any case, to teach: the beauty of the naked body, its holy innocence. The great critic Andre Levinson speculated that she would have danced nude but for the likelihood of ˛police interference.˛ (In this utopianism, and in other respects, Duncan was of course a harbinger of the 1960s.) Some reviewers said that she projected no eroticism. ˛Pure and sexless,˛ Carl Van Vechten called her. At least on stage, eroticism does not accord well with claims of wholesomeness.

Related to her willed naivete was Duncan˛s adoration of children. Like Rousseau, a hero of hers, she claimed that children, not adults, were wise. As they grew, civilization corrupted them, by depriving them of spontaneity and imagination. In My Life, Duncan˛s students˛plus her own two children, Deirdre and Patrick, born in 1906 and 1910, respectively˛are always gamboling about sweetly in little tunics matching hers. They never have fights or scabby knees.

Another of her campaig