Duncan died in 1927 but her name is familiar to people who haven't the slightest interest in dance; she is up there with all those other household names of the Arts. Yet despite her mainly posthumous achievements - her activities were to pave the way forthe German Expressionists such as Mary Wigman and for American modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham - Duncan has never held much fascination for me. The thought of her skipping barefoot, clad in a diaphanous shift, to some Chopin prelude, or rousingher scarlet-robed bulk to the sentiment of the Marseillaise leaves me cold. Even if I'd been around to witness her greatest triumphs, I doubt whether the outer shape of her inner processes would have bored me less than some of the turgid, impressionistic descriptions of her.
Arnold Genthe's famous photographic studies of the dancer provide the most convincing record of her fulsome presence. Duncan approved of the photographs because they were "representations of the condition of [her] soul". But they are posed, studio shots which give little sense of how she actually moved or of Duncan's most worshipful mantra, "Listen to the music with your soul". And as the poet Max Eastman so perceptively concluded in his preface to the book of Genthe's collected works, published in 1928: "To the younger generation, I suppose, they will only be a series of sculptural poses and emotions - a maiden warrior, a Greek Muse." The American critic John Martin was equally concerned. A staunch supporter of modern dance, who recognised the damaging repercussions of idolatry, Martin warned that we would come to "look on the legend of Isadora with something not far from contempt".
Born in San Francisco in 1877, Duncan was drawn to, and found her spiritual home in, Europe. In 1899, she persuaded her whole family to board a cattle ship bound for England. But Duncan was hungry for travel, knowledge and experience. France, Germany, Greece and Russia beckoned. Puritan America would remain hostile to her for many years. By 1909, when she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, Duncan's use of ballet numbers from Gluck operas was deemed acceptable. But her appropriation of music by Beethoven, Wagner and Bach for dance purposes elicited outrage. Her notions of human liberty met with similar shock and disdain. Duncan not only freed the female body from its corseted restriction - perhaps her most lasting achievement - but ac tually practised the emancipated lifestyle she preached. She took lovers: the English actor Edward Gordon Craig in 1906 and, three years later, the sewing-machine magnate Paris Singer - she conceived children by different fathers and legally adopted 30o r 40 more in an attempt to ensure that her ideas survived - and, in 1922, she married the Russian poet Sergei Essenin who, a year later, deserted her, went insane and later committed suicide.
At a time when dancing barefoot was considered scandalous, Duncan thought nothing of baring a breast. At the Indianapolis Opera House, "the chief of police watched for sedition in the movement of Isadora's knees," wrote Janet Flanner in the New Yorker. In her homage to Duncan, Flanner refers to the "attic splendour" of Duncan's body which "once brought Greece to Kansas and Kalamazoo" and cites her as the "last of the trilogy of great female personalities our century cherished". Eleanora Dus e and Sarah Bernhardt were the other two. It is, I think, this cult of personality surrounding Duncan which serves to blot out my interest in her.
Duncan's belief in herself was immense and ruinously uncritical. Her most eccentric proclamations sprang from that unshakeable faith. Not only did Duncan claim to have danced in her mother's womb, but also, as a teenager, she approached the theatrical agent Augustin Daily and informed him that she was the spiritual daughter of Walt Whitman and had "discovered the art which has been lost for 2000 years". Daily employed her. Throughout her career, Duncan hid behind that well-worn, lazy discla imer: "If I could tell you what I mean, there would be no point in dancing." Certainly, her intuitive approach to dance - her discovery and understanding of the relationship between emotion, visceral action and outward movement - couldn't easily be expla ined, and most of her admirers were happy enough just watching what Carl Van Vechten called the "delightful confusion of her own mood with that of the music".
Had Duncan been more of a dancer and less a victim of her own ego, perhaps I'd feel able to take her more seriously. In her heartfelt and lifelong rebellion against schools, systems and social conventions there is much to admire. But there is also waffle, inconsistency and a panoply of glaring contradictions which cannot be ignored. She carried the banner for socialism but spoke highly of the deferential obedience of English servants. She openly denounced ballet yet, in a transparently thin endeavour todisplay generosity of spirit and vision, she praised Mathilde Kshessinska (the ballerina who had invited Duncan to a performance in St Petersburg), describing her "fairy-like figure" which "flitted across the stage more like a lovely bird or butterfly than a human being".
She saw herself as a fearless pioneer, a dance reformist for the modern world. But her hatred for the unreconstructed ballet of the 19th century wasn't qualified by a passion for the advances of the 20th century. To Duncan, machines were another enemy - and, indeed, she seemed particularly cursed when it came to the motor car. In 1913, her two children, Deirdre and Patrick, were drowned when the vehicle in which they were sitting rolled into the Seine at Neuilly. Driving with friends in an open top Bugatti on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice 14 years later, Duncan met instant death when the fringe of her shawl became caught in a wheel.
Isadora's fame is based on what she accomplished, on how she lived and, to an unhealthy extent, on what happened to her. Her life, rather than her art, is a biographer's dream, but as the subject of films by Ken Russell (1966) and Karel Reisz, whose 1968
epic Isadora starred Vanessa Redgrave, it has proved open to inaccuracy. Likewise, Kenneth MacMillan's full-length ballet Isadora, created in 1980, distorted her life story to suit its own sensationalist ends.
The only choreographer who managed to whet my appetite for her dancing was Ashton. In 1976, Lynn Seymour - the dancer who in temperament and physique has always seemed the modern incarnation of Duncan - performed Ashton's Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. In the 1980s, Seymour staged the work for Rambert dancer Lucy Burge. And next to Ashton's brief and wondrous portrait of Duncan sits Fokine's Chopin ballet Les Sylphides which, almost 90 years after its creation and in its naturalistic and poetical effects, still yields to Duncan's influence, and leaves me ever so slightly grateful for the fact that she existed.Reuse content