by Alex Belsey
Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2012 | 368 pages
Modern dance is situated at an unusual place in the artistic canon, for it is one genre of art verifiably invented by a woman. Of course, most people think of women when they think of dance – ballerinas in tutus gracefully traversing the stage en pointe, or perhaps Radio City Rockettes in sequins and top hats performing a kick line. In fact, for most of its history dance has, like the other traditional artistic disciplines, been dominated by men. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that traditional roles for female dancers so often embody the male fantasy of damsels in distress. Prima ballerinas tend to play characters who are small, delicate, and weak, waiting to be saved by a prince or lover, and painfully at the mercy of the evil villain: Clara (The Nutcracker), Odette/Odile (Swan Lake), Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), The Beautiful Tsarevna (Firebird), the title characters of Giselle and La Sylphide … the list goes on and on. Men control the agency and sexuality of all these characters. In classical ballet, it often seems, women are there simply to look pretty.
By the time Isadora Duncan was born, ballet had largely devolved into frivolity, something more akin to burlesque than high art. The dancers wore flouncy skirts and frilly tops, and performed cute, ultra-feminine movements to match their costumes. This was not art but entertainment. During her youth, Isadora (she preferred to be referred to by her first name) notes in My Life, artists were considered part of the servant class. All of that changed with Isadora’s arrival, as she revolutionized ballet and summoned forth modern dance in the last decade of the 1800s.
Throughout her life Isadora was livid in her hatred of ballet, which she denounced (repeatedly,) as debased and profane. Her own work was typically comprised of dancers – often students or amateurs – running and walking about the stage, coming to poses inspired by Grecian urns, and then losing themselves again in simple movements inspired by the music. She saw ballet as the enemy of her Art, concerned with frivolity and spectacle and containing nothing of true human passion or emotion. Influenced by a classicism that looks back to the ancient Greeks, she was interested in simple, authentic movement. Like the Greeks, she believed in the power and importance of the bacchanal – she often described herself as a bacchante – and always sought the opportunity for artists to give in to their desires and appease their sexuality outside the mores of society. She believed that dance should derive from music and serve as a communal outlet for the expression of emotion. Isadora believed Beauty and Truth to be contained in the authentic engagement with pleasure and the affirmation of community. The innovations she brought to bear on the art form – the idea that the simplest and most naturalistic movements were those best suited to the stage, the concept of dance coming directly out of music, and the philosophy of dance as a serious mode of community expression – set off seismic changes in the dance world, ushering in the new school and philosophy of modern dance.
In My Life, Isadora has the chance to tell her own story. Like all autobiographies, My Life contains factual omissions and inaccuracies. Reading it, one must remember that this, too, is part of Isadora’s Art – her role in the self-creation of her own legend and myth. In My Life she portrays herself as much more concerned with her life and experiences than with her dancing. Although she often expounds upon her Art, she actually says very little of substance about it. However, her writing, though maddeningly opaque and often excessive, is remarkably candid, which makes for a refreshing change from the over-sanitized sterility of the modern autobiography.
The youngest of four children, Isadora began giving concerts and attracting patrons at a young age, beginning her career in Augustin Daly’s theater troupe in New York. By all accounts, Isadora on the stage was a force of nature, and, as her philosophy of dance conflicted with the prevailing style in the troupe (and throughout the United States,), Isadora moved to London and conducted most of her career abroad. She began giving concerts on her own and soon began to cultivate a following. Her most important patron, Paris Singer, (one of the heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune,) was also her lover for many years.
Isadora was fiercely loyal to her family and fervently wished to keep them all together, having been deserted by her father at a young age. The seminal event in Isadora’s life was the birth and tragically early death of her children in a car accident. She describes their loss as her most defining experience, and refers to it repeatedly. She engages with the conflicting demands of artistic creativity and motherhood in a very real way that will be familiar to any modern working mother: her children humanize her, but they also provided a maddening distraction from her work during their brief life.
With no mention of how she herself learned to dance, Isadora claims to have begun teaching dance at the age of 6, and for the rest of her life she maintains an obsession with the idea of forming a school. Through its various iterations, from a chorus of Greek youths to an entourage of French schoolgirls, her school was a continual financial and logistical burden on Isadora and her various patrons. Indeed, although her family was perennially destitute, the book still reads like a travelogue of the wealthy, as Isadora’s performance engagements and wealthy lovers paid the bills. In fact, Isadora went through lovers in much the same way that she moved through projects – haphazardly, impulsively and unfaithfully, breaking hearts and contracts almost everywhere she went. Her loyalty extended only to her family – the Clan Isadora – and to her Art. The rest was just noise.
Isadora’s innovations in dance contributed to, and are perhaps a product of, her progressive philosophy of life. She lived emphatically in her own way, with idealism and passion, unrestricted by societal demands and customs. She always performed in her “little white tunic,” which was a very revealing costume with little underneath. She made and broke contracts seemingly at will, sometimes cancelling entire concert tours on a whim. She took numerous lovers throughout her life, living with many of them openly, and yet steadfastly refused to marry. She bore three children to three different fathers. She was a noisy and aggressive feminist, Communist, and bisexual. Anyone who chooses to live this way must necessarily be stubborn, controlling, naïve, impetuous, impulsive, maybe even a bit narcissistic. Isadora embodied all of these traits, sometimes exceedingly so. Her self-assuredness was legendary amongst her admirers, bemoaned by her producers, and reviled by the lovers she refused to marry. It shines through continually in her writing, and can be, it must be mentioned, somewhat grating to the modern ear in its excesses (analysis of her overuse of the word “ecstasy” is an essay in itself).
My Life provides the context for her (sometimes competing) philosophies. Her feminism, idealism, libertarianism, and socialism are all reflected in her working methodology. And yet, Isadora’s explicit rejection of societal customs was not fully actualized in her own life. Isadora equivocates on the subject of morality and agency, writing, “I was never able to understand, then or later on, why, if one wanted to do a thing, one should not do it. For I have never waited to do as I wished. This has frequently brought me to disaster and calamity, but at least I have had the satisfaction of getting my own way.” She struggles to judge her own virtue, acknowledging that “… these are only my poor human experiences … Whether they be worthy or worthless, they may perhaps serve as a guide to others as ‘What not to do.’”
One especially frustrating aspect of My Life is that, though Isadora brings up her school and its importance to her over and over and over again, she never really clarifies what she is teaching or what her artistic philosophy really is. On the other hand, this seems to be just one more manifestation of her character. As Joan Acocella points out in the excellent new introduction, Isadora’s friend Max Eastman “wrote of the ‘admirable force of character with which Isadora insisted on being half-baked’”.
My Life is an essential account of the birth of modern dance, as well as a titillating story that shocks close to a century after its original publication. Although its hyperbolic style and arch tone may seem dated if not irritating at times to the modern reader, it is a valuable addition to the literature, not only for its own perspective on the history of dance but perhaps more so for its candid account of an early feminist, whose battles are, in many ways, echoes of our own. Isadora’s philosophy of passionate creativity resonates with twenty-first century ideas about art, invoking the clichéd adage “do what you love.” Isadora always did, which enabled her to carve out a permanent place for herself in the canon of dance.
Violinist and dancer Carol Carlson is an avid performer, a devoted teacher, and a successful creative arts entrepreneur. She recently completed the Doctor of Musical Arts in violin performance and dance at UW-Madison. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and regularly collaborates with artists such as Madison Ballet and Li Chiao-Ping Dance. She is co-founder and Executive Director of Madison non-profit Music con Brio, which provides high quality music instruction and equipment at affordable graduated tuition rates to a diverse group of students.