December 15th, 2012

Isadora’s secret

When I was a kid I was fascinated by Isadora Duncan. What was her dancing really like? How could simple movements entrance an audience so, all around the world?

There are no movies of her (despite a YouTube few seconds of video that claims to be). Only stills, which I studied to try to divine the secret.

They were impressive in a monumental way, like a massive Greek statue, or a work by Michaelangelo. Surely something powerful was going on here, neither dainty nor ethereal:

Her choreography was deceptively simple, based on natural movements like skipping and running. She usually wore a sort of toga or drape (she famously bared one breast at the end of a dance—in Boston, yet). That seeming simplicity lured imitators into thinking they could do it too—but usually when they tried they ended up looking trite and silly. Perhaps they lacked her absolute conviction of her own genius, although that hasn’t stopped them from the attempt.

The most successful, in my opinion, has been one of my favorite ballet dancers, Lynn Seymour. A ballet dancer would seem to be the last type of dancer to be able to convey the weightedness of Duncan, but as you can see from the following video, Seymour was no ordinary ballet dancer, and no featherweight (although she’s not actually fat, except for a ballet dancer, and she’s clearly very fit). Here she is performing “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan” choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, who saw the real Duncan when he was young, and who relied on memories of that experience to create this dance:

I think that may be the closest thing we’ll ever get to watching Isadora Duncan herself. I’m not at all sure it’s close, though. Note, by the way, that as of this writing, the video has only 250 views, which to me is a travesty.

Now take a look at how not to do it. This is the very same choreography performed by Tamara Rojo, a Canadian/Spanish/British dancer in her thirties who might indeed be wonderful at ballet (I’ve never seen her) but who seems to me to convey little to nothing matching the descriptions or photos I’ve ever read or seen of Isadora. Oh, maybe the drape of her costume (there are over 100,000 and then 52,000 views for these two videos of Rojo, by the way):

In the 1968 film “Isadora,” Vanessa Redgrave gave it a go. Her politics came pretty close to matching Isadora’s leftist ones, and for a non-dancer (with long thin gangly arms and an ectomorphic body very unlike Duncan’s) she didn’t do too badly with the dance sequences. It is reported that she trained for six months to be able to pull it off:

I’ll take Lynnn Seymour any old day.

10 Responses to “Isadora’s secret”

  1. James Drake Says:

    You can get some impression of Isadora from Preston Sturges’s autobiography. His mother joined Isadora’s troupe and young Preston would tour around with them.

  2. vanderleun Says:

    Watching those in comparison I have to say I agree that Seymour is the closest. Closest in terms of putting her entire body into the dance. By this I mean that there’s a certain, well, meaty abandon within the precision of the movements of Seymour that I suspect was the fascination of Duncan in the original.

    Both precise and yet somehow weighty. Somehow the body is asserting itself through the movements and not being made subortinate to the movements as it clearly is the the “arty and light” Rojo rendition and the clearly “acted” Redgrave version.

    What I’m seeing in the clip that is perhaps closest in provenance is a dancer with heft rather than lift.

    That and the propensity to perform nearly nude, with distinct abandon, barefoot and probably pregnant no doubt lent extra attention to her breakaway ballet meets break dances.

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    vanderleun: “heft rather than lift” is an excellent encapsulation of the difference between modern dance and ballet. And Duncan is widely considered the founder of modern dance.

    So, touché!

  4. blert Says:

    I’d call that choreography an arrogant display of grace and spirit.

    Although, it would seem to me that’s crafted for the impossible: a young lady with the ego of maturity, of full adulthood.


  5. Wry Mouth Says:

    you make me understand and appreciate dance, which has always been a closed book to me. thank you.

  6. njartist49 Says:

    I didn’t view the entire pieces; yet my impression of the first two minutes is that Seymour/Duncan engaged the left arm as a counterpoint to the right arm’s movement; while the second dancer used the left arm as a brace or support: this could be why the second video focused on the movement of the right hand.

  7. Ben David Says:

    More dance posts please.
    I should just post this request at regular intervals…

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Ben David: so glad you like them!

    Let me just say, though, that they take me a long time. Not because they take such a long time to write—they don’t, especially—but because they’re like icebergs. What you see is just a small part of where they lead me, which is usually to my YouTube addiction. I get so involved in watching dance videos that I can easily while away many an hour without even realizing how much time has passed.

    These dance posts can be dangerous undertakings. I have to ration them :-).

  9. Fausta Says:

    I’ve taken up tai ji recently, and Seymour is projecting life force, life energy (chi) through movement. The others are merely dancing.

    Vanessa at times tiptoed-though-the-tulips in the movie and I really disliked her dancing at times.

  10. CBI Says:

    I am thankful for your occasional essays on dance and dancers, for it helps to remind me of d ifferences. You see, I get nothing out of watching most of the videos. I watched the video of Seymour, but could only get through the first three minutes or so — and that took two viewing sessions. It all looks silly to me.

    But not to you. I have the mental knowledge that there is work and artistry involved, but no emotional appreciation of it. You have both.

    Anyway, your posts on the matter help reinforce the idea to me that people have different tastes, and that a difference in taste is not a moral difference.

    Finally, I still very much benefit from your other posts as well. Thank you very much.

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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