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.