Making the Air Vibrate



I knew very few details about the life of legendary modern dancer Isadora Duncan when some friends and I — seniors in college at the time — went to see the 1969 film The Loves of Isadora. The movie was pretty much a mess. Karel Reisz, who began his career as an accomplished editor before he turned to directing several classics of modern British cinema, lost control of the work. The producers, fearing a flop, wrested it from him, sliced it to pieces and slapped it back together without resorting to logic, thus ensuring it would fail. Then, as a final insult, they stuck that soap-opera title onto it (the film had been known earlier, in its three-hour form, simply as “Isadora”).

But there were several indisputable triumphs along the way, no matter how much harm the money men had done. One was Vanessa Redgrave in the title role, inhabiting the character with every ounce of her creativity (I am no great fan of hers these days, mostly because of her politics, but her success here, and in other of her early films, is undeniable).

Reisz’s portrait also had a stunning finish, unfortunately based on the real Isadora’s tragic demise. As an older woman, the dancer liked to collect young men, and as the film wound down, she had taken yet another boyish lover and was riding in his convertible sports car along a stretch of French coastline near Nice. She stood up at one point, declaring her joy in finding love again. She favored long, flowing scarves, but this time the filmy material became wrapped around one of the car’s ornate hub caps and before the young man at the wheel could stop the vehicle, Isadora’s neck had been snapped and she was dead. We in the audience — no matter the mess that had preceded these last images — felt as if we’d been punched in the collective solar plexus, unable to draw breath for several minutes.

Redgrave and that finale got me totally intrigued with Duncan, and I sought to learn everything I could about her (assuming that the film hadn’t been too accurate on that score). I read her overblown but compelling autobiography My Life, along with biographies and memoirs by people who’d known her. I found a series of photographs taken of her dancing in front of the Parthenon, which, though dating from late in her life when the great pioneer had put on a few too many pounds, still gave some sense of what it was in her art that had scandalized some and inspired others.

I thought about this period in my life and the interest that had driven me to discover more about this revolutionary artist when a new book crossed my desk called Modern Gestures: Abraham Walkowitz Draws Isadora Duncan Dancing, from Wesleyan University Press. The author is Ann Cooper Albright, a professor of dance and theater at Oberlin College, who is also a performer and choreographer. She has put together a loving sort of dual biography of two masters of early 20th-century art, chock-full of drawings showing Isadora in flight.

As Cooper Albright explains, Duncan and Walkowitz were born in the same year, 1878 (although Walkowitz’s mother changed the date of his birth to 1880 so he would avoid conscription in the czar’s army). Writes the author: “Duncan was born in California into a free-spirited, artistic family who lived in San Francisco until Isadora decided to try a career in the theater, moving first to Chicago, then to New York, and then abroad. Walkowitz was born in Siberia into a Russian Jewish family who, after immigrating to America in 1889, lived in New York City’s Lower East Side,where Abraham helped his mother run a little newspaper stand.”

According to Cooper Albright, though these two budding artists grew up on different sides of the country, they were both influenced by the changes taking place in American culture at the end of the 19th century. Both of these young souls were raised in liberal and artistic family environments, and they both in time traveled to Paris, where, the author tells us, “they crystallized their aesthetic identities — she as a modern or ‘expressive’ dancer and he as a modern artist.”

They did meet, and in perhaps the perfect setting — Auguste Rodin’s studio in Paris in 1906. Walkowitz soon returned to America and lived there for the rest of his life while Duncan stayed primarily in Europe. But Cooper Albright notes that the artist saw Isadora during her American dance tours in 1908, 1909, 1915 and 1916, and drew images of her dancing for the rest of his life — some critics say he produced 5,000 such pictures, many of them done in ink and water colors.

These are the true soul of this book and like those photos I managed to find 40 years ago, they catch the spirit of a true rebel, both the movement and the color she created but also the way she so obviously set the very air to vibrating.


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