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Bad Housekeeping

Isadora Duncan: The Russian Years

by Ilya Ilyich Schneider
Harcourt, Brace & World, 221 pp., $6.95

She had a Greek phase, along with brother Raymond, dressed and danced in Greek tunics, poured a small fortune in early box-office receipts into Raymond’s illusion of a well to go with their temple on a dry hill facing the Acropolis. And long and ardent study of Greek vases, in the British Museum and the Louvre, sometimes when the whole family in their crazy courage were close to starving, as she told it in My Life, did help to shape her views of the human body and her innovations in the dance. But her spirit was quite other, as she well knew herself, naming as her masters in the dance influences as far from the classic world as from the art of classical ballet, which she despised—Rousseau, Beethoven, Wagner, Nietzsche, Walt Whitman, of all people. She recalls ancient Greece to the end, though, in her proneness to accidents, only with some weird inner engineering in place of the divine, and a strange failure to achieve tragic status even under her most tragic blow.

That of course, as everybody now knows from the Vanessa Redgrave movie even if they didn’t before, was the drowning in the Seine of her two beautiful little illegitimate children while driving with their nurse, in 1913. It was eight years later, after what reads in her own account like a mad crescendo of love affairs and being thrown over in one by pianist Walter Rummel, “the most hallowed and ethereal love of my life,” that she set out for the “glorious promise” of a New World, on the invitation of USSR Commissioner of Education Lunacharsky.

As the final accident prevented her telling the story herself beyond that point, it is useful to have a chronicle of her last years and only legal marriage, written by her chief Russian colleague and amanuensis, the man who continued to direct the Duncan school in Moscow for some twenty years after her death. Unfortunately, although the author seems likable and intelligent enough, the book is badly organized, often to the point of being incomprehensible, and the translation has only such inadvertent felicities as “I stopped with a start.” The flap announces a Foreword by Sir Frederic Ashton, which must have been mislaid in the office—there is no Foreword by anybody; and various points of fact in the text have been left obscure, not from the bureaucratic miasma that somewhat veils the whole picture of the Russian Duncan school’s beginning and operation, but for no reason at all except editorial carelessness.

Who, for instance, was Irma Duncan? She figures very largely in the story, as the only one of Isadora’s pupils who went to the USSR with her and stayed with her there, even seeming to have kept the whole show going nearly single-handed quite often when the boss was off gallivanting. No doubt any true Duncan fan knows all about her, but for others some comment on the name and whether the two were related would seem in order. We are told that at one point brother Raymond billed as Duncans all sorts of hoboes and others in his own version of a dance studio in Paris, in an effort to discourage the fraudulent use of the name, but that apparently was not the case with Irma. Yet if she had been her daughter Isadora certainly wouldn’t have concealed it. This is just one of a number of pointless little obfuscations that a few words would have dispelled. The book must have been brought out in a rush in an effort to cash in on the movie publicity. Still a lot of its material is fascinating, if one is willing to grant any enduring interest at all to the complex and sprawling image of Isadora, and it does help at the moment to keep that image from being swallowed by Vanessa Redgrave.

Not that the movie isn’t well acted and on most points faithful to Isadora Duncan’s memoirs, as far as it goes; which of course can’t be far, when the genius is left out, inevitably, Vanessa being a far cry from Isadora as a dancer. Aside from documentaries, all movies about artists of stature in any art are essentially fraudulent in the same way, for the same reason, since they can’t help making a shambles of the main point, and what they state, about the artist and his art, is in contradiction to what they convey. The general kinship of this one, for example, is with such cinematic stuff as Gone With the Wind—scarcely a medium for conveying the daring non-realism of Stanislavsky and Gordon Craig, which is at least as central to Isadora’s drama as her having had a child of Craig’s. That she herself did have genius, as well as a personality on a heroic scale becoming less and less likely in our flattened-out societies, it seems we must allow, like it or not, and with full allowance for her many absurdities and inconsistencies.

As with all the performing arts until rather recently, we have to take the genius on faith, but the testimony, as to both her performances and her legacy, is impressive no matter how controversial.

As far as I know there was no movie made of her dancing, and if there had been it would probably have carried as little of the truth as the records of the time of the voices of Ellen Terry and Caruso. Even if it were now and not fifty-odd years ago, her art would have no such benefit from improved recording techniques as performances in music. Beyond all artistry, which is all that cameras could record, there was evidently a powerful effect of stage magnetism, more in the realm of electricity or ESP, and related to abnormal powers of inner conviction. So she was portrayed by artists Leon Bakst and José Clara, in drawings happily reproduced in this volume, as though a Gaston Lachaise female were to spring from sculpture into representations, with music, of “La Marseillaise” and Botticelli’s “Spring.” In other pictures of her long before that blowsy stage, showing her thin and wispily adolescent, the enormous force of character that went into the development of her art—and into the destruction of so much else—shows up even more dramatically.

In country after country, including Czarist Russia on several trips, she did bowl people over, first a small élite of artists and intellectuals and eventually a much larger, though never the really great, public. Along with that one has to try to imagine her large role, and rather peculiar passion, as a pedagogue, which was crucial in her decision to live and work in Soviet Russia. Over and over, in Greece, Germany, France, England, America, her school or plans for a school had collapsed. The New World she imagined the revolution to have ushered in was her only hope. She wanted a thousand pupils and was able to have forty; she dreamed of great stadiums full of beautiful human bodies trained to graceful and harmonious movement according to her methods, in short a version part dance part gymnastics of the Romance of the Revolution, of the Ten Days That Shook the World era. Hence half the appeal of the movie image of her just now under the new wave of simplistic emotionalism in that sphere; the other half obviously has to do with her role as a libertarian in sex. She has been resurrected just in time to feed the current fantasy of the innocently orgiastic, in both private and public behavior.

As a representation of Isadora, this is in both aspects about equal parts truth and nonsense. There is even real comedy in her going over so big precisely when the reality of her is largely so far out of style that it could almost be back in as camp. She had a big heart; had known in childhood and later great poverty and the hateful selfishness of most of the rich; wanted always to base her schools on children of the poor; by coincidence saw the dawn mass funeral in Moscow in 1905 of the workers shot down at the Winter Palace, and never got over it; had become convinced that the soul of the Western bourgeoisie was too commerce-ridden ever to understand and support her art. For the picture of the emotive female fellow-traveler of the early days, so far so good.

But Isadora was first and foremost a performer, of the general theatrical company of Ellen Terry, Gordon Craig’s mother whom she called “the ideal of my life,” and of Eleanora Duse, her good friend and scarcely a revolutionary. Her vocabulary resounds with such period words as Woman, Beauty, Truth, Art, Glorious Vision. In spirit she was far more a pre-Raphaelite than a Marxist, as she certainly was in her reading, and her innocence was no more prompt to denounce a corrupt bourgeoisie than to praise the servility of the well-trained British servant or rail at jazz as “the expression of the primitive savage,” the “sensual convulsion of the Negro.” In her long affair, which might as well have been a marriage, with the multi-millionaire Paris Singer, grandson of the sewing-machine inventor, although she seems really to have had little taste for money except as her school ventures kept requiring it in enormous amounts, she was nevertheless able to endure a far higher degree of luxury than one would ever associate with the true revolutionary. She was even able to spend a winter with him idling on a yacht on the Nile, while her school made out without her.

Certain bizarre anomalies of the kind crop up through the Russian part of her story and the affair, legalized for some reason, with the poet Esenin, seventeen years her junior. One of the good vignettes Mr. Schneider provides is of her on one of her first evenings in post-revolutionary Moscow, at a party composed evidently of middle-class intellectuals and not at all of factory workers, castigating the company on their bourgeois traits and behavior. This “naïveté” caused enough of an uproar so that Lunacharsky himself felt obliged to publish an embarrassed apology for her.

She had arrived in Moscow that time without cash or clothes—only her constant, ill-boding scarves and shawls—imagining that all services and commodities would be free as air and that she would need only red blouses for her wardrobe.

In another scene, also from the early period of exaltation, when her dance prop was a red cloak and she wanted to be “Red! Red! Red!”, the author describes her in a great hall, holding a lantern over her head for an hour to keep the audience singing after the lights had broken down. In short her self-image at that stage, and one suspects her political acumen too, was rather that of a ship’s figure-head—not a model designed to stand up under much social reality or much sexual stress either. There appears to have been some hostility to her in the USSR, from what quarters is not clear in this account, but it could hardly have been otherwise even without her incipient alcoholism and huge areas—at least so one surmises—of insensitivity and ignorance.

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