"The Truth of My Being in Gesture and Movement": The Ego and the Body in Modernist Writing on Dance in Isadora Duncan's My Life

Article excerpt

The paper examines Isadora Duncan's revolutionary dance style in the context of modernism's backlash against the machine age. Duncan reached back to the Greek chorus and Greek mythology for a way of harmonizing the individual and society. Her autobiography, My Life, explores the narcissistic origin of her aesthetic and her struggle to reconcile identity and fusion with the maternal sources of identity and sexuality.

keywords: Isadora Duncan, dance, body ego, narcissism, modernism, identity

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_sanchez-pardo01.shtml

[I]t is certainly to this wild, untrammeled life of my childhood that I owe the inspiration of the dance I created, which was but the expression of freedom (My Life, 19)

My Art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement (11)

Dance in my own view, has as its aim the expression of the most noble and profound feelings of the human soul: those that arise from the gods within ourselves, Apollo, Pan, Bacchus, Aphrodite (The Art of the Dance, 101)

In his 1929 review for The New Masses, "The Loves of Isadora," American writer Michael Gold, inflamed with revolutionary rhetoric, praised Duncan as the creator of a new dance , placing particular emphasis on her impulse to democratize dancing and so making it open to the people. "She was a new primitive," wrote Gold. "She discovered the motor of the savage dance. She created a new dance. She was a genius / She did what Walt Whitman had done for poetry. She ripped off all the corsets. She let herself go. She denied the rights of private property in the dance. She made it free for everyone" (Franko, 110).

In The Art of the Dance, Isadora Duncan (1878-1927) claimed that she followed the advice of ancient Greek philosophers who wrote, "O Woman ... come in simple tunics, letting us see the line and harmony of the body beneath" (73). In her dance, Duncan liberates herself from the rules of ballet, which are to dance what syntax is to language. Duncan was a social and artistic revolutionary. A Marxist who was accused of being a feminist, she became, in the space of only a few years, the icon of the female modern dancer, a figure who represented the rising importance of women in culture. The majority of the critics, however, found a feminist interpretation for modern female dance to be too threatening.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, there existed a societal trend that glorified the simplicity of the ancient past while viewing the industrialized present with disdain. A backlash against the increasing homogenization of the machine age, this trend ultimately gave rise to movements like Dada and Surrealism. Protests against machines took a variety of forms, amongst them the graceful curvilinear shapes of Art Nouveau and the glorification of all things Greek. Ancient Greece, considered purer than the present, was held in particular esteem. In some circles, paganism-in the sense of honoring a pantheon of ancient deities-became fashionable, no doubt as a sign of artistic sensitivity and social status. In such an atmosphere, Isadora Duncan, as she conquered Paris in her Greek robes, epitomized contemporary ideals of freedom and beauty.

As Mark Franko (1995) has noted, Duncan's idea of founding a school of dance did not derive simply from a disinterested belief in education. Rather, the school was destined in Duncan's mind to produce an essential element of her choreographic vision: the chorus. Duncan was enthusiastic about the possibilities of reconstructing and performing Greek dance. Both her school and the chorus represented community projects where "the merging of the individual with the choral mass absorbed agency into a new, involuntary physical symbol[. . .]It was an experience beyond conscious design in which subject and object, artist and art, merged" (1995, 18).

Duncan's planned autobiography proved to be a privileged medium where she would harmonize a more "realistic" project (making a living, maintaining her dance school) with her old dreams (to return her to the Hellad through dance). …