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Hannah Hayden

Duncan's Despair

“Was it that I was really in a state of clairvoyance, and that I knew that death does not exist- that
those two little cold images of wax were not my children, but merely their cast-off garments?
That the souls of my children lived in radiance, but lived for ever?”

Isadora Duncan recalls finding her children, Deirdre, 7, and Patrick, 2, after drowning with their
nanny in the Seine following an automobile accident. For Duncan, regarding them as “cold
images of wax," the grotesque is a matter of texture. Thirteen years earlier she is in Paris, being
caressed by a devout Rodin following a performance, in whose hands

“marble seemed to flow like molten lead...he ran his hands all over my neck, breasts, stroked my
arms and ran his hands over my hips, my bare legs and feet. He began to knead my whole body
as if it were clay, while from him emanated heat that scorched and melted me.”

There is an inherent animism in the works of both artists: Rodin in his ability to reveal
carnal postures and lifelike energy from clay; Duncan in her regard for nature and the divine.
Entering a Duncan class after studying classical ballet, one feels enlivened by the imagery with
which her gestures are described; that one may be reaching to pick a flower, swaying with a tree,
one may be rising with the sun or bowing reverentially to the earth pulling her down. Her style of
dancing was one of the first to regard the force of gravity, and posed a stark contrast to the stiff
lifelessness which so dismayed her in the Parisian classical ballet academies:

“The ballet school taught the pupils that [the] spring was found in the centre of the back at the
base of the spine. From this axis, says the ballet master, arms, legs, and trunk must move freely,
giving the result of an articulated puppet. This method produces artificial mechanical movement
not worthy of the soul.”

Duncan regards this “spring” as not the lower back but the solar plexus - the heart centre,
and the “centrifugal force” which allows light and energy to come up through the chest.
Although in dance it is necessary that the energy travel upward through the body, the ribs and
chest are more flexible than in classical ballet, and with regard for gravity Duncan dancers take
on far more naturalistic human postures than in traditional ballet. This type of movement, not at
war with gravity, allows for what one may already associate Isadora Duncan with, and that is
skipping: skipping down a stage as freely as one would do at the beach or in a field if one was
met with a sudden surge of elation or was inclined to skip. However, even with this sense of
freedom Duncan’s choreography cannot be taken as an opportunity to flail. In skipping, the legs
and feet must retain their fluidity, as there are no stark positions to take as there are in ballet.
Duncan technique arms always correspond with the movement of the chest in a naturalistic way,
and all “lines” of the body are direct rather than counterintuitive: if the eyes are up, the head
chest and arms are also up, sending a tremendous amount of energy upward.

Isadora’s aesthetic also has a certain hellenistic sensibility. Aside from her performance
and rehearsal garb of the tunic, Duncan’s resting pose mirrors contrapposto in sculpture. Duncan
would scour the Louvre with her brother, Raymond, sketching and studying the Greek vases for
inspiration. It is fitting, then, that she would eventually find Rodin, Pygmalion-esque in his
artistic capabilities, whom she refers to as “the Great God Pan himself.”

How, then, does such an artist, who strives to release the light in one’s soul and conjure
all that is alive in nature, contend with death? The shared death of both her children and their
carer plays like a Greek tragedy in suddenness and spectacle. However, the motions and poses of
Terpsichore have no place in mourning. Friends and relations were abhorred to find that she’d
had her children’s bodies cremated, “to remain hereafter but a pathetic handful of ashes.” She
was disgusted by the performative mourning rituals of the day, seeing in it the artificial gestures
which she despised most in dancing: the reluctant and unconscious funeral procession, the
expected dropping of one’s head, even the repetitive gesture of bringing a hand to one’s eye to
wipe away a tear, calling it “useless ugly mummery which makes Death a macabre horror instead
of an exaltation.”

In the throes of her grief Duncan conjectures that perhaps the souls of dead children
return discreetly to the home of their mothers in death:

“What is this flesh but a house, large enough, perhaps to contain many unsuspected guests. They
lodge in the subconsciousness, when the body is rich enough to nourish them, and each day they
clamber for predominance. My children whom I have grieved for, lamented and longed for, are
perhaps safely lodged within me, saying, ‘Why do you not give us voice?’”

The body is the house and encasement of the soul. However, when the body is trained to
express the whims of the soul, how can one readily accept the space between the two? This
jarring division brought Isadora to a state of stillness, one bereft of the aliveness of her radiant

“When real sorrow is encountered there is, for the stricken, no gesture, no expression. Like
Niobe turned to stone, I sat and longed for annihilation in death.”

Stripped of artifice, Isadora’s stillness is a reflection of her unwavering devotion to
naturalism. All attempts at touching the divine in her dance were undermined by the great wave
of weight, darkness, and grief that overtook Isadora following Deirdre and Patrick’s deaths.
However, almost fatefully, her wish to join her children was granted in a similarly strange
automobile accident. In Nice, France, on September 14th in 1927, Isadora zoomed away in her
lover’s car, only to have the decadently flowing scarf she was wearing become trapped in a
wheel, effectively snapping her neck. Duncan was a Soviet citizen at the time of her death,
having fulfilled a life that proclaimed her an outsider from a young age and saw her scour Europe
in ardent aesthetic appreciation.

Deirdre and Patrick’s deaths posed one of the most salient questions of Isadora’s art: the
limitation of the human body, and whether there is true unity and alignment with the soul.
However, Duncan's genius still lies in the ability to dance between the threshold of the ethereal
and the physical. For her movements are not a test of “stiff and commonplace gymnastics”, that
do not extend past the arch of one’s foot, but an extension of intention and energy, using the body
as a channel for the soul that transcends the earthly limits of the mortal dance. The tragedy was a
stretch in the direction of the divine, to ascertain a celestial connection, and into the earth, to the
realm of time and human suffering:

“Behind the mask, with any clairvoyance, one can divine the same uneasiness and suffering.
Perhaps in this world so-called happiness does not exist. There are only moments."

Published by: in Issue 1: Fall 2015, Prose, Volume 72

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