The American-French dancer, Isadora Duncan, has been described as an ‘oversaturated subject’, but a new graphic novel shows her life and contribution to dance in a new light, writes Francesca Dytor.
The American-French dancer Isadora Duncan has long inspired critical attention, as much for her dancing as for her death. A true celebrity, her tragic end – she died strangled by a scarf stuck in the wheels of a car – has given her an oddly legendary status amongst household names. In dance circles, she is considered a revolutionary, with her insistence on a ‘religion of the foot’ that could create a new type of modern dancer. After countless appraisals and reappraisals, she has even been described as an oversaturated subject.
Time, then, for a new way of seeing Isadora. The graphic novel Isadora (published by SelfMadeHero), written by Julie Birmant and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie, is an exhilarating spin through Isadora’s heady life. We begin in 1922 with a rickety plane ride taking Isadora and her new husband, the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, to Berlin. Yesenin does not come off favourably. His opening ‘UUURRRGHHHH’ marks the beginning of the story, setting the whole tone for his relationship with Isadora. When they land, he has to be supported by her, the crowds commenting quizzically on the pairing. A few days later he is drinking his way through bottles of champagne, spiralling through the depths of alcohol addiction. It is unbearable to see, and I have some concerns that the initial characterisation of Isadora should be so dominated by his presence. Next to him she appears timid and even vapid, fretting that ‘it seems he doesn’t like my hairdo’. Isadora’s relationships were an important part of her identity; late in life she remarked to her biographer Sewell Stokes that, ‘I love young men, they are my weakness. And I am very weak.’ But here she comes off as hapless, and Yesenin overpowers her.
This initial apprehension aside, the novel plunges with excellently measured speed into key periods of Isadora’s life. Haunting all this, though, is the first chapter’s closure: a flashback to the death of her two children by drowning. The colour drains from the illustrations as we watch Isadora’s eyes widen in a nightmare recollection of the event. Accompanied by Yesenin’s rendition of his poem ‘Ode to a Bitch’, we see the wheels of a car, a panicked driver, and two tiny figures in the back seats – Patrick, 3, and Deidre, 7 – drifting away into darkness.
Cut to London 1889 and Isadora is with her family trying to make it in the city. She and her brother Raymond while away their time in the British Museum (where, apparently, you could get deliciously cheap breakfast) learning the principles of movement from ancient sculpture. Here Isadora’s innovative approach to the past reveals itself. Isadora never wanted a passive return to or copying of antiquity, a point deftly dealt with in the book. Turning her nose up at the the Pre-Raphaelites, she opts instead for a visionary collusion with the goddess Athena, shown directly instructing the young dancer. Isadora begins her meteoric ascent to the dancing scene, and we switch to Paris to witness Isadora mingling with the likes of the sculptor Auguste Rodin and the legendary dancer Loie Fuller. Oubrerie’s illustrations beautifully capture the flood of colour and drapery in Fuller’s performances, in total contrast with Isadora’s barefoot, tunic style of dance. Fuller gives Isadora the first chance at a solo performance, when the younger dancer appears draped in a ripped piece of theatre curtain. Isadora’s subsequent fame, however, is tinged by her own personal tragedies. Attempts to live an ‘authentic’ life in Greece end in failure, her love life turbulent, and her involvement in a ballet company disastrous. We end in Antibes, Christmas 1925. Yesenin has committed suicide and Isadora has a reckless edge to her. She steps into the sports car and with her long, billowing scarf sets off, the scarf nudging ominously against the spokes of the wheel.
The book is an engrossing read, and highly recommended for anyone intrigued even slightly by Isadora. Word and text are elegantly intertwined, and the pacing is just right. Just don’t hold that image of her as a coy nymph gaping at a hulking Rodin sculpture. She was more than an admirer of men.
Isadora by Julie Birmant and Clément Ouberie (translated by Edward Gauvin) is published by SelfMadeHero and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK.
This review was commissioned under our current theme, Night / Shift
For Night / Shift, Lucy Writers want to close our eyes to the rituals of the day and open them wide to the possibilities, sites, moves, sounds and forms visible only by night. Using Leonora Carrington’s work (image above) as an entrance into this broad theme, we welcome writing – reviews, features, essays, creative non-fiction, (flash) fiction, poetry – and art work that explores night and its multiple shifts (liberating and otherwise) for womxn in particular.
Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.