The audience for live dance is so small, and dance’s staying power so fragile, that it needs interpretive voices to reach the public. Much of that conversation is sympathetic. A lot of it is forgetful, biased or deliberately fictionalized. And it’s all accelerated by the proliferation of electronic media and digital information streams. The Internet has multiplied the sources by which we can learn about dance—and, as in the nonstop news cycle, it’s hard to tell real information from spooky, half-real declarations, films and videos showing only fragmentary events, images that are blurred, cropped or misidentified, outright fabrications and mistakes. Not surprising that the public should receive incoming data with skepticism.
Amelia Gray’s Isadora is fiction. A fan’s fantasy, the private life of a public figure. The nearly invisible notation “A Novel” appears on the dust jacket, but nothing else in the book tells us that Gray is inventing a character. She’s embarked on a literary project, filling in the background of a disappeared history. The background may or may not be important to the meaning of Isadora Duncan, but these days we crave confessional details from our stars while downplaying their achievements. Gray imagines the personal experience and psychology of four main characters: Duncan herself, her longtime lover Paris Singer, her sister Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s partner Max Merz. The book is written from all these points of view in four main sections, with sub-chapters in the form of correspondence, interior monologues, and novelistic narrative. Moving around Europe, from Paris to Corfu, Darmstadt, London, the story covers one year, between 1913, when Duncan’s children were drowned in the Seine with their nurse in an auto accident, and 1914, with the birth and subsequent death of another illegitimate son. It’s full of colorful mourning, drinking, rivalries, and seductions among friends and lovers. The circumstances resemble what may have happened.
The characters are all neurotics. Duncan is too obsessed with her own grief to get on with her great creative mission. She cultivates sexual adventures to lift her out of depression. Singer, living in baronial splendor on the family fortune, vacillates between Isadora and his wife back in the States. Elizabeth tries to keep the Duncan school afloat in Germany. She struggles to prevent the physical-fitness promoter Merz from suppressing all spontaneity in their students. Gray depicts the older sister as a near-twin to Isadora—glamourous, sex-crazed, superstitious, suicidal. Everyone else is sketched in on the sidelines, including the father of Duncan’s daughter, the innovative scenic designer Gordon Craig; her idol, the famous actress Eleanora Duse; her bohemian brothers Raymond, who went around Europe in toga and sandals, and Augustin, actor and director of experimental plays in New York and London, who also flouted the social norms of marriage.
Gray’s book begins with a two-page preface summarizing the world of 1913 and Isadora Duncan’s life up to the time of her children’s death, followed by a reproduced newspaper account of that event and a flashback to a last lunch Duncan and Singer could have shared with the children. Then Gray launches into the wrenching tale of how Duncan and her entourage sustained the tragic news. We read almost nothing about that moment when European culture was tumbling into modernism and war. We still have the paintings, poetry, and music to enlighten us, but the dance of the period can’t be known directly. Nowhere in Gray’s study of Isadora’s morbid preoccupation do we learn that only a month after the death of the children, the scandalous premiere of Le Sacre du printemps took place in Paris. Neither that pivotal ballet nor Duncan’s own equally influential dancing can be seen now in anything but earnest reconstructions and imaginative reminiscing.
Gray writes that she was inspired by Duncan biographer Peter Kurth, but her book often seems closer to the personal recollections of Victor Seroff, and to Isadora’s even more melodramatic autobiography My Life, which may have been posthumously polished by the flamboyant Mary Desti. I have a mystical attachment to Isadora myself, something Amelia Gray would have called an augury. Just four months after I was born, my parents received a belated Christmas present from a friend of my father’s, William Fadiman. It was An Amazing Journey, an account of Duncan’s 1916 South American tour written by her accompanist, Maurice Dumesnil. Fadiman wrote in a note that although I was too young to appreciate the book, he thought my parents probably would enjoy it. My mother saved both the book and Fadiman’s note for many years; she gave them to me when Isadora Duncan became part of my working life.
Eventually I supervised Ann Daly’s PhD dissertation on Duncan at NYU/Performance Studies. When Done into Dance, one of the most interesting contextualizations of Duncan’s legacy, was published in 1995 by Indiana University Press, Daly wrote in her preface: “‘Isadora’ is a product of our own personal and collective projections.”
Dancer-choreographer Kenneth King channeled Friederich Nietzsche —who inspired Duncan and many of the early modern dancers—in one of several alter egos he created. King had begun exploring life as a dancer and actor when he emerged in New York from Antioch College in the mid-’60s. By then he was also immersed in philosophy and wordplay. He studied the standard modern dance techniques and gravitated to Merce Cunningham, whom he called the Einstein of modern dance. He began presenting his own dance performances that incorporated talking, films and theatrical sketches. By the mid-’70s, King was doing unclassifiable combinations of dancing and far-out characterizations, scripted from philosophical texts and his own stream of wordplay. King’s film Space City, made in 1975 with Robyn Brentano and Andrew Horn, was recently posted on YouTube. Although it could never have been a performance, it represents King’s stage performances of the time. Better, in fact. King’s mind operates on many levels at once, and this film conveys the multiplicity of his thought and his presence. If Amelia Gray’s Isadora is a verbal fabrication, Brentano and Horn’s Kenneth King is a cybernetic figment.
The 32-minute film begins in the dark. Title and credits appear against the black void of the universe. Over the hiss of space we hear faint mechanical noises, scrapings, and indistinct voices. You can almost make out a man asleep in an attic room. The camera pulls back to reveal the sleeping man’s dream. Above his head is a tiny dancing figure in a head-wrap and pajamas. As the genie jogs in place, twirling its arms as if casting a spell, doors open, letting in smoky shafts of light and shadowy shapes muttering half-formed words and incantations. The genie seems to be dancing over a darkened cityscape. The sky lightens, and King appears in a dark jumpsuit. Against a backdrop of skyscrapers he dances what might be an inner monologue about lifting off the earth.
Accompanied by William-John Tudor’s electronic space music, he uses a dance vocabulary that resembles Merce Cunningham’s but is somehow more personal—-about space and also about his relationship to space. Beginning slowly, he extends his arms, tilts from the waist, pliés, lunges, turns, always keeping a secure verticality while changing focus. Cunningham’s movement wasn’t meant literally. King’s isn’t literal either, but when he points both forefingers next to his ears and extends the arms horizontally, his gestures indicate more than movement alone. In a series of moves lying down, he seems to push against the ground. On his feet again, he shakes his hands rapidly, stirred by loud, staticky sounds. He prances back and forth, banking and circling with his arms spread out, like antennae or airplane wings. He disappears behind one of Richard Brintzenhofe’s faux skyscrapers, then re-enters, leaping and levitating in cinematic slow motion, as if he’s entered a new dimension. Gazing into a bright light, he exits again and reappears, translated, in a silvery jumpsuit. Completely untethered in space, he seems to soar among the galaxies and orbit the earth. In a shower of planetary rain, he merges with a series of industrial grids. Murmuring in multiple overlapping voices that speak of swirling and dreams, he fades, disembodied, into a cinematic white space.
Since the nineteenth century, theatrical dance has realized the public’s escapist dreams despite the practical limitations of the stage. Dance history preserves a repertory of ballets taking place in faraway places with magical adventures, setbacks and rescues. Like the memory of a vacation, the ballet would be gone after the experience, but the enthusiastic traveler could savor and embellish what she’d seen for ages afterward. George Balanchine’s great achievement was to preserve the exoticism without resorting to stories or decorative effects, through his use of an evolved classical ballet vocabulary. The modern dancers of the twentieth century also facilitated a removal from the mundane by inventing metaphorical dance languages that could suggest myth and utopia. The advent of film, television, and digital technology has enriched the escapist project by removing the restrictions of the stage. Space City shows how the transports of the imagination can be served by dance on screen.
While film and video technology can transform dancers into superhuman images, it can also capture their performances in more realistic terms. Admittedly inadequate, record films are a close approximation of how dancers actually danced and what the dances actually looked like. Dancers resisted being filmed for decades, perhaps afraid film would reveal them in unflattering ways. Now film is everywhere with its surrogates videotape, surveillance cameras, and hand-held phones, trapping our every careless word and inadvertent gesture. Cameras in dance studios can record the process of choreographing and films allow dancers to learn roles as performed by their predecessors. Useful as they are, these informal documents can also be incriminating, or at best demystifying. Though they’re often suppressed by their owners, they can slip through and find their way to the Internet.
Using available technology, dancers began developing ways to clean up the messy details when generous funding for the arts began in the 1960s and ‘70s. Public broadcasting—once called educational television —generated shows like Dance in America, Live from Lincoln Center, Great Performances, and American Masters to spread the performing arts beyond theaters. With some choreographic tweaking, and the video editors’ framing, cutting and camera angles, performances were doctored (or improved) for viewing on the screen. As long as the viewer isn’t expecting the thrill of live performance, these renditions greatly expanded the public’s knowledge about dance.
Many were issued commercially on videocassettes and then DVDs. The digital medium opened up time on the disc for interviews, outtakes, and other material. In 2007 the Criterion Collection issued a two-disc set called Martha Graham—Dance on Film. It includes three archival films: the lecture-demonstration piece A Dancer’s World, shot in 1956; and the complete dances Appalachian Spring (choreographed in 1944 and filmed in 1958); and Night Journey (1947/1961). All three were quite well known by 2007 from classroom screenings and videocassettes. It’s because of the film that Appalachian Spring became Graham’s signature dance, although it represents only one phase in her very long choreographic career. In addition to those three gems, the Criterion set includes the 1994 television documentary Martha Graham: The Dancer Revealed and a lot of interesting sidebars. The documentary and parts of the earlier three pieces have now made their way onto the Internet. What’s not online are the interviews, with Aaron Copland, composer of Appalachian Spring; Miriam Arsham and Eleanor Hamerow, the editors of the two dances and A Dancer’s World; Nathan Kroll, their producer; and comments by several Graham dancers of the 1940s and ‘50s. Included in the package is fragmentary footage from performances on a 1954 European tour and an essay by dance critic Joan Acocella.
Martha Graham made we don’t know how many record films of her dances—-silent films at the beginning, more elaborate productions later on. The early ones were sequestered in-house. Except for an edited version of the 1930 Lamentation, which went into circulation, nothing of Graham’s dancing before the 1950s was made public until after her death. The existence of the record films wasn’t even known when Graham was doing revivals toward the end of her life, though they were rumored and critics were clamoring to see them. The Graham company claimed that the films weren’t up to contemporary standards—-they were silent, unedited, lost. Graham was known to revise her dances constantly. Costumes were remade, sets disappeared and changed. Her ideas about movement evolved into softer, prettier imagery, and her dancers embodied this gradual transformation. She kept herself in the dances, only grudgingly passing on her roles and making herself the virtually immobile center of her new choreographies until she finally left the stage in the 1970s. I thought she didn’t want the films to betray these changes by making it possible to compare original choreographies with revised revivals.
Just such a comparison is offered on the Criterion Collection. Following the 1958 recording of Appalachian Spring, there’s a revealing commentary on Graham’s evolving style with filmed illustrations by critic Deborah Jowitt. She uses excerpts from a scarce silent film made soon after the dance’s premiere, with Graham, Erick Hawkins, May O’Donnell and Merce Cunningham. Jowitt posts both versions of certain scenes side by side on the screen, a technique first used, I think, by John Mueller, a pioneer in the use of archival dance film.
Delving into the images before us, Jowitt uncovers the differences between the two Springs. Graham was 50 when she played the Bride in 1944, and 64, still the Bride, when the now-definitive version was filmed in 1958. As Jowitt points out, she made adaptations to suit the qualities of her dancers, including her own roles as her physicality diminished with age. Jowitt draws an especially strong contrast between the two Pioneer Women, May O’Donnell in the original and Matt Turney in 1958. O’Donnell is grounded, expansive, mature, and, Jowitt thinks, spiritual. Turney is an altogether lighter and more mysterious dancer, almost an earth goddess. Her Pioneer Woman seems to personalize her relationship to the Preacher’s followers rather than surrounding them in a protective way. Jowitt notes that the camera work of Peter Glushanok in 1958 frames and closes in on the dancers to make the whole dance more personal and the frontier wilderness less threatening.
She also attributes this change in tone to Graham herself. Over her more than 60 years of choreographing, Graham modified her technique and the dances that came out of it. By mid-career she had smoothed out some of the early angles, damped down the dynamics from harsh to more lyrical, and designed fancier costumes. The dancers of the ’50s generation, including Mary Hinkson, Stuart Hodes, and Pearl Lang, are seen in short interview remarks and performance clips from the Graham company’s 1954 tour of Europe. These archival bits, from Night Journey, Diversion of Angels and Deaths and Entrances, document that ’50s Graham style. Graham’s evolution didn’t stop there. The 1994 documentary contains telling evidence that she reverted to percussive angularity and hyped up the drama, with Takako Asakawa dancing Medea in Cave of the Heart and Terese Capucilli in Errand into the Maze, filmed during the 1980s.
Indispensable for me in the Criterion package are the interviews with two remarkable women, the film editors Eleanor Hamerow and Miriam Arsham. Hamerow relates the arduous process of putting together the dance segments for A Dancer’s World, filmed in the studio to a score by Cameron McCosh. Hamerow created a continuity for the dance examples, and McCosh re-recorded the music. Then Graham filmed her spoken part. As told by the film’s producer, Nathan Kroll, in another Criterion segment, Graham refused to be interviewed on camera, but she agreed to a quasi-lecture-demonstration format. Graham told Kroll the idea originated on tour in Amsterdam when the sets and costumes didn’t arrive in time for a performance. So Graham assembled the dancers onstage and had them show phrases which she commented on for the audience. Actually, choreographers had been doing lecture-demonstrations since the 1930s for critic John Martin’s modern dance series at the New School. The format got refined and became a feature of touring that continues today. Another part of the legend, Kroll relates, is that he persuaded director John Housman, who was a friend of both himself and Graham, to stand reassuringly behind the camera while Graham pretended to be making up and dressing in costume as she recorded the narration.
Hamerow talks about discovering a nightmare and trying to fix it. The dancing in Appalachian Spring seemed to be out of sync with the score. It turned out that someone had forgotten to set the camera properly. As the editor, she had to find segments that fit the music and the dance together. She admits that, seeing the finished film, she’s still not sure they got it all in sync. Arsham, who edited Night Journey, also comments pointedly about creating a continuity between an edited film image and an existing musical score, in that case by William Schuman. This has been an unending problem with dance films. Whenever the film is cut, for cinematic or other reasons, the editor has to bridge the musical interruptions that result. Hollywood films, with their huge budgets, can afford to add the score after the film has been edited, so you don’t get jolted. But dance films, with their limited budgets, must use an audio tape of the score, probably made in performance or a late rehearsal, which would be the only time an orchestra could be assembled to play it. When the image skips from one camera to another, or when a dancing error has to be reshot, the score goes on, and the editor has to match the two pieces. The film of Night Journey cuts often between the principals, Oedipus and Jocasta, and the important Chorus, while William Schuman’s score plays throughout. I haven’t seen Night Journey on stage in many years, so I only know it from Kroll’s film. But the neo-expressionistic score seems to allow the dancers more room for phrasing than Copland’s Appalachian Spring, where the metrics of the music are based on folksongs and demand stricter adherence from the dancers.
Arsham notes the difference between a fixed-front camera view in a record film and the possibilities created by different camera positions in a more theatrical recording. With this called to my attention, I looked at the Night Journey film quite differently. I’d always been a bit miffed when the camera pulled away from one part of the dance to concentrate on something happening in another part of the stage. Arsham’s comments made me look at the film more as a narrative in itself, where you shift your attention from one person or event to another, skipping over what you may be missing. It seems to me that Graham’s Greek dances were more about the characters than the space they occupied. There’s no space in Night Journey, only landmarks—Isamu Noguchi’s bonelike bed, the flat-topped rocks on which Oedipus strides in triumph—and the props that bring doom to the characters—the staff that the blind prophet Tiresias pounds into the floor, the rope that serves as an umbilical cord and then as Jocasta’s noose. Arsham’s cutting and framing devices focus your attention on the engines of the plot. The victims are suspended in the background or brought into brutal closeup, intensifying Graham’s telling of the drama.
These days, it’s impossible to understand let alone teach dance history without using films. In lieu of live performances to look at, legend often passes for history. Isadora Duncan refused to be filmed, much to the dismay of later dance historians but to the benefit of her status as a temperamental, mysterious star. Graham also resisted filming for much of her early career, and she reworked her choreography according to her creative intentions, making quite drastic adaptations for a series of late television films. Kenneth King was a great believer in film and all other ways that technology could partner with his dance, but he made his dances on shoestrings throughout his choreographic career. Space City may be the only professional film of his that’s conceived as a whole piece. I don’t know if any of his stage performances were captured on record films.
Of course, any replica of a piece of choreography is going to be different or missing something from the original. Films are almost the only way to approximate the effect of live performance. Still, we have to allow for the interventions of editing, the capability of film and video technology at the time of the filming, the state of the dancers in the film, and the intentions of the choreographer. In some ways, dance is always a projection. The seemingly concrete and immediate presence that’s enshrined in the canon as stage choreography shares dance history with the personalities and the fantasies of dancers—including the inventions of Amelia Gray and the psychedelic images of Kenneth King.
 Isadora, by Amelia Gray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.00.