Isadora: A Biography That Misses The Essence Of The Mother Of Dance
by Richard Bruton
When chronicling the life of one of the world’s most innovative, wonderful dancers, you need a book that ascends to just the same heights, gives you all the same sense of amazement as watching Isadora Duncan perform. Sadly, Isadora by Julie Birmant and Clement Ourerie, although a good and functional life story, just doesn’t get over enough of the wonder that it should have.
Yet, I had my hopes raised immediately, that cover really is a beauty, and all the way through Ourerie’s artwork is a delight, a lovely palette of colours, a sense of times gone by, a different age, all through the book. But the essence of Isadora Duncan is this…
There was never a place for [Isadora Duncan] in the ranks of the terrible, slow army of the cautious. She ran ahead, where there were no paths.
Those are the words of Dorothy Parker, quoted on the back cover of Isadora, and they perfectly capture the personality and power of this most wonderful dancer, this woman who was very much the innovator, a radical, completely unconventional in all that she did, very much living in a time that just wasn’t ready for her.
Yes, Isadora does what it does extremely well, it covers her life well, focusing on a particular time when she was at her height, but also jumping back to give us an idea of her earlier years. But what it doesn’t manage to do often enough is to get over the sheer joy of her dance, the innovation, the sublime way she moved, doesn’t ever completely get over all of the delight, beauty and inspiration she found in both life and particularly in dance, something those that saw her saw and sometimes understood.
Yet, it does show, just in brief moments, all that it could, all that it should have been. One of the most perfect scenes comes when Isadora dances for the sculptor Rodin, and in that moment, we finally find something of the power and beauty of her dance…
Her life is an incredible tale, one of radical decisions, unconventional attitudes, and amazing achievements, all covered here in Isadora. We see Duncan the trailblazer, the radical, the unconventional life of his thoroughly modern woman living in a time where she wasn’t really accepted or understood. All of the key moments are covered certainly, the tragic death of her children, her early years growing up in America, travel to Britain, finding inspiration in the Greek exhibits of the British Museum, and finding success in France and later the world.
But, this was a woman whose idea of dance was a pure one, stripped back, with her signature look one of bare feet and flowing Grecian robes. She was intent on creating beauty and teaching and set up various schools of dance across Europe. Her dance was rich and organic, rejecting the rigid, structured ideas of traditional ballet, instead dancing in the abstract, a progressive force of fluid movement that dazzled the audience.
And it’s that that’s lacking all too often in Isadora. A biography, to my mind, should do two things, tell the story of a life but also capture the essence of the subject. And the essence of Isadora Duncan surely is on the stage, in mid-flight, her flowing form shimmering with a rich, organic, sensual movement. Isadora needed to capture the woman who seemed to blaze through this world with energy, passion, and sheer breathtaking beauty in what she loved to do so much. And frankly, Isadora the graphic novel is all too often just too pedestrian.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment here is that the one true point where writer and artist capture the power and majesty of the dance isn’t even a moment of Isadora dancing, instead it’s the dancer Loie Fuller, a contemporary of Duncans, another artist of improvisational, free-flowing dance, accompanied by light shows of her own design. And in just a couple of incredible pages, all the majesty and artistry that we fail to see in the representation of Duncan’s dancing in these pages is captured for another…
So, with Isadora, we have a difficult book, one I was set up to love from the cover, and yes, the art is a delight throughout, but art and story alike just don’t really connect in that emotive, inspirational way I was hoping and expecting it to do, especially after seeing that cover, something replicated later on, with this page that does absolutely everything I wanted this book to do…
A missed opportunity? Or simply me looking for something the book wasn’t set up to deliver? We’ll not know, but all I can do is tell you my thoughts, opinions, and feelings about what I read. And I wanted Isadora to impress in ways that it just doesn’t. It feels too much of a retelling of a life where it should have dazzled with fluid movement and the sheer amazement of her performance. It’s a good book, but it just doesn’t really ascend to the heights attained by its subject.
Isadora – words by Julie Birmant, art by Clement Ourerie, published by SelfMadeHero.