Isadora Duncan, entirely sensational

November 04, 2001|By Terry Teachout | By Terry Teachout,Special to the Sun

Isadora: A Sensational Life by Peter Kurth. Little, Brown. 608 pages. $29.95.

The legend of Isadora Duncan is infinitely more familiar than the work that made her legendary. In her prime, roughly between 1900 and 1915, she was one of the most celebrated performers in the Western world, the inventor of an expansive, sweepingly lyrical style of barefoot dancing that broke the ground for what later came to be known as modern dance.

Unfortunately, she danced too long, got too fat, and wrote a swoony men-I-have-slept-with memoir that shed little light on her art. By the time of her death in 1927, she had become something of a joke, and she still is, though a dwindling band of fanatics continues to preach her gospel.

Now Peter Kurth has written a biography whose title, Isadora: A Sensational Life, made my heart sink. Would you want to read a book about George Balanchine called "George: A Sensational Life?" Nor was I greatly encouraged by the preface, in which Kurth admits to having known nothing about Duncan -- or, it seems, about dance in general -- when he began work on Isadora.

He is, instead, a professional biographer, and he shows every sign of being proud of his ignorance. "This is not a 'dance book,' " he declares at the outset. "Isadora needs rescuing from dancers -- more particularly, from dance scholars, whose ideas on her impact and contribution to the art rise frequently to a brilliance of their own but who speak in a language she didn't know, about a subject she dismissed out of hand."

The good news is that Kurth has done his homework, foraging industriously in all the relevant archives and producing a detailed and readable account of what was -- why deny it? -- an extremely sensational life. You will not put Isadora down knowing much about what her dances looked like, but you will definitely know what she was like: earnest, humorless and self-obsessed to the point of something like lunacy. "You must all forgive me if I seem somewhat egotistical," she once told an audience, "but my Life is so tightly bound up with my Art, it is so much one and the same, that I must always refer to it."

People who spell Life and Art with capital letters tend to attract both disciples and lovers by the truckload, and Duncan was no exception, as Kurth chronicles at great but not unreasonable length. They also tend to have a bit of fraud in them, though there must have been far more to Duncan than her skeptical contemporaries thought.

Alas, she refused to allow her dancing to be filmed, so all that survives of it are a large number of still photographs (some of which are quite breathtakingly beautiful) and a few minutes' worth of vague-looking "authentic" choreography that has been passed on from grandpupil to great-grandpupil.

Beyond that, there is the legend, which is lovingly recounted in Isadora: A Sensational Life. Perhaps it is not altogether inappropriate that a legendary dancer who left behind so slender a legacy should have her story told by a biographer who knows so little about dance.

Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary, covers dance for Time magazine. He recently finished writing H.L. Mencken: A Life.

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