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Review of Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography

By Philip Nel

Jones, Sabrina. Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography. Foreword by Lori Belilove. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008. Print.

What should you include? What should you omit? And how do you represent what you’ve found? These are among the many challenges a biographer faces. In Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography, Sabrina Jones has the additional challenge of deciding how to depict the subject’s life graphically. Cleverly, Jones foregrounds these problems in her introduction, and then uses them to her advantage in her account of the innovative dancer. The result is an engaging chronicle of Duncan’s life that is both fast-paced and appropriately reflective about the biographer’s art.

Isadora Duncan finds many ways to make virtues of the difficulties in constructing a life narrative. Grappling with contradictory accounts, Jones draws back-to-back versions of herself, each reading a different version of Duncan’s life: on the left, holding the autobiography My Life, Jones reads of Duncan dancing for the rich and giving to the poor. She thinks, “You go, girl!” On the right, she reads a biography, and exclaims, “She lied!” (5). As Jones notes, Duncan “was as proud to dance for the Romanovs as she was for Lenin” (6). The book plays out Jones’ Janus-faced response, exploring Duncan’s progressive impulses alongside her regressive ones, the dancer’s sympathy for the downtrodden rubbing up against her sense of her own self-importance. The friction between Duncan’s many selves makes for entertaining reading, but also reminds us that a biography is a construction. No one portrait is definitive.

The absence of any movies of her movements underscores the trickiness in assessing Duncan’s art. Noting that “There is no film of her dancing” (7), the book derives its illustrations from still photos, and explicitly references some of them on one of the full-page portraits of Duncan: “Abraham Walkowitz made thousands of images of her dancing. Many were used to research this book” (57). More subtly calling attention to the book’s reliance on photos, Jones sometimes depicts Duncan’s face in the style of early twentieth-century photographic portraiture, presumably basing these renderings on existing photographs.

The recurring full-page images of Duncan (roughly a half-dozen in all) are apt for her larger-than-life personality, suggesting that she literally cannot be contained by the panels or the page. Jones’ energetic, fluid line animates Duncan’s movements, placing her body at the center of the tale. In an early such page, Jones shows the dancer at two moments simultaneously, giving a vivid sense of the body in motion. In the lower half of the page, her left leg launches her in one direction, as her right pivots her another. In the upper half of the page, her torso and arms move back towards the left side of the page – gracefully and impossibly twisting her body. Her size and vigor visually diminishes the power of the four men who appear in the three panels she traverses. The first three, all Lilliputians to her Gulliver, are: an American reporter who quips, “She looked pink, talked red, acted scarlet”; evangelist Billy Sunday, denouncing her at the pulpit as “that Bolshevik hussy”; and a Methodist minister calling her “a jumping Jezebel” (8). These tiny men’s opinions, Jones suggests, are insignificant to Duncan. Though we only see the head of future spouse Gordon Craig, the theatre designer’s noggin is represented in the same proportion as Duncan’s, suggesting that she will value his ideas more… which, unfortunately, she does. (The love of her life, Craig proves both unfaithful and overbearing.)

Though such images do convey Duncan’s considerable inner strength, Jones also displays how Duncan’s adventurous life would take its toll. Succinctly displaying the range and emotional burden of Isadora Duncan’s obligations, Jones draws her in the position of Atlas bearing the weight of the world (44). Perspiring, Duncan supports a globe-shaped panel page depicting her irate family (“all of whom lived entirely on Isadora’s income”), her dancing school, her household staff, her touring musicians, and her philandering lover (then Gordon Craig).

One challenge not faced by a biographer of Duncan is narrative interest: In 125 pages, fifty years of Duncan’s life whiz by. Duncan has children and loses them; she oscillates between just scraping by and living in luxury; she performs all over the world; she marries, has affairs, causes a sensation with her dancing. (Indeed, some 80 years before Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Duncan had a similar one: then as now, guardians of morality thought an exposed breast a grave danger to the public.) If there is a criticism to be made here, it is that the pace of the narrative and the importance of Duncan’s very public personae do limit our views of her equally important interior life. However, to her great credit, Jones resists making Isadora Duncan the graphic-novel version of the sensational bio-pic. She depicts Duncan with sensitivity, allowing us to glimpse at least some of the complex character behind the public figure. And she does it all with grace, verve, and humor – the very same qualities that make Duncan such a fascinating subject.

Posted in Volume 5, Issue 3: Convergences Proceedings