Blog Post

Dance Fever

I've long been fascinated by Isadora Duncan's later career. After the 1917 October Revolution, she moved to the Soviet Union, where she opened a dance school for girls. She married the poet Sergei Esenin, drank to excess, and then, when the state failed to fund her school sufficiently, undertook a deliciously scandalous tour of the USA.

Duncan was an ardent supporter of the USSR. She choreographed pieces in praise of the Revolution, and while back in America she repeatedly hectored her audiences, accusing them of bourgeois philistinism and political backwardness.

Despite her convictions, she was not well received in Soviet artistic circles. Her emotive, flowing style of dance was considered too romantic, too sentimental, and too self-indulgent to suit the new era. Russian-language reviews of her performances were also rather misogynistic, tending to say unflattering things about her middle-aged body.

Last fall I wrote a short piece about Duncan's 1923 visit to Cleveland for a seminar on modern dance. I discussed a letter by the poet Hart Crane, who claimed to be the only person at her performance to applaud. I wanted to unravel why a young gay Midwestern poet might identify so strongly with a fortysomething diva who dared to wear on stage a revealing short red dress, the color of blood and international communism.

This weekend I came across another poet writing about the later Duncan. In Wszelki Wypadek (Could Have) (1972), Wysława Szymborska includes a lyric titled "Znieruchomienie" (Immobility). Its speaker looks at a photograph of the dancer and finds it to be an unsatisfying insufficient record of her artistry:

Miss Duncan, tancerka,
jaki tam obłok, zefirek, bachantka,
blask księżyca na fali, kołysanie, tchnienie.

Kiedy tak stoi w atelier fotograficznym,
z ruchu, z muzyki - ciężko, cieleśnie wyjęta,
na pastwę pozy porzucoma,
na fałszywe świadectwo.

Grube ramiona wzniesiona nad głową,
węzeł kolana spod krótkiej tuniki,
lewa noga do przodu, naga stopa, palce,
5 (słownie pięć) paznokci.

Jeden krok z wiecznej sztuki w sztuczną wieczność -
z trudem przyznaję, że lepszy niżnic
i słuszniejszy niż wcale.

Za parawanem różowy gorset, torebka,
w torebce bilet na statek parowy,
odjazd nazajutrz, czyli sześćdziesiąt lat temu;
już nigdy, ale za to punkt dziewiąta rano.

* * * *

Miss Duncan, dancer,
what a cloud, zephyr, Bacchante,
moon's shine on waves, rocking, sighing.

Standing so in the photographer's studio,
removed heavily, bodily from movement, from music,
abandoned to the mercy of a pose,
to false witness.

Thick arms raised above a head,
the knot of a knee poking from the short tunic,
left leg forward, bare foot, toes,
5 (exactly five) toenails.

One step from eternal art to artificial eternity --
with difficulty I admit it's better than nothing
and more suitable than anything else.

Behind the screen, a pink corset, a handbag,
in the handbag a ticket for a steamship,
departure the next day, or sixty years ago;
never, or nine a.m. sharp.

I can't vouch for the complete accuracy of my translation--I haven't been studying Polish all that long--but I think the essentials get across. First the poem compares Duncan's dancing to beautiful but fleeting natural phenomena, as well as to a maenad--we glimpse the full range of her expressiveness, from gentle and quiet ("rocking, sighing") to mad fury. We hear nothing about her physical features; we only hear what she, while in motion, evokes in her audience's imagination.

Duncan's photograph is a disappointment because she's captured in a single "pose." A viewer's eyes are encouraged to linger over details that her "immobility" makes visible, such as the number of toenails that one can make out. Caught "standing so," she is hardly seductive or appealing: her knee looks like a "knot" and her arms are "thick." This image, Szymborska declares, gives "false witness." It provides no sense of why Duncan was a genius. Instead of her "eternal art," we are left with an "artificial eternity," a faintly grotesque moment artificially "removed" from time's flow.

One frequently hears the complaint that photography is a bad vehicle for memorializing a kinetic art form. Szymborska makes this complaint new with her final stanza. She moves outside the frame of the photograph, showing us what's behind "the screen." We see the corset that Duncan will put on once she's finished dancing, and we hear about her cosmopolitan go-go-go life by way of a steamboat ticket for 9am the next day. Photographs not only give "false witness" concerning artworks: they also violently yank people out of the stream of daily living.

When poets write about artists they are frequently engaged in compare/contrast between their vocations. Szymborska engages here in a double comparison: how does a poem compare both to a photograph and to a dance? Poems last longer than dances--they are the record of their own unfolding. They are also superior to photographs, because they are inherently mobile and variable, capable of moving between different settings and capable of combining multiple timelines ("never, or nine a.m. sharp").

The reference to "sixty years ago" would seem to date the photograph to 1912, but other specifics ("thick arms," "short tunic," "corset") suggest a later date, after Duncan's move to Moscow. Szymborska was 39 when she published "Znieruchomienie." I would argue that the lyric is partly about her own career: How will she be remembered? How can a life in its magnificence and mundanity be made "artifically eternal" without losing the diversity and mutability that make it precious in the first place?

Then there are other worries. What does it mean for a woman artist to age? Can she continue to stand exposed in public, "baring" her passions and playing the bachantka? Kathleen Woodward's Statistical Panic: The Cultural Politics and Poetics of Emotion (2009) argues that societies around the world pressure older women to moderate their desires and conform to the role of the self-sacrificing wise elder. Duncan in her short red dress: is she ridiculous, or heroic?

I soon turn 39, too. Hmm.

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.