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Still a step ahead

Isadora Duncan's daring alternative to the strictures of ballet put the value on expression and awakened creative impulses in others. A trove of materials reminds how singular she remains.

December 25, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

"Don't think you've gone beyond Isadora Duncan. We haven't even caught up with her yet, and she will be even more evident in the time to come."

-- Ruth St. Denis

modern dance matriarch, in a 1963 lecture demonstration


THE Golden Legend bookshop in Beverly Hills is a sea of bubble wrap as owner Gordon Hollis unpacks 50 crates containing a thousand items: the largest private collection ever assembled of materials on the life and career of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan (1877 or '78-1927).

Compiled by Southland lawyer Howard Holtzman over more than 30 years, the collection includes a kaleidoscopic array of rare sculptures, photos, posters, sketches, watercolors, illustrated books and other pictorial materials re-creating the power of Duncan's dancing.

Even more tantalizing, perhaps, are the unpublished Duncan letters and manuscripts in several languages; dance programs and contracts; poems and other tributes; silk scarves designed and printed by her devoted brother Raymond (no, not the scarf or shawl that wound around the wheel of a car in 1927, breaking her neck); and oral histories that Holtzman recorded with people who worked with or remembered Duncan.

Slowed down by a bandaged hand, Hollis pauses over some of the most evocative treasures: A 1903 photo taken by Raymond of his sister at the Parthenon in Athens, standing under the caryatids wearing similar Grecian draperies. A bold terra cotta mask of Duncan by French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. A small, mustard-colored guest book with a floral design bearing the signatures of such visitors as sculptor Auguste Rodin, playwright Oscar Wilde, poet Gabriele D'Annunzio and the young Preston Sturges, soon to become a major film director.

Holtzman consigned the collection to a Japanese dealer in 1990, the year of his death, and it left the country in 1991. Now it's back, with a $1.1-million price tag. Hoping to sell it en bloc, Hollis plans to place it on view (by appointment) in his shop at the beginning of February, with highlights to be seen at the 39th International Antiquarian Book Fair, to be held Feb. 17 to 19 at the Century Plaza Hotel.

Loaded with immense exhibition potential as well as invaluable academic importance, the collection tells you nearly everything you need to know about the dancer and free spirit who was born in San Francisco and received some theatrical experience on the East Coast but soon moved to Europe, where she spent most of her career either giving solo recitals or dancing with groups of children she had trained.

Rejecting the norms of theatrical dancing in her day -- most especially classical ballet -- Duncan created a potent alternative and, in the process, drew into her orbit a powerful coalition of visual artists, poets, critics and other dancers who carried her artistic vision to people who never attended her performances.

As her colleague and contemporary Ruth St. Denis says in a taped interview that Holtzman made a year or so before St. Denis died in 1968, Duncan released "in the artists who came to see her elements of their own genius that had slept until they saw her dance."

One of them was the famed English stage designer Edward Gordon Craig, Duncan's lover, theatrical aide and business manager early in both the century and his career. Extensive Craig materials in the Holtzman collection include an unpublished journal from 1940 that finds him still obsessed with the breakdown of their relationship:

"I think that I deliberately made her think ill of me," Craig writes, explaining that "we were made for each other ... [but] we were getting in each other's way.... She couldn't fit into me.... Her genius could fit into nothing."

Duncan definitely never fit into any of her men, and, as always, the personal was also political. Like a few other proto-feminist firebrands of her generation, she refused to allow a male -- whether friend, lover, choreographer or company director -- to define her as a woman or to shape her dancing image.

As much as a homage to ancient Greece, this refusal underpinned her choice of loose-fitting tunics and bare feet as a release from the physical imprisonment inflicted on corseted, toe-shoed ballet women, artists forever controlled by men in the classroom and rehearsal hall and on the stage.

Duncan believed that ballet inherently deformed women's bodies -- this in an era that still allowed a classical female her breasts and hips. What would she say on the subject to the skeletal anorexic/bulimic ballerinas of today -- and the men who keep them that way?

Her opposition to ballet was fundamental, beginning with her rejection of the 19th century classical cliche of women as unattainable winged fantasy creatures. Instead, she turned them into the symbol of everything that all human beings are, do and feel.

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