Isadora Duncan is often described as the mother of modern dance, a distinction that conjures classically-derived grandeur and elegantly floating fabric. But behind her work was a life marked by a number of tragedies: If you know anything about her, you probably know that she died in 1927 when a scarf she was wearing got caught in the wheel of a car. But you may not know that years before, both of her children drowned when the car they were in shot into the River Seine in Paris. Amelia Gray’s new novel, Isadora, lives within the tension between Duncan’s hagiography—which she often contributed to herself—and the real life it derived from.
In fictionalizing Duncan, Gray isn’t straying too far from what the dancer herself did when assembling her own story. In fact, Gray’s vision of the dancer was inspired in part by Duncan’s own autobiography, My Life, which is itself something of a fictional document. Writing in the Paris Review, Gray calls My Life a book that “has the guideposts of reality, but those guideposts are placed irregularly across a landscape of a fabulously fictionalized life.”
In Isadora, we see clearly the disconnect between Isadora’s idea of her life and what it really is, and while at first the character reads remotely and rather flatly on the page, through an accumulation of glimpses into her psyche, a sensitive portrait of a woman at her wit’s end begins to emerge. Glimpses of Isadora’s genius are few and far between, as are moments of true reckoning with her predicament. This makes both so much more compelling when they do arrive, as when Isadora concludes a chapter that reads like a letter written inside a fugue state by saying plainly and sadly of her children: “I taught them how to consume beauty, to take it in and make the dance it gave them, an art that can exist only as beauty can, as life itself, in a moment. I taught them all of that, but I never taught them how to swim.”
This isn’t a glamorous image of the mother of modern dance, but a depiction of a woman basically under suicide watch after the death of her children, being cared for and fretted over by a support team of idiosyncratic, ill-qualified partners and family members, including Isadora’s long-suffering sister Elizabeth, who ends up being one of Gray’s most sympathetic characters, despite (or because of?) a bizarre fixation on superstition and a habit of eating large meals in secret. (The rest of Gray’s cast of characters share equally strange habits.)
Gray also depicts the reality of living with someone prone to self-dramatizing. One of my favorite moments in the book is when we first hear a refrain from Isadora’s sister-in-law and designated travel chaperone, Penelope: “All right, Isadora.” In another episode, Elizabeth watches her sister dance after a fight, and is the only audience member aware that Isadora is drunk. “Nobody else could have known that Isadora had gone out and drunk heroically to soothe her sorrow over their argument,” writes Gray. “But Elizabeth knew, and she took a strange comfort in it. This was as close to an apology as she would ever get.”
Gray is a writer best known for work with an absurd bent to it, and Isadora is very much in line with this, even as it addresses Isadora’s ostentatious self-presentation; her occasionally childish, often capricious behavior; and her terrifying, all-consuming pain. Like its subject, it’s full of contrasts and contradictions, a story wrought with complexity and understated humor that lives comfortably in the nuanced, darkened corners of experience.