If the body is for a dancer not only an instrument, but also the visible image of one’s inner shape and experiences, then it can be perceived as fixed and transfigured, and in turn, as a ‘work of art’ in multiple photographs, sketches, powerful drawings, paintings and sculptures, then there is no doubt about the fascinating and pertinent location at Villa Bardini in Florence, of the exhibition To Dancing Steps – Isadora Duncan and the Figurative Arts in Italy between the Twentieth Century and the Avant-garde.
For Maria Flora Giubilei and Carlo Sisi, the two curators of the first bountiful Italian exhibition dedicated to the American prophetess of a new ‘free dance’ for the future (born in San Francisco on May 27th, 1877 and died in Nice on September 14th, 1927) some historical data linked to the city of Dante would have sufficed to build a Duncan itinerary. In 1902, “a graceful Isadora, of rare artistic intelligence” – as the anonymous chronicler of a local newspaper wrote – gave three performances (25, 27 and 28 October) in the hall of the Florentine Artists’ Circle. She danced with her joyfully turgid body, barefoot, wrapped in a Hellenistic peplos, and with movement inspired by the undulating motion of sea waves and the flight of birds. Her loose interpretation of Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera–presumably to the music of Claudio Monteverdi and to melodies of anonymous ancient masters. Gluck’s Orfeo, already seen in the same month in Munich and then in Trieste, marked her first Italian stop. It was a controversial success.
Isadora improvised, following precise guidelines, listening to her body. Those guidelines were established by her, from breathing, from the energy fulcrum which she had identified in the solar plexus, from the asymmetry of the bust that rotates in the opposite direction to the movement of the legs, and also from music. She was the first-ever dancer to liberate herself from the music of the past: Beethoven, Chopin, Scriabin and many other great composers. There was no pre-packaged music, or that created by minor musicians as in the academic ballet of her time: how could she please everyone?
Meanwhile, Florence offered her the much- desired opportunity to spend hours, indeed “whole days” at the Uffizi Gallery in front of Botticelli’s Primavera; little else mattered. Isadora left her signature at the bottom of the visitor’s page of the members of the Gabinetto Vieusseux, where she had gone to look for the euphoric journalistic article related to her. She also confirmed her October presence in writing at the Hotel Helvetia Bristol, where she stayed regularly, as exhibited in a glass-case of the exhibition: 175 pieces, among which we find paintings, statues, books and letters.
But in that Florence, magnificent yesterday as today, in the Villa Bardini, a former seventeenth-century Villa Manadora (bearing the surname of its last owner, an antiquarian, before public donation) again welcomed our artist in October 1906. She came there for the preparation, rehearsals and debut of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, on 5th December, at the Teatro della Pergola, bringing back Duncan’s friend, the great Eleonora Duse after a long absence.
It was conceived and staged by Edward Gordon Craig, at the time Duncan’s companion, and was certainly not an accommodating or commonplace version. In the exhibition, the room dedicated to the Duncan-Craig relationship is one of the most impressive. It is clear how deep their artistic understanding was. Craig captures within his watercolors, woodcuts, photographs–as in the folder with twelve etchings in which figures of vibrant stillness emerge–the revolutionary simplicity of his partner, determined not only to revolutionize dance, but humanity, spiritually. He captures her innocence and child-like radiance, discovering a naturalness that could have never existed without the purity of Ancient Greece and philosophical ideals.
In her autobiography, “My Life”, Isadora wrote, “I realized that the only dance masters I could have were Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Emile), Walt Whitman and Nietzsche”. These traits also belonged to Craig’s art: essential up to Minimalism, yet majestic as in the magnificent sketch (by Sauro Mommasini) for the reconstruction, in 1986, of his Electra, partially recalling Adolphe Appia.
Duncan returned to Florence in 1907 to find her beloved Craig and, in 1913, headed to Versilia to meet Duse. In Viareggio, thanks to the sympathy of her actress friend, she tried to make up for the loss of her two children (Deirdre, Craig’s daughter, and the younger Patrick, son of Paris Singer) drowned in the Senna inside the car that was bringing them home. The atrocious wound irreversibly changed her dancing: it was no longer aerial, turned towards the sky, but attracted to the ground, almost mimic, as in the beautiful piece Mother, to the music of Scriabin (reconstructed in video for the exhibition). That suffering, would have paralyzed any other artist but Isadora, so motherly and tied to her pedagogical activity. In many different countries, she opened many schools for girls, educating them not only with regard to a new movement of the body, but also instilling in them a freer, more intense life.
In Versilia, her walks along the sea, the views of the Apuan Alps, infused her with a sense of peace. She rediscovered the pleasure of listening to music and dancing. She met and inspired new friends: the painter and writer Lorenzo Viani, the painter Plinio Nomellini and the sculptor Romano Romanelli, all of them paying homage. Among the many international figures immortalized in this exhibition, we find Auguste Rodin with his famous white marble sculpture, Eve au Rocher, Eugène Carrière with his portraits and his smoky, evanescent, already vaguely funereal lithographs, and Antoine Bourdelle, author of three beautiful bronzes, one of which was inspired by Isadora.
Reflecting upon a great exhibition on Duncan mounted in 2009 at the Bourdelle Museum in Paris, completely devoid of Italian artists, the curators and consultants of To Dancing Steps –Isadora Duncan cultivated the idea of creating an enveloping national entourage, sub-titling it Figurative Arts in Italy between the Twentieth Century and the Avant-garde, including many post-Hellenistic pieces in honor of the Athenian idyll of Isadora.
But the coup de théâtre that makes a visit to Villa Bardini obligatory before the end of September remains the large paintings Mare, plus Gioia (Tirrena) by Nomellini, absent from the scene for 30 years. The next stop for the same exhibition will be at MART, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and its seat at Rovereto, to the cry of “Dancing Revolution” from October 19th to March 1st 2020.
In Versilia, the Divisionist/Symbolist painter admired Isadora, creating numerous drawings of her, ten of which are exhibited here. In 1914, he created a single oil painting, then dividing it into two: on the left, waves of a thousand colors seem to welcome ghosts of flying birds and evaporated horses (Mare); on the right, Gioia (Tirrena) on loan from Silvio Berlusconi. We see Duncan running on the waves, her head tilted back, wrapped in a large red shawl blowing in the wind. This painting exudes a tired and forced sensuality, almost prophetic. It is true that in Viareggio, the artist fell in love with the handsome sculptor Romanelli, but other tragedies were lurking.
A third son, who was to die shortly after his birth in Paris, was conceived with Romano, the painter of a blood-red self-portrait, and the sculptor of a plaster and a bronze piece to be seen on display. The only man Isadora ever married, the great Russian poet Sergej Esenin, committed suicide in his thirties. In the end, driving her Bugatti in Nice, she was strangled by a red shawl (one recalling that in Nomellini’s famous painting), caught within the running wheels. For this most beloved of free dancers, destiny reserved a death no less spectacular than her prophetic, seminal artistic career.