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Modern Gestures: Abraham Walkowitz Draws Isadora Duncan Dancing

Modern Gestures: Abraham Walkowitz Draws Isadora Duncan Dancing

by Ann Cooper Albright
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2010
100 pp., illus. 60 col. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7077-2.

Reviewed by Giovanna L. Costantini

Ann Cooper Albright's Modern Gestures juxtaposes ink and watercolor drawings of the dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) by the modernist Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965), with excerpts from the writings of Gertrude Stein to startling, complementary effect. Sonorous and rhythmic, Stein's prose reverberates hypnotically: "This one is the one being dancing. This one is the one thinking in the believing in dancing having meaning. This one is one believing in thinking. This one is one thinking in dancing having meaning." Walkowitz's undulating line compounds the rhythm through improvisational images that slip like nymphs across the page unfettered. They herald that first Brancusian flight of the spirit, the gusts of liberation and abandonment that projected twentieth century modernists like Isadora Duncan from fin de siècle canons to unbridled creativity.

Duncan met the painter Abraham Walkowitz in Paris in 1906 in the studio of the rebel sculptor Auguste Rodin. Returning to New York, Duncan saw Walkowitz's impressions of her at Steiglitz's 291 in 1916. They never saw each other again, though he drew thousands of images of her ritualistically throughout his life, as though his hand was an extension of her body, his gesture her movement through time. The synergy that Albright creates between Stein's literary cadence and the musical sensation of Walkowitz' visual forms conveys the motion of the dance in a manner immediate and sensate. "Seeing becomes hearing," writes Albright, and her selection of sounds, when read aloud, accompanies the dancer's movements in simulated performance.

Like other early modernists inspired by musical abstraction, Walkowitz likened his expression to harmonious sensation alive with rhythm. His experimentation with small format drawings and watercolors explored linear motion in ways that convey the vitality of the human figure as a vibrating force of human potential. Duncan, considered by many to have originated modern dance, rejected traditional ballet in favor of improvisation, emotion, and expressionistic aestheticism. Her body became the brush in Pollack-like graphics drawn in space with arabesque scarves and colored light. It was an age of wild invention: Loïe Fuller, Gordon Craig, Filippo Marinetti's Ballet Mécanique, Émile Dalcroze and Hellerau. Not until the 1920's would such physical forays be given Freudian and Surrealist license through automatism. But at the dawn of that new century both Duncan and Walkowitz stood poised to make their mark, seeking and finally discovering "the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movements are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of the dance" (Gertrude Stein).

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