Dance and Comics

Posted by on January 28th, 2010 at 2:41 PM

In the next few days I hope to post my interview with Mindy Aloff, the author of an excellent new book on Disney and dance, Hippo in a Tutu (2009). Aloff is an established dance critic who has written for the New Yorker, the Nation, the New Republic, the New York Times, and other high-profile publications. Her book has intriguing things to say not only about specific Disney films but also about the challenge of representing bodily movement through drawing and animation.

The nexus of dance, animation, and drawing poses all sorts of wonderfully arcane inter-media issues. What sort of role has illustration played in the history of dance? How have cartoonists and illustrators portrayed the world of dance, and how have they been depicted by dancers and choreographers? What sorts of insights can dance criticism bring to the analysis of comics? Are there formal connections that have been largely overlooked? And so on.

The essayist Chris Lanier offered some shrewd observations on dance and comics in his response to my earlier post on Hippo in a Tutu. As he noted, “at a certain point the two forms seem closely allied (both being built out of movement and timing) and then at another point they seem diametrically opposed (one form being intensely physical, the other stranding you in a chair for hours at a time).” He went on to write:

“I’d also be intrigued to learn more about dance in comics, or in the graphic arts in general – seems like there would be some interesting connections to be made – Hokusai’s folk-dance sequence in his ‘Manga’, Olaf Gulbransson’s illustration of Isadora Duncan, Abraham Walkowitz’s ink drawing of the Isadorables, the way Loie Fuller’s proto-multimedia dances inspired a whole host of cartoonists and poster artists…This is all material that perhaps stands on the ‘edge’ of comics, but if any artform only looks to itself for inspiration, it gets insular and stunted pretty fast.”

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Sabrina Jones’ recent study of the life and work of Isadora Duncan is one of several new-ish graphic stories and books to use the techniques and language(s) of cartooning to explore dance history and culture. The image that opens this post is taken from her book. As it happens, I reviewed Jones’ 2008 bio for a Canadian academic journal, Left History, “an interdisciplinary journal of historical inquiry and debate.” Their website can be found at The review initially appeared in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue (14:1); my thanks to the journal’s editors. The piece was not written with a comics-savvy audience in mind.

Sabrina Jones, Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008. 125 b&w pages; $18.95; ISBN 978-0809094974.

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), one of the icons of modern dance, has been the subject of several substantive biographies as well as Isadora, a 1968 biopic starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards. She also penned an autobiography, My Life (1927), which has been published in numerous editions and languages. Sabrina Jones joins the discussion with her informative graphic biography, which neatly encapsulates Isadora Duncan’s hectic and arguably eccentric life story into 125 action-packed pages.

Isadora Duncan was the youngest of four children, and as a teenager she taught piano and dance to help support their impoverished family. In her twenties she toured the major cities of Europe, from London and Paris to Berlin and Budapest, seeking to promote her unconventional ideas about dance and movement through her performances and lectures. Scorning the rituals and protocals of classical ballet, she found inspiration in Greek art and mythology, advocating a more free-flowing and naturalistic approach to human movement.

Duncan danced, in her own words, “as woman in her purest expression, body and soul in harmony, emerging from centuries of civilized forgetfulness, no longer at war with spirituality – the highest intelligence in the freest body.” She spent almost two years in the new Soviet Union, from 1922-1924, and opened dance schools in Russia, the United States, Germany and France.

Although she is mostly known for her contributions to modern dance, Isadora Duncan is sometimes remembered for her tragic accidental death at the age of fifty – her neck was broken when her shawl was caught underneath the wheel of an automobile. “I’ve killed the Madonna!” cried the driver, and thousands turned out for her funeral at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Fittingly, “there were no religious rites, only the music of Beethoven, Liszt and Bach,” says Sabrina Jones.

Gertrude Stein reportedly snipped that “affectations can be dangerous,” referring to Duncan’s exuberant fashion sense and bohemian carelessness. Her fame reached across the cold war divide, but the Soviet authorities quietly seized control of her school in Moscow, shutting it down at the end of the 1940s. In Europe and North America, “Isadora’s dances were passed on directly from student to student, preserved in living bodies.” Unfortunately, there is no surviving footage of her dancing, only stills, contemporary drawings and posters, and eyewitness testimony.

Sabrina Jones is one of a number of classically trained fine artists who have embraced comics as a narrative medium. While this is her first full-length book her comics have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines. She is a contributing editor to World War III Illustrated, and she cofounded Girltalk in the 1990s. Her work is featured in Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (2005), as well as The Real Cost of Prisons Comix (2008).

Jones cares about the world of dance and has a great fondness for her subject. On the other hand, she is smart enough to admit that Isadora Duncan had a tendency to embellish the facts, and that her passion-seeking bohemianism and broadly pro-Soviet radical politics were not without their hypocrisies and internal contradictions. At times Duncan comes across as thoroughly self-involved and without regard for the feelings or considerations of others.

Sabrina Jones has produced a sympathetic biography, but not a sycophantic one. It may inspire some readers to pick up Duncan’s autobiography, or one of the biographies or collections of speeches and letters. Duncan embodies a certain kind of romantic yet tragic figure who devotes themselves to Art at the expense of more ordinary considerations such as relationships, parenting, and money. There will always be an audience, it seems to me, for accounts of such personalities, since most of us are unable to entirely avoid living mundane, prosaic lives, at least some of the time, and naturally find excitement in reading about those who lived without a net.

Jones wrote the text and drew the pictures, and designed the eye-catching cover. She is a capable artist, one whose bold black-and-white pages pay homage to a lost world of recitals, champagne, and horse-drawn carriages. Rather than sticking to a rigid, grid-based format, her panels zigzag across the page, which she enlivens by way of inset panels and chapter titles. Her approach is neither sepia-toned nor photo-realist, but expressive and loose. The artist would like us to see, I think, Isadora Duncan as a landmark creative figure whose ideas and tropes remain relevant long after her interwar heyday.

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