Sabrina Jones Dances With Isadora Duncan

Wed, January 7th, 2009 at 9:58am PST | Updated: January 7th, 2009 at 10:00am

Comic Books
Van Jensen, Guest Contributor
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"Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography" on sale now

In the early 20th century, dancer Isadora Duncan was known across the world as a smart, and more importantly, sexy woman who broke nearly every rule she came across. Independent and wild, Duncan has had a lasting impact on dance, as well as feminism.

Her story has appeared in books before, but now, thanks to comic book artist Sabrina Jones, the life of Isadora Duncan appears for the first time in comics form as "Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography," published by Hill & Wang. Jones herself is known for her contributions to the “World War 3” anthology, Fantagraphics’ “Girltalk,” and 2005’s “Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World.”

CBR News spoke with Jones about Isadora Duncan and the ambitious project.

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CBR: How did you discover Isadora Duncan's story?

Sabrina Jones: Sometime in my late teens or early 20s, I found my grandmother’s copy of Isadora's 1927 tell-all memoir. Pretty racy material, I thought, even though my grandmother was an artist, and I was an aspiring one. I was struck by Isadora's guts and confidence in her special destiny as an artist. She was also such a strong feminist back at the turn of the last century. She confirmed my suspicion that marriage was a bad idea for women artists.

Pages from "Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography"

When did you start to think about a graphic biography of Duncan?

I rediscovered Isadora in 2004, when I contributed to "Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World." I covered the radical cultural scene circa 1905, when Isadora was idolized by the Greenwich Village intelligentsia. Based on my drawings of Isadora, editor Paul Buhle suggested doing a book on her.

Had you already been interested in dance?

Most of what I know about dance, I learned while researching this book. It's been one of the great joys. However, I had been a longtime fan of life-drawing, and my sense of what makes a good model, and a good pose, easily adapted to an appreciation of dancing.

How did you approach the challenge of illustrating Duncan's dance style? Obviously, she had a very unique, very lively style that must have been difficult to capture in still art, particularly when there presumably isn't much existing visual record of her dance.

Actually, there is an extensive visual record, in drawings, and to some extent in still photos. Isadora cultivated relationships with artists, especially the circle around Rodin, inviting them to draw her and her students. For most of her career, film was not fast enough to capture a moving subject, but she did pose for Steichen, Genthe, and her brother Raymond.

Pages from "Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography"

I also saw films and live performances of her students' students and so on. Her choreography has been passed on to living dancers, notably Lori Belilove, who wrote the foreword to the book. Lori and her students, the Isadora Duncan Dance Company, will perform at a book launch event with me at the Brooklyn Museum on January 3.

So after much poring over drawings and photos, I see these marvelous dancers, and I think, "I drew that!" It's come full circle, from stage to page and back again.

One thing mentioned in the introduction is the variety of factual accuracy in the previous books about Duncan. How did you go about nailing down her true story?

Even unreliable sources are valuable, because they give the flavor of their time and the personality of the teller. For hard factchecking, I often relied on Peter Kurth's thoroughly researched biography, "Isadora, A Sensational Life."

But the gray areas in biography are ones of interpretation, not simple historical fact. Was she obnoxious or delightful? Ridiculous or sublime? I tried to take in all the contradictions, and then go with my gut. I'm more of an artist than a historian.

You clearly admire Duncan quite a lot. Was it difficult to try to "do justice" to the story of someone you respect so much?

Pages from "Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography"

I can't imagine working so long and hard on someone I didn't admire. Her impact on the field of dance alone is pivotal, the equivalent of Picasso in painting, James Joyce or Whitman in writing. She also looked beyond the stage, advocating for justice and liberation, especially for women and poor children. Throw in an outsized personality and a major appetite for love...

At the same time, I realize she might have driven me up a wall if I knew her personally. To paraphrase her student Irma: She had no common sense, but if she did, then she wouldn't have been a genius.

It's easy to mock her excesses, like drinking and fornication, she joked about them herself. Even her death sounds like a parody. But the time I liked her least was when she put the brakes on her students' careers. That was selfish.

What are the key things you think people today should take from the story of her life?

Breaking all the rules is not for everyone. Isadora suffered plenty for it. But she had a greater range on the scale of emotions and ambitions than most people. Imitate her if you dare. But remember, all she earned from her celebrity she gave away on free schools for poor children.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Isadora Duncan?

Pages from "Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography"

Isadora did yoga while she was pregnant, in 1906. I had no idea anyone in the West was doing yoga that early. One month before her death, she demonstrated in front of the American embassy in Paris, against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Struggling and broke as she was, she spoke out for the wrongly persecuted.

What other comics projects are you working on now?

I’ve been drawing the late great Studs Terkel for a graphic adaptation of his classic 1970 oral history, "Working." And a five-page wordless strip on the economy, called "Bubel," for the next issue of "World War 3 Illustrated." Plus I've been researching Walt Whitman for a possible graphic treatment.

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TAGS:  sabrina jones, hill & wang, isadora duncan, world war 3

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