How do you tell a life through dance? Or, at least, give an impression of someone's life and work. A conventional printed biography can do this: but ballet?
Kenneth MacMillan's attempt to encapsulate the phenomenon that was Isadora Duncan was considered tantalising but uneven when it premiered in 1981. An ambitious project, Isadora was a full-length ballet which cast two Isadoras - a dancer and an older actress - threading together flash-back-and-forwards scenes from her life and loves, heavy with readings from her memoirs and letters.
Last week, the Royal Ballet produced a one-act reboot of this material. This features a dancer only, although a voiceover (tremulously plumy Nicola McAuliffe) recites choice passages from her writings at some length. Although fascinating in potential, the production desperately lacks theatrical sophistication. Deborah MacMillan, the choreographer's widow and tenacious keeper of the flame, claims that the work aims to be 'impressionistic... as though we're invited into Isadora's head, overhearing her thoughts and recollections as she remembers her past.' This translates into slabs of overheated voiceover, attractive video, and often over-literal danced episodes, all scrappily strung together with a perfunctory ending. I feel retrospectively more admiring of Robert Lepage's Eonnagata. This meditation on an 18th-century androgyne was hardly an invigorating evening, but suggested with far greater intelligence the shape of a life, the passing of time, how to turn a biography into a dreamy masque.
How else can dance play with biography? Some ideas after the click:
Biographical drama works well for movies, and a celebrated subject provides an easy sell. Dance occupies this tempting territory less convincingly. Danish choreographer Peter Schaufuss is the most diligent stirrer of the dead, schlepping icons from Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Princess Diana from their graves, mostly to critical derision. MacMillan and his Isadora scenarist, Gillian Freeman, had previously produced a far more convincing, layered version of a life in Mayerling, the tale of tormented Hapsburg prince Rudolf. It keeps an eye on its historical period, prisms Rudolf's scrabbling psyche through his difficult relationships with women, acknowledges that a life, however florid, is also circumscribed by its period and culture.
It's this context that balletic biography needs. Isadora takes its subject entirely at her own estimation - as a mouldbreaking artist and helpless romantic. She lives, she declares, for love and art. But what about the self-publicist, the selfish monster? There's no irony in this ballet - and what is a life without perspective?
The best written biographies continue to play with form: exploring semi-fictionalised interior landscapes (Ann Wroe on Shelley), or defusing the singular focus into a group biography (Jenny Uglow on pioneering Georgians). Ballet can't ever tell conventional life stories because it has so poor a tolerance for the mundane. It comes into its own at moments of extremity - in ecstasy, abandonment, despair. This makes it the perfect medium for dealing with memory and the way our minds knit together versions of our lives.
Peculiarly, the work with which the Royal Ballet paired Isadora has far more of this sense, although it completely disdains character and narrative. Jerome Robbins' sublime Dances at a Gathering is fluid, impressionistic, shimmering with unexplained relationships and situations and a bittersweet sense of time's passing. Each episode makes you revaluate the ones before, carry thoughts into succeeding sequences. It's a group biography without a subject, and a beautiful model for 'impressionist' life stories.
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