Laura Jacobs reviews Isadora Duncan's My Life: The Restored Edition, in the LRB:
There is only one piece of film that shows Isadora Duncan dancing. It is four seconds long, the very end of a performance, and it is followed by eight seconds in which Duncan accepts applause. This small celluloid footprint – light-struck in the manner of Eugène Atget – contains quite a bit of information. It is an afternoon recital, early in the 20th century, and it takes place en plein air, trees in the background, like so much of the painting of the day. Duncan enters the frame turning, her arms positioned in an upward reach not unlike ballet’s codified fourth position, but more naturally placed. She wears a loose gown draped crosswise with a white veil, a floating X over her heart. Coming out of the turn and moving in the direction of the camera, her arms melt open as her head falls back. The white column of her neck, the spade-like underside of her jaw, the lifted breastbone crossed in white gauze: had any female dancer before Duncan projected such ecstatic presence and concrete power? Because of her thrown back upper body it seems as if she is running, but she is actually slow and steady, offering herself to something so large she doesn’t need to move fast. The dance over, she stands simply and acknowledges her audience with a Christ-like proffering of her palms. In fact, her classical garb is as much that of the sandalled shepherd of men as it is a barefoot goddess of Greek mythology. ‘I have come,’ she once said, ‘to bring about a great renaissance of religion through the dance, to bring the knowledge of the beauty and holiness of the human body through its expression of movements.’ Thus spake Isadora.
We have no more than four seconds of Duncan dancing because she did not like the medium of film as it existed in the years of her solo career, which began in the 1890s, peaked between 1910 and 1920, and continued intermittently until her death in 1927, at the age of 50. In those days film was in its infancy and still silent (The Jazz Singer was released the year Duncan died). Because music – Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven, Wagner – was the spiritual inspiration for so much of what she did, Duncan couldn’t imagine dancing on film without it.