In the public imagination, the avant garde dancer Isadora Duncan often appears as a somewhat ridiculous figure: a tunic-wearing, self-taught dervish whose art could be almost as vulgar as it was glorious. If her death at the age of 50, when her trailing scarf became caught in the wheels of the car in which she was travelling, still seems sad and wasteful, there’s also, at this distance, something blackly comical about it: the hand-painted, floating ribbon of silk that killed her speaks of an exuberance that was never practical, and only very rarely wise.
In their clever, episodic retelling of Duncan’s life, the writer Julie Birmant and the cartoonist Clément Oubrerie (Aya: Life in Yop City), occasionally touch on this idealistic silliness. When, for instance, she decides to live with her brother on a barren Greek hillside – devoted to all things Attic, they intend to spend their days spinning wool, milking goats and building a replica of Agamemnon’s temple – it isn’t long before she’s complaining that her replica bed is on the hard side (in the end, she’s saved by Wagner’s widow, Cosima, who invites her to Bayreuth to direct the ballet in Tannhäuser). But nor are they too inclined overly to revere her as the mother of modern dance. By their telling, the key to her genius lies with her times, for if she sometimes goes one step beyond what appears to her contemporaries to be sane or decent, it’s not only because she is wild. There is also the question of equality. All she wants is the right to express herself as loudly and as eloquently as any man.
What a life, though. In Isadora, Birmant and Oubrerie squeeze so much in, from her arrival in London from the US in 1899 to her death in the south of France in 1927. Here, off stage, is the terrible loss of her children, Deirdre and Patrick, in 1913 (they drowned while in the care of their nanny); and here, fully on stage, is her brief and disastrous marriage to the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (a raging alcoholic 18 years her junior, he killed himself in 1925). We see her meet Rodin in Paris, an encounter that was an artistic turning point, and we watch as she performs in Berlin in 1902, wrapped in a theatre curtain she has torn down with her bare hands.
It’s sometimes hard to remember, as she criss-crosses Europe, drinking vodka with Maxim Gorky and smiling at Camille Saint-Saëns as he kisses her hand, that she grew up in a poor family in Oakland, California, and dropped out of school aged 10. But when you do (remember, I mean), you only admire her all the more. What energy, and what spirit. With her planet-sized eyes and heart-shaped face, her muscled thighs and disobedient hair, Oubrerie has made her seem, on the page, so incredibly alive. To pinch from Dorothy Parker, whatever else you might say about her, this was a woman for whom there was never going to be a place in the ranks of the terrible, slow army of the cautious.
• Isadora by Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie is published by SelfMadeHero (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99