Maya Deren is a postmortem biographer’s dream subject. Not only did the bohemian dancer, poet, photographer, and filmmaker cross paths with an international who’s-who of avant-garde pre- and post-WWII artists, musicians, and filmmakers, she was also an inveterate letter writer, self-documenter, and pack rat, whose archive presents profuse and personal materials. A new biography by Mark Alice Durant, Maya Deren: Choreographed for Camera (Saint Lucy Books, 2022) not only captures the particulars of Deren’s tragically brief and deeply influential life, but does so with a kind of first-person familiarity and detail that brings a figure captured in a black-and-white film era into vivid focus.
Born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1917, Deren emigrated to the United States with her family, escaping the encroaching politics that took issue with both her Jewish ancestry and her family’s academic pedigree. Though only 44 in 1961, when she was suddenly taken by a cerebral hemorrhage, Deren packed more into the stream of her life than most people with twice her number of years — three marriages, a spate of salon hostessing at the center of mid-century art and culture, and a legacy as a lynchpin figure in the promotion of avant-garde American cinema.
She was also, as Durant’s biography makes clear, a very human subject, prone to emotionality, financial struggles, and the challenges that everyone with an artistic and ambitious temperament faces — but especially a woman making her way within a scene dominated by great men. Her relationships and collaborations with the likes of Katherine Dunham, John Cage, Anaïs Nin, Marcel Duchamp, and influential Czech filmmaker Alexandr “Sasha” Hackenschmied (her second husband), earned her a seat at the table of burgeoning American art culture — but her talent, unflinching photographic eye, and gift of unfettered appetite for life and ideas cemented her place as a champion and influencer of culture.
Written in short entries that flow chronologically, but also appear as a kind of index for the web of influential figures in Deren’s circles, Durant resists getting mired in analysis of Deren’s work, preferring to present a picture of her life and human struggles.
“There is so much scholarship on Deren’s films and imagery,” Durant told Hyperallergic. “But there was no biography of Maya Deren [for a general audience.]” It took Durant two decades of non-contiguous research and an abiding love of Deren’s work and character to bring his ideas for such a biography to fruition. Between direct quotes from interviews, journals, and letters, and textured scenes of almost unbelievable encounters with some of the most famous creatives of the day, Durant embroiders scenes from Deren’s life with an interior voice that feels no less real for taking small leaps of imagination.
“[I had] this sort of strategy of the vertical versus the horizontal, which is a concept or approach that [Deren] had about narrative — exposition versus the poetic, and how she wrote about that a little bit in her graduate thesis, but also applied it to her approach to filmmaking,” said Durant. “And so I decided to employ that approach to the storytelling.”
Maya Deren: Choreographed for Camera by Mark Alice Durant (2022) is published by Saint Lucy Books and is available through the publisher and online retailers.