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performance

VEILED MEANING

Paul Swan performing movements from La Nostalgie Orientale, 1945. Photo: Jerry Cooke/LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images.

SINGULAR BEINGS LIKE THE DANCER, artist, and poet Paul Swan (1883–1972) are best approached with curiosity rather than a firm thesis. Those whose work has fallen out of favor—or whose tastes were out of step with their times—are often burdened with narratives of failure, of irrelevance, which anyone who understands the unpredictable values of art should dismiss outright. As Jack Smith, one of the great reader-recuperators of culture, wrote in his bravura encomium “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez” (1962–63): “A highly charged idiosyncratic person (in films) is a rare phenomenon in time as well as quantity. Unfortunately, their uniqueness puts a limitation upon itself.” Giving Swan over for a moment to his own words, which appear in the foreword to his unpublished autobiography: “I dedicate this history to those who are magnificently misunderstood.” He would undoubtedly

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