Isadora Duncan: A Dance Prodigy or Ridiculous Charlatan?
March 24, 2009 - Patrick Zimmerman

The Melodramatic Isadora Duncan: From International Celebrity to Poverty

Isadora Duncan was born in1878 in San Francisco (CA) and died on September 14, 1927, in Nice, France. As a young girl, Isadora rejected the formal rigidity of classic ballet and based her dancing on more natural rhythms and movements. Her earliest public performances in Chicago and New York City met with little success, and at the age of 21 she left the United States to seek recognition abroad. With her meager savings she sailed on a cattle boat for England. Duncan was soon invited to perform at the private receptions and salons of Londonís leading hostesses, where her dancing, distinguished by a complete freedom of movement, completely enthralled those who were familiar only with the conventional forms of ballet, which at that time was in a period of decay. Soon the phenomenon of Isadora Duncan dancing barefoot and scantily clad as a woodland nymph, brought large crowds to theaters and concert halls throughout Europe. Duncan toured widely and at one time or another she founded dance schools in Germany, Russia, and the United States, although none of them survived.

Duncanís private life, quite as much as her dancing, kept her name in newspaper headlines owing to her constant disregard of social taboos. The father of her first child, Deirdre, was the stage designer Gordon Craig, who shared her abhorrence of marriage; the father of her second child, Patrick, was Paris Singer, the heir to a sewing machine fortune and a prominent art patron. In 1913 a tragedy occurred from which Duncan never really recovered: the car in which her two children and their nurse were riding in Paris rolled into the Seine River and all three were drowned. Her subsequent tours in South America, Germany, and France were less successful than before, but in 1920 she was invited to establish a school of her own in Moscow. There she met Sergei Esenin, a poet 17 years younger than she, whose work had won him a considerable reputation. Her marriage to Esenin was a disaster, and his drinking and increasing mental instability turned him against her. He returned alone to the Soviet Union and, in 1925, committed suicide. During the last years of her life, Isadora Duncan was a somewhat pathetic figure, living precariously with little money in Nice on the French Riviera, where she met with a fatal accident: her legendary long scarf became entangled in the rear wheel of the car in which she was riding, and she was strangled.

In the early 1900s, fat, middle-aged, highly sexed women werenít supposed to dance, bare their breasts, or take lovers half their age. But Isadora Duncan did all of that and more while she was leading her free-range, tragic, melodramatic life 90 years ago. Could this woman really have been a dance genius? In 1921, when Duncan was 44 years-old, fat and notorious, a 17-year-old English boy bought a ticket to see her perform at Londonís Prince of Wales Theater. ďI didnít think Iíd like it but I was absolutely captivated,Ē he recalled many years later. ďI suppose she was rather blowsy, and the first impact of her gave me a shock, but that soon passed. I find that people now stress this appalling life that she led, and the sexual side, but I didnít get that impression at all. She had the most extraordinary quality of repose. She would stand for what seemed quite a long time doing nothing, and then make a very small gesture that seemed full of meaning.Ē

That boy, Frederick Ashton, would grow up to become Britainís foremost ballet choreographer, and he was not the only creative figure to be enchanted by the alternative dancing that Isadora Duncan performed. Auguste Rodin, the acclaimed sculptor, said that she was his greatest inspiration; Konstantin Stanislavsky, Moscowís radical theater director, was fascinated; George Bernard Shaw was impressed, despite himself; and the pivotal figures of 20th-century Russian ballet, Sergei Diaghilev, Anna Pavlova and Michel Fokine unreservedly admired her. But while half the dance world marveled at Duncanís magical ability to pluck dance from the air without apparent preparation or technique, the other half was totally dismissing of her as nothing but a sensationalist. The strongly held diametrically opposed opinions of Isadora ranged from those who adored Duncan and described her work as spectacular, to those who flatly described her as rubbish. But one canít ignore the fact that Duncan was outside of her time, and very bravely, too; she knocked a lot of conventions on their head. She was also a widely-known celebrity figure, honored in theaters throughout Europe and pulled through the streets in carriages surrounded by adoring throngs. During her onstage performances, Duncan would give little talks that embraced Communism, attacked the rich and harangued her audiences.

The very short video presented below is footage from an outdoor recital given by Isadora Duncan. In the opening section, Isadora adjusts the robe on her shoulder, and then the dance continues beyond that. It is the only known piece of film showing her dancing.