Angela Isadora Duncan (May 26, 1877 or May 27, 1878– September 14, 1927) was an American dancer who performed to acclaim throughout Europe. Born in California, she lived in Western Europe and the Soviet Union from the age of 22 until her death at age 49 or 50.
Isadora Duncan was born inSan Francisco, the youngest of the four children of Joseph Charles Duncan (1819–1898), a banker, mining engineer and connoisseur of the arts, and Mary Isadora Gray (1849–1922). Her brothers wereAugustin DuncanandRaymond Duncan;her sister,Elizabeth Duncan, was also a dancer.Soon after Isadora's birth, her father was exposed in illegal bank dealings, and the family became extremely poor.
Her parents divorced when she was an infant,and her mother moved with her family toOakland, where she worked as a seamstress and piano teacher. From ages six to ten, Isadora attended school, but she dropped out, finding it constricting. As her family was very poor, she and her three siblings earned money by teaching dance to local children.
In 1896, Duncan became part ofAugustin Daly's theater company in New York, but she soon became disillusioned with the form and craved a different environment with less of a hierarchy.Her father, along with his third wife and their daughter, died in 1898 when the British passenger steamerSS Moheganran aground off the coast ofCornwall.
Photo byArnold Gentheof Duncan performing barefoot during her 1915–18 American tour
Duncan began her dancing career at a very early age by giving lessons in her home to neighbourhood children, and this continued through her teenage years.Her novel approach to dance was evident in these early classes, in which she "followed [her] fantasy and improvised, teaching any pretty thing that came into [her] head".A desire to travel brought her to Chicago, where she auditioned for many theater companies, finally finding a place inAugustin Daly's company. This took her to New York City where her unique vision of dance clashed with the popular pantomimes of theater companies.In New York, Duncan took some classes withMarie Bonfantibut was quickly disappointed in ballet routine.
Feeling unhappy and unappreciated in America, Duncan moved to London in 1898. She performed in the drawing rooms of the wealthy, taking inspiration from the Greek vases and bas-reliefs in theBritish Museum.The earnings from these engagements enabled her to rent a studio, allowing her to develop her work and create larger performances for the stage.[1From London, she traveled to Paris, where she was inspired by theLouvreand theExposition Universelle of 1900.
In 1902,Loie Fullerinvited Duncan to tour with her. This took Duncan all over Europe as she created new works using her innovative technique,which emphasized natural movement in contrast to the rigidity of tradition ballet.She spent most of the rest of her life touring Europe and the Americas in this fashion.Despite mixed reaction from critics, Duncan became quite popular for her distinct style and inspired many visual artists, such asAntoine Bourdelle,Auguste Rodin,Arnold Ronnebeck, andAbraham Walkowitz, to create works based on her.
Duncan disliked the commercial aspects of public performance, such as touring and contracts, because she felt they distracted her from her real mission: the creation of beauty and the education of the young.To achieve her mission, she opened schools to teach young women her philosophy of dance. The first was established in 1904 in Berlin-Grunewald,Germany. This institution was the birthplace of the "Isadorables" (Anna, Maria-Theresa, Irma, Liesel, Gretel, and Erika), Duncan's protégées who would continue her legacy.Duncan legally adopted all six girls in 1919, and they took her last name.After about a decade in Berlin, Duncan established a school in Paris that was shortly closed because of the outbreak of World War I.
In 1910, Duncan met the occultistAleister Crowleyat a party—an episode recounted by Crowley in hisConfessions.He refers to Duncan as 'Lavinia King', and would use the same invented name for her in his novelMoonchild. Crowley wrote of Duncan that she "has this gift of gesture in a very high degree. Let the reader study her dancing, if possible in private than in public, and learn the superb 'unconsciousness'—which is magical consciousness—with which she suits the action to the melody."Crowley was, in fact, more attracted to Duncan's bohemian companion Mary Dempsey (a.k.a.Mary D'Este or Desti), with whom he had an affair. Desti had come to Paris in 1901 where she soon met Duncan, and the two became inseparable. Desti also appeared inMoonchild, as 'Lisa la Giuffria'. She joined Crowley's occult order, helping him to write his magnum opusMagick: Book 4under her magical name of 'Soror Virakam'; she also co-edited four numbers of Crowley's journalThe Equinox, and contributed several collaborative plays to the journal. Desti wrote a memoir of her experiences with Duncan that includes some autobiographical material.
In 1911, the French fashion designerPaul Poiretrented a mansion—Pavillon du ButardinLa Celle-Saint-Cloud—and threw lavish parties, including one of the more famousgrandes fêtes,La fête de Bacchuson June 20, 1912, re-creating theBacchanaliahosted byLouis XIVat Versailles. Isadora Duncan, wearing a Greek evening gown designed by Poiret,danced on tables among 300 guests; 900 bottles of champagne were consumed until the first light of day
Duncan, said to have posed for the photographerEadweard Muybridge,placed an emphasis on "evolutionary" dance motion, insisting that each movement was born from the one that preceded it, that each movement gave rise to the next, and so on in organic succession. Her dancing defined the force of progress, change, abstraction and liberation. In France, as elsewhere, Duncan delighted her audience.
In 1914, Duncan moved to the United States and transferred her school there. A townhouse onGramercy Parkwas provided for its use, and its studio was nearby, on the northeast corner of23rd StreetandFourth Avenue(now Park Avenue South).Otto Kahn, the head ofKuhn, Loeb & Co., gave Duncan use of the very modern Century Theatre atWest 60th StreetandCentral Park Westfor her performances and productions, which included a staging ofOedipus Rexthat involved almost all of Duncan's extended entourage and friends.During her time in New York, Duncan posed for a number of studies by the photographerArnold Genthe.
Duncan had been due to leave the United States in 1915 aboard theRMSLusitaniaon its ill-fated voyage, but historians believe her financial situation at the time drove her to choose a more modest crossing.In 1921, Duncan's leftist sympathies took her to the Soviet Union, where she founded a school in Moscow. However, the Soviet government's failure to follow through on promises to support her work caused her to return to the West and leave the school to her protégée Irma.In 1924, Duncan composed a dance routine calledVarshaviankato the tune of the Polish revolutionary song known in English asWhirlwinds of Danger.
Duncan in a Greek-inspired pose and wearing her signature Greek tunic. She took inspiration from the classical Greek arts and combined them with an American athleticism to form a new philosophy of dance, in opposition to the rigidity of traditional ballet.
Breaking with convention, Duncan imagined she had traced dance to its roots as a sacred art.She developed from this notion a style of free and natural movements inspired by the classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature and natural forces as well as an approach to the new American athleticism which included skipping, running, jumping, leaping and tossing.
Duncan's philosophy of dance moved away from rigidballet techniqueand towards what she perceived as natural movement. To restore dance to a high art form instead of merely entertainment, she strove to connect emotions and movement: "I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement."She believed dance was meant to encircle all that life had to offer—joy and sadness. Duncan took inspiration from ancient Greece and combined it with an American love of freedom. Her movement was feminine and arose from the deepest feelings in her body. This is exemplified in her revolutionary costume of a white Greek tunic and bare feet. Inspired by Greek forms, her tunics also allowed a freedom of movement that corseted ballet costumes andpointe shoesdid not.Costumes were not the only inspiration Duncan took from Greece: she was also inspired by ancientGreek art, and utilized some of its forms in her movement (see image).
Duncan wrote of American dancing: "let them come forth with great strides, leaps and bounds, with lifted forehead and far-spread arms, to dance."Her focus on natural movement emphasized steps, such as skipping, outside of codified ballet technique. Duncan also cited the sea as an early inspiration for her movement.Also, she believed movement originated from thesolar plexus, which she thought was the source of all movement.It is this philosophy and new dance technique that garnered Duncan the title of the creator of modern dance.
Photographic studies of Isadora Duncan made in New York byArnold Gentheduring her visits to America in 1915–18
Duncan with her children Deirdre and Patrick, in 1913
In both professional and private life, Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality. She wasbisexualand an atheist,and alluded to hercommunismduring her last United States tour, in 1922–23: she waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage inBoston, proclaiming, "This is red! So am I!"
Duncan bore two children, both out of wedlock. The first, Deirdre Beatrice (born September 24, 1906), by theatre designerGordon Craig, and the second, Patrick Augustus (born May 1, 1910),byParis Singer, one of the many sons ofsewing machinemagnateIsaac Singer. Both children drowned in the care of their nanny in 1913 when their runaway car went into theSeine.
Following the accident, Duncan spent several months recuperating inCorfuwith her brother and sister. She then spent several weeks at theViareggioseaside resort with the actressEleonora Duse. The fact that Duse had just left a relationship with the rebellious and epicene youngfeministLina Polettifueled speculation as to the nature of Duncan and Duse's relationship, but there has never been any indication that the two were involved romantically.
In her autobiography, Duncan relates that she begged a young Italian stranger, the sculptorRomano Romanelli,to sleep with her because she was desperate for another baby. She became pregnant by him, and gave birth to a son on August 13, 1914; the infant died shortly after birth.
In 1921, after the end of the Russian Revolution, Duncan moved to Moscow where she met the acclaimed poetSergei Yesenin, who was 18 years her junior. On May 2, 1922, they married, and Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe and the United States. However, the marriage was brief, and in May 1923 he left Duncan and returned to Moscow. Two years later, on December 28, 1925, Yesenin was found dead in his room in theHotel AngleterreinSt Petersburgin an apparent suicide.
Duncan had a relationship with the poet and playwrightMercedes de Acosta, as documented in numerous revealing letters they wrote to each other.In one, Duncan wrote, "Mercedes, lead me with your little strong hands and I will follow you – to the top of a mountain. To the end of the world. Wherever you wish."
By the late 1920s, Duncan's performing career had dwindled, and she became as notorious for her financial woes, scandalous love life and all-too-frequent public drunkenness as for her contributions to the arts. She spent her final years moving between Paris and the Mediterranean, running up debts at hotels. She spent short periods in apartments rented on her behalf by a decreasing number of friends and supporters, many of whom attempted to assist her in writing an autobiography. They hoped it might be successful enough to support her.In a reminiscent sketch,Zelda Fitzgeraldwrote how she andF. Scott Fitzgerald, her husband, sat in a Paris cafe watching a somewhat drunk Duncan. He would speak of how memorable it was, but what Zelda recalled was that while all eyes were watching Duncan, Zelda was able to steal the salt and pepper shakers from the table.
In his bookIsadora, an Intimate Portrait,Sewell Stokes, who met Duncan in the last years of her life, describes her extravagant waywardness. Duncan'sautobiographyMy Lifewas published in 1927. The Australian composerPercy Graingercalled Isadora's autobiography a "life-enriching masterpiece."
On the night of September 14, 1927, inNice, France, Duncan was a passenger in anAmilcarCGSSautomobile owned by Benoît Falchetto, a French-Italian mechanic. She wore a long, flowing, hand-painted silk scarf, created by the Russian-born artistRoman Chatov, a gift from her friend Mary Desti, the mother of American film directorPreston Sturges. Desti, who saw Duncan off, had asked her to wear a cape in the open-air vehicle because of the cold weather, but she would only agree to wear the scarfs they departed, she reportedly said to Desti and some companions,"Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!"("Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!"); but according to the American novelistGlenway Wescott, Desti later told him that Duncan's actual parting words were,"Je vais à l'amour"("I am off to love"). Desti considered this embarrassing, as it suggested that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a tryst.
Her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, pulling her from the open car and breaking her neck.Desti said she called out to warn Duncan about the scarf almost immediately after the car left. Desti brought Duncan to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
AsThe New York Timesnoted in its obituary: "Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice, Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement."Other sources noted that she was almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her neck.The accident gave rise toGertrude Stein's mordant remark that "affectations can be dangerous".At her death, Duncan was aSovietcitizen. Her will was the first of a Soviet citizen to beprobatedin the U.S.
Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed next to those of her childrenin thecolumbariumatPère Lachaise Cemeteryin Paris.On the headstone of her grave is inscribedÉcole du Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris("Ballet School of the Opera of Paris").
Duncan is known as "The Mother of Dance". While her schools in Europe did not last long, Duncan's work had impact in the art and her style is still danced based upon the instruction of Maria-Theresa Duncan,Anna Duncan,and Irma Duncan,three of her six adopted daughters. The adoption process was never verified, but all six of Isadora's dancers did change their last name to Duncan.Through her sister, Elizabeth, Duncan's approach was adopted byJarmila Jeřábkováfrom Prague where her legacy persists.By 1913 she was already being celebrated. When theThéâtre des Champs-Élyséeswas built, Duncan's likeness was carved in itsbas-reliefover the entrance by sculptorAntoine Bourdelleand included in paintedmuralsof the ninemusesbyMaurice Denisin the auditorium. In 1987, she was inducted into theNational Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame.
Anna, Lisa,Theresa and Irma, pupils of Isadora Duncan's first school, carried on the aesthetic and pedagogical principles of Isadora's work in New York and Paris. Choreographer and dancerJulia Levienwas also instrumental in furthering Duncan's work through the formation of the Duncan Dance Guild in the 1950s and the establishment of the Duncan Centenary Company in 1977.
Another means by which Duncan's dance techniques were carried forth was in the formation of the Isadora Duncan Heritage Society, by Mignon Garland, who had been taught dance by two of Duncan's key students. Garland was such a fan that she later lived in a building erected at the same site and address as Duncan, attached a commemorative plaque near the entrance, which is still there as of 2016. Garland also succeeded in having San Francisco rename an alley on the same block from Adelaide Place to Isadora Duncan Lane.
In medicine, the Isadora Duncan Syndrome refers to injury or death consequent to entanglement of neckwear with a wheel or other machinery.