(May 26, 1877 – September 14, 1927)
was an American dancer. She was born Angela Isadora
Duncan in San
Isadora Duncan is considered by many to be the
mother of modern dance
popular in the United States only in New York later in her life,
she performed to acclaim throughout Europe.
Duncan was 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), youngest daughter of
Thomas Gray, a California state senator, and his wife Mary Gorman.
The other children were Elizabeth, Augustin, and Raymond
. Her father was the son of Joseph
Moulder Duncan and Harriett Bioren. Soon after Isadora's birth,
Joseph Duncan lost the bank and was publicly disgraced.
parents were divorced by 1880 (the papers were lost in the San Francisco earthquake), and her
mother Dora moved with her family to Oakland.
She worked there as a pianist and music
teacher. In her early years, Duncan did attend school, but finding
it to be constricting to her individuality, she dropped out. As her
family was very poor, both she and her sister gave dance classes to
local children to earn extra money.
In 1895, Isadora Duncan became part of Augustin Daly
's theater company in New York.
She soon became disillusioned with the form. In 1899, she decided
to move to Europe, first to London and, a year later, to Paris.
Within two years, she achieved both notoriety and success.
Her father, along with his third wife and their daughter, died in
the 1898 sinking of the British passenger steamer SS Mohegan
Montparnasse's developing Bohemian
environment did not suit her.
In 1909, Duncan moved to two
large apartments at 5 rue Danton, where she lived on the ground
floor and used the first floor for her dance school. Barefoot
, dressed in clinging scarves and
faux-Grecian tunics, she created a primitivist
style of improvisational dance
to counter the rigid styles of the time. She was
inspired by the classics, especially Greek
. She rejected traditional ballet steps to stress improvisation
, emotion, and the human form.
Duncan believed that classical
, with its strict rules of posture and formation, was
"ugly and against nature"; she gained a wide following that allowed
her to set up a school to teach.
Duncan became so famous that she inspired artists and authors to
create sculpture, jewelry, poetry, novels, photographs,
watercolors, prints, and paintings of her. When the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was built in 1913, her likeness was carved in its
bas-relief over the entrance by
sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and
included in painted murals of the nine
muses by Maurice
Denis in the auditorium.
Duncan traveled to Brazil and performed at Rio de Janeiro's Teatro Municipal in August and at
Paulo's Teatro Municipal on September 2, 3 and 5
with pianist Maurice
Dumesnil. Writer and journalist Paulo Barreto, known as
João do Rio, claimed to have seen
her dance "naked" in the forest of Tijuca, in front of
Rio's most famous waterfall.
she acted on her sympathy for the social and political revolution
in the new Soviet
Union and moved to Moscow.
She cut a striking
figure in the increasingly austere post-revolution capital, but her
international prominence brought welcome attention to the new
regime's artistic and cultural ferment. The Russian government's
failure to follow through on extravagant promises of support for
Duncan's work, combined with the country's spartan living
conditions, sent her back to the West in 1924.
Throughout her career, Duncan did not like the commercial aspects
of public performance, regarding touring, contracts, and other
practicalities as distractions from her real mission: the creation
of beauty and the education of the young. A gifted if
, she was the
founder of three schools dedicated to teaching her dance philosophy
to groups of young girls (a brief effort to include boys was
unsuccessful). The first, in Grunewald, Germany, gave rise to her most celebrated group of
pupils, dubbed "the Isadorables," who took her surname and
subsequently performed both with Duncan and independently.
The second was short lived prior to World
at a château outside Paris, while the third she founded
while in Moscow in the wake of the Russian Revolution
Duncan's teaching and her pupils caused her both pride and anguish.
Her sister, Elizabeth Duncan, took over the German school and
adapted it to the Teutonic philosophy of her German husband. The
Isadorables were subject to ongoing hectoring from Duncan over
their willingness to perform commercially; Lisa Duncan was
permanently ostracized for performing in nightclubs. The most notable of
the group, Irma Duncan, remained in the Soviet Union after Isadora Duncan's departure.
the school there, angering her mentor Duncan by allowing students
to perform in public and commercial venues.
Both in her professional and her private lives, Duncan flouted
traditional mores and morality. In 1922, she married the Russian
poet Sergei Yesenin
, who was 18 years
her junior. Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe, but his
alcoholism resulted in drunken rages, with repeated destruction of
furniture and interiors of their hotel rooms, bringing Duncan much
negative publicity. The following year he left Duncan and returned
to Moscow, where he soon suffered a mental breakdown and was placed
in a mental institution
from hospital, he allegedly committed suicide on December 28, 1925,
at the age of thirty.
Duncan bore two children, both out of wedlock—the first, Deirdre
(born September 24, 1906), by theatre designer Gordon Craig
, and the second, Patrick
(born May 1, 1910), by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of
magnate Isaac Singer
. Her private life was considered
scandalous, especially following the drowning of Deirdre and Patrick in an accident on
the Seine River on
April 19, 1913.
The children were in the car with their
nurse, returning home after lunch with Isadora and Paris Singer.
The driver stalled the car while attempting to avoid a collision.
He got out to hand-crank the engine, but he had forgotten to set
the parking brake, so once he got the car to start, it went across
the Boulevard Bourdon and rolled down the embankment into the river
below. The children and the nanny drowned.
the accident, Duncan spent several months recuperating in Corfu with her
brother and sister. After this, she spent several weeks at the
Viareggio seaside resort with actress Eleonora Duse.
The fact that Duse was
just coming out of a lesbian
with rebellious young lesbian feminist Lina
fueled speculation as to the nature of Duncan and
Duse's relationship, but there has never been definite proof that
the two were involved romantically.In her autobiography, Isadora
Duncan relates that she begged a young Italian stranger to sleep
with her because of her desperation to have another baby. She did
indeed become pregnant right after her children's deaths. She gave
birth to a son who lived only a few hours and was never named.
last United States tour in 1922-23, Duncan waved a red scarf and
bared her breast on stage in Boston,
proclaiming, "This is red!
I!". She was bisexual
, which was not
uncommon in early Hollywood circles. She had a lengthy and
passionate affair with poet Mercedes
Duncan and de Acosta wrote regularly in often revealing letters of
correspondence. In one from 1927, Duncan wrote: (quoted by Hugo
Vickers in "Loving Garbo") "...A slender body, hands soft and
white, for the service of my delight, two sprouting breasts round
and sweet, invite my hungry mouth to eat, from whence two nipples
firm and pink, persuade my thirsty soul to drink, and lower still a
secret place where I'd fain hide my loving face...."
letter to de Acosta she 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." Isadora, June 28, 1926.De
Acosta had once proclaimed that from the moment she first saw
Isadora Duncan, she looked upon her as a great genius, and was
taken by her completely.
By the end of her life, 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 an
ever-decreasing number of friends and supporters, many of whom
attempted to assist her in writing an autobiography. They hoped it
might be sufficiently successful to support her. In a reminiscent
sketch, Zelda Fitzgerald
how she and Scott sat in a Paris cafe watching a somewhat drunk
Duncan. F. Scott Fitzgerald
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 her book Isadora, an Intimate Portrait
, Sewell Stokes
, who met Duncan in the last
years of her life, describes her extravagant waywardness. Duncan's
autobiography My Life
published in 1927. Composer Percy
called Isadora’s autobiography a “life-enriching
fondness for flowing scarves was the cause of her death in a freak automobile accident
in Nice, France, on
the night of September 14, 1927, at the age of 50.
was hand-painted silk from the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov.
The accident gave rise to Gertrude
's mordant remark that "affectations can be
Duncan was a passenger in the Amilcar
automobile of a handsome French-Italian mechanic, Benoît Falchetto,
whom she had nicknamed "Buggatti" (sic)
. Before getting
into the car, she reportedly said to her friend Mary Desti
and some companions, "Adieu, mes amis.
Je vais à la gloire!" (Goodbye, my friends, I am off to glory!).
according to American novelist Glenway
Wescott, who was in Nice at the time
and visited Duncan's body in the morgue, Desti admitted that she
had lied about Duncan's last words.
Instead she told
Wescott, Duncan said, "Je vais à l'amour" (I am off to love). Desti
considered this too embarrassing to be recorded as the dance
legend's last words, especially as it suggested that Duncan hoped
that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a sexual
Whatever her actual last words, when Falchetto drove off, Duncan's
large silk scarf, a gift from Desti, became entangled around one of
the vehicle's open-spoked wheels and rear axle. As The New York Times
noted in its
obituary, "Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a
tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from
Nice Miss 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 described
her death as resulting from strangulation, noting that she was
almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her
Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed next to those of her
beloved children in the columbarium at
Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
death she was a Soviet
Her will was the first of a Soviet citizen to be
probated in the USA.
Duncan's insistence on more natural movement than that performed in
ballet, along with the use of unrestricted costumes and utilization
of emotional expression- these were highly influential on other
dancers. While her schools in Europe did not survive for long, her
work had impact in the art and her style is still danced by a new
generation of loyal followers based on the instruction of
Maria-Theresa Duncan, the last of the Isadorables. Maria-Theresa
co-founded the Isadora Duncan International Institute (IDII) in New
York in 1977. She personally passed on the original choreography to
one of her pupils, Jeanne Bresciani, PhD, who is now the Artistic
Director and Director of Education of the Institute. Although
Maria-Theresa died in 1987, IDII continues to educate and instruct
in the original choreography, style and techniques of Isadora
Duncan through the tutelage of Dr. Bresciani. Graduates of the IDII
certification programs also perform Duncan's choreography and hold
classes in the Duncan technique. Isadora Duncan was often
considered the founder of modern dance.
Isadora Duncan's life has been portrayed most notably in the 1968
, starring Vanessa Redgrave
. Vivian Pickles
played her in Ken Russell's
1966 biopic for the BBC
, which was subtitled
Biggest Dancer in the World'
and introduced by Duncan's
biographer, Sewell Stokes
In other films, screenplays have included references to Duncan as
- As a sub-plot in the movie Four Friends (1981), main character
Georgia Jodie Thelin keeps referring to
Isadora Duncan as being her kindred spirit.
- In the animated film Anastasia (1997), an Isadora
Duncan-character makes a cameo during the "Paris Hold the Key to
her Heart" number.
- In Bull Durham, Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon) mentions worshipping "Buddha,
Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan,"
in her "Church of Baseball" opening monologue.
- In the Disney cartoon The Weekenders, Tish goes into a
discount costume shop looking for a Duncan costume.
In the television series Maude
, the theme song
includes references to several rebellious women of history, by way
of introducing the refrain, "And then there's Maude." One of the
references is as follows: "Isadora was the first bra burner, ain't
ya glad she showed up."
Dance and theater
- Robert Calvert recorded a song
about Duncan on his Revenge LP. The song is called
- Salsa diva Celia Cruz sang a song titled "Isadora" in
- Duncan is the "poor dancing girl" alluded to in The Libertines' song "Radio America".
- Finnish musician Juice Leskinen
recorded a song called "Isadora Duncan".
- The Magnetic Fields sang
"Like Isadora Duncan II, in impossibly long white scarves" in their
- Vic Chesnutt recorded a song called
"Isadora Duncan" on his first album, Little He has called
it "the breakthrough song" for his songwriting.
- Talking Heads sang "Je me lance
vers la gloire", her (supposed) last words, in their song "Psycho Killer".
- Elliott Murphy wrote a song
called "Isadora's Dancers" on his 1976 album Night Lights. *Russian singer Alexander
Malinin recorded a song about the death of Isadora Duncan.
- Russian band Leningrad have a song about her on their
Pulya (Bullet) album.
- The Constantines sang "Collect the
body of Isadora Duncan" in their song "The Long Distance Four",
from the album Constantines.
- Pete Doherty's solo song "Salome"
contains the lyric, "as she dances and demands the head of Isadora
Duncan on a plate".
- "Isadora Duncan" is a song by Post-Hardcore band Burden of a Day. It is track 7 on their
- Isadora Duncan is referenced in Sylvia
Plath's poem Fever 103.
- Passage by Connie Willis
uses Isadora's last words as the chapter 15.