Isadora Duncan (May 26, 1877 - September 14, 1927) was an American dancer.
Duncan was born in San Francisco, where she lived with her mother Dora, and her father, Joseph Duncan. Mr. Duncan had walked out on his family, giving the family a reason to convert from Roman Catholicism to strict atheism. Duncan attended school for the early years of her life, but dropped out because she found it to be constricting to her individuality. Her family was very poor, so to earn extra money, both she and her sister gave dance classes to local children. Their mother also taught piano lessons.
Montparnasse's developing Bohemian environment did not suit her, and in 1909, she 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 scarfs and faux-Grecian tunics, she created a primitivist style of improvisational dance to counter the rigid styles of the time. Isadora believed that classical ballet, with its strict rules of posture and formation, was "ugly and against nature" and gained a wide following that allowed her to set up a school to teach. She became so famous that she inspired artists and authors to create sculpture, jewelry, poetry, novels, photographs, watercolors, prints and paintings. When the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was built in 1913, her face was carved in the bas-relief by sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and painted in the murals by Maurice Denis.
In 1922 she acted on her sympathy for the social and political experiment being carried out 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 disliked 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 unconventional pedagogue, she was the founder of three schools dedicated to inculcating her philosophy into 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 had a short-lived existence prior to World War I at a château outside Paris, while the third was part of Duncan's tumultuous experiences 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 (and one, Lisa Duncan, was permanently ostracized for performing in nightclubs); the most notable of the group, Irma Duncan, remained in the Soviet Union after Duncan's departure and ran the school there, again angering Duncan by allowing students to perform too publicly and too commercially.
Both in her professional and her private life, she flouted traditional mores and morality. She married the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who was 18 years her junior. Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe, but his frequent drunken rages, resulting in the repeated destruction of furniture and the smashing of the doors and windows of their hotel rooms, brought a great deal of 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. Released from hospital, he allegedly committed suicide on December 28, 1925. It is still unclear whether the poet was murdered or commited suicide indeed.
Duncan bore two children -- one by theatre designer Gordon Craig, and another by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer. Her private life was subject to considerable scandal, especially following the tragic and horrific drowning of her children Deirdre and Patrick in an accident on the Seine River in 1913. The children were in the car with their nanny for a day out, while Isadora stayed at home. The car was driving up a hill, when suddenly the engine stalled. The chauffeur got out of the car to fix the engine, but he had forgotten to use the emergency brake, and so once he got the car to start, it proceeded to roll down the hill, and into the river below. The children and the nanny drowned. Following the accident, she spent several weeks at the Viareggio seaside resort with actress Eleonora Duse. The fact that Duse was just coming out of a lesbian relationship with rebellious young lesbian feminist Lina Poletti fuelled speculation as to the nature of Duncan and Duse's relationship. However, there has never been definite proof that the two were involved romantically.
She was a classical dancer. She rejected traditional ballet steps to stress improvisation, emotion, and the human form.
In her last United States tour in 1922-23, she waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, "This is red! So am I!". She was bisexual, which was not uncommon in early Hollywood circles. She had a lengthy and passionate affair with poet Mercedes de Acosta, and was possibly involved with writer Natalie Barney.
Duncan and de Acosta wrote regularly in often revealing letters of correspondence. In one, written in 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....."
In another letter, written to de Acosta by Duncan, she writes; "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, taken by her completely. she was indeed a lesbian
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 or spending 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, in the hope that it would be sufficiently successful to support her. In a reminiscent sketch, Zelda Fitzgerald recalled how she and Scott sat in a Paris cafe watching a somewhat drunk Duncan. 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 (shaped like miniature taxicabs) from the table.
In the book Isadora, an Intimate Portrait the author, Sewell Stokes, who met her in the last years of her life when she was penniless and alone, describes her extravagant waywardness.
A habitual wearer of flowing scarves which trailed behind her, Duncan's fashion preferences were 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. The accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein's mordant remark that "affectations can be dangerous."
Duncan was a passenger in the Amilcar automobile of a handsome young Italian mechanic, Benoît Falchetto, whom she had ironically nicknamed 'Buggatti' [sic]. (The marque of the automobile is open to dispute but the informed opinion is that it was an Amilcar, a 1924 GS model. It was regularly described and filmed as a more glamorous Bugatti). Before getting into the car, she said to a friend, Mary Desti, and some companions, "Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!" ("Goodbye, my friends, I am off to glory!") However, according to the diaries of the American novelist Glenway Wescott, who was in Nice at the time and visited Duncan's body in the morgue (his diaries are in the collection of the Beineke Library at Yale University), Desti admitted that she had lied about Duncan's last words. Instead, she told Wescott, the dancer actually said, "Je vais à l'amour" ("I am off to love"), which Desti considered too embarrassing to go down in history as the legend's final utterance, especially since it suggested that Duncan hoped that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a sexual assignation. Whatever her actual last words, when Falchetto drove off, Duncan's immense handpainted silk scarf, which was a gift from Desti and was large enough to be wrapped around her body and neck and flutter out of the car, became entangled around one of the vehicle's open-spoked wheels and rear axle. Duncan died on the spot.
As the New York Times noted in its obituary of the dancer on 15 September 1927, "The automobile was going at full speed when the scarf of strong silk began winding around the wheel and with terrific force dragged Miss Duncan, around whom it was securely wrapped, bodily over the side of the car, precipitating her with violence against the cobblestone street. She was dragged for several yards before the chauffeur halted, attracted by her cries in the street. Medical aid was summoned, but it was stated that she had been strangled and killed instantly."
Isadora Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed in the columbarium of Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.
Isadora Duncan in culture
Vivian Pickles played Isadora Duncan in Ken Russell's astonishingly inventive 1966 biopic for the BBC. Subtitled 'The Biggest Dancer in the World' it is was introduced by Isadora's biographer, Sewell Stokes, and it probably unmatched as a portriat of the pain and the glory that come with being an artist.
- The 1968 film of her life, Isadora, starred Vanessa Redgrave in the title role.
- Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books contained the Quagmire triplets named Isadora, Duncan, and Quigley. Isadora and Duncan are quite unlucky, which is a reference to Isadora Duncan's ill-fated life.
- In a deleted scene of James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, the character Rose DeWitt Bukater mentions that she wishes that she could escape her horrid life as a wealthy, restricted young woman and become an artist, or a sculptor, or a dancer like Isadora Duncan.
- She is featured in the opening theme song to the popular 1970s show Maude. "Isadora was the first bra burner, ain't you glad she showed up."
- In the romantic comedy film How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a diamond necklace supposedly once having belonged to Isadora Duncan is featured.
- Salsa diva Celia Cruz sang a song in Isadora Duncan's honour, titled "Isadora".
- In the Pixar animated movie The Incredibles Edna Mode refuses to make a cape for Mr. Incredible's new uniform. A reference to Isadora's tragic tangling and death from her scarf.
- In the Mage: The Ascension supplement Cult of Ecstasy, Duncan is considered an important figure in the Cult's history.
- Isadora Duncan is referenced in the poem Fever 103 by Sylvia Plath.
- In Mikhail Bulgakov's story Heart of a Dog professor Preobrazhensky compares his life with Duncan's life in Moscow.
- In the 1997 animated film Anastasia, Isadora Duncan makes a cameo during the "Paris Hold the Key to her Heart" number, singing the line "Come dance through the night!" with a long scarf dangling behind her.
- Duncan is the "poor dancing girl" alluded to in The Libertines' song 'Radio America.'
- Isadora Duncan is mentioned in an edipode of The Mighty Boosh' talking of her death and then subsequently Vince's scarf gets caught up in the wheel of the van.
- Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation, Inc., directed by Lori Belilove
- Isadora Duncan's Web Links
- Isadora Duncan International Institute, Inc.
- Modern Duncan biographer, Peter Kurth's Isadora Duncan page
- Picture of Duncan
- Picture of Duncan
- Isadora Duncan Archiv, a German web site.
- Atlas F1 historical research forum about the Amilcar debate
- "What the Driver Saw", Emma Donoghue's fictional recreation of Duncan's last days
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