Duncan, Isadora (1877-1927)

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Duncan, Isadora (1877-1927)

The great American icon of dance, Isadora Duncan, who rose to prominence early in the twentieth century and met a tragic death at age 50, was ahead of her time in both her artistic ideals, her modes of physical expression, and her controversial private life. Greatly admired by many, she also became an object of scorn and derision, mocked for her uninhibited approach to her work and pilloried for her scandalous love affairs and "bohemian" associations and lifestyle. Ironically, Isadora Duncan's art has always been more highly valued abroad than in her native land, but her cultural influence in America was considerable. The development of the modern dance form as exemplified by Martha Graham and her contemporaries and successors owed much to Duncan's unshakable belief in the power and force of female self-expression.

Angela Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco, the daughter of poor but liberal, art-loving parents, who gave relatively free rein to their children. Isadora and her siblings became involved with movement and dance early on, and taught the waltz and the mazurka to their friends. Meanwhile, Isadora attended sessions in gymnastics, a vigorous and increasingly fashionable form of exercise, free of the constraints of corsets or heavy clothing. The contrast with the rigidly formal balletic style that she and her family saw on the stages of local theaters was marked, and held more appeal for her. Isadora was still in her teens when she and her sister Elisabeth were listed in the San Francisco directory as teachers of dance, an occupation in which their brothers soon joined them. The Duncans loved to perform, and soon Isadora was part of a small family variety show touring California.

It did not take Duncan long to combine her love of expressive movement with the relative freedom offered to the female body by gymnastics. Delsarte's movement vocabulary, which sought exact expressions of emotions and inner states through physical actions, was much in fashion during the 1880s, and Duncan's later dances showed this influence in her use of a trained body, able to single out and intensify a whole-body expression. Another influence from her early years could be traced to the 1893 World Exhibition in Chicago. There, the Art Nouveau displays made a strong impression on her imagination, and her dances later reflected the organic lines and swirls that characterized Art Nouveau design.

After two years with a touring company and many excursions into acting, singing, and dancing, Isadora Duncan became bored with a theatrical environment which did not allow for the expression of her individuality. She began to develop her own style and work on a dance repertoire, and on March 14, 1899 she gave a solo performance in New York in which she danced to poetry. Her bare arms and legs caused some ladies to leave the auditorium, but those that remained were entranced by the classical purity of her art. Duncan had found her way out of the "low art" of club and theater dance to a new, high form of dancing, whose form was influenced by Greek statues, classical music, and poetry, and whose physical disciplines had their roots in calisthenics. Her favorite poet, Walt Whitman, inspired her to use her body as the instrument of a new poetry.

Later the same year, declaring the dedication of her life to Art and Beauty, Isadora Duncan embarked on travelling the world, taking her art to the sophisticated centers of 1920s bohemia: London, Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. She caused a sensation wherever she went and became an inspiration to poets, musicians, and painters, taking a succession of lovers from among their ranks. Among her most famous liaisons was that with the famed English stage designer of the time, Gordon Craig, and she married the Russian poet Essenin.

In performance, Duncan was a euphoric dancer of sensual dreams. A free-thinking woman and an artistic visionary, she focused on the concerns of her time and translated them into movement, deserting the relatively static displays of the period for generous, sensitive dances in which she brought the accompanying music to three-dimensional life. To music that ranged from Schubert through Wagner to Chopin, she would fill the stage, her voluptuous body dressed in a Greek-style tunic, or veils, expressing her feelings and emotions through movement, able to communicate her presence to the audience. The influence of this style, while considerable, was concealed within the images of free, gracious, sensuous, and powerful dancing that mesmerized her audience through its simplicity—the Duncan approach could not be studied through preserved step patterns, finished dances, or her writings.

Parallel with her position as an exponent of a new form of dance, Duncan became an early symbol of personal women's liberation, and of general political freedom. In her writings she attacked the constraints imposed on women, and exercised none in the conduct of her permissive sexual life. She even danced while pregnant. Although Duncan advocated the equality of both men and women in a new morality, she did not perceive her own work as erotic: her freedom was the freedom of the naked Greeks. Her audiences appreciated her in different ways, some for her purity of expression, others undoubtedly with prurient interest as they waited (successfully) for her breasts to fall out of her loose costume. It was not only gender politics that excited her: she saw Communism as a way forward, and offered her services to the Russian republic.

After a wandering life filled with ideas, achievements, personal tragedies such as the death of her children, many men, and few places to call home, Duncan died in a horrible yet appropriately flamboyant way. Her trademark flowing silk scarf became entangled in the wheels of a Bugatti sports car, causing a fatal broken spine.

The schools Duncan founded did not do very well, and few of her adopted daughters took on the mantle of teaching the next generation. Ballet masters dismissed her dances of free expression for their lack of technique, and saw Duncan herself as a mere amateur. Her writings were revived in the back-to-nature days of the 1970s, but had very little sustained influence on the further development of modern dance, but her powerful, free, and beautiful image has stayed with dancers all over the world. Isadora is cemented as one of the great feminine myths of the twentieth century, and was played by Vanessa Redgrave in Karel Reisz's 1969 film, The Loves of Isadora (aka Isadora).

—Petra Kuppers

Further Reading:

Daly, Ann. Done into Dance. Isadora Duncan in America. Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1995.

Duncan, Isadora. The Art of Dance, edited by Sheldon Cheney. New York, Theatre Arts Books, 1977.

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