Saturday, 27 July 2013

Whatever Happened To...Isadora Duncan?

'If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point dancing it.' (Isadora Duncan)
 She was born ahead of her time - a free spirit who cared nothing for the strict rules of early twentieth century society. Yet she took dance to new levels and her influence remains to this day.

Her name was Angela Isadora Duncan and she was born in San Franciso in 1877, the youngest of four children. Her father owned a bank but lost it and was publicly disgraced. Sadly, this loss plunged the family into abject poverty. 

Following her parents' divorce in 1889, she moved with her family to Oakland and attended school there, although with little enthusiasm. She found the rules and regulations imposed on her constricting. So began an attitude she would keep for the rest of her life.Wherever there was a rule, it seemed, Isadora would flout it.

Having developed a love of dance in childhood, she was keen to pursue it and joined Augustin Daly's theatre company in New York in 1896, but here again, her dislike of conforming to set styles and techniques meant she clashed with her contemporaries and felt unhappy and frustrated. In 1898, she left for England, where her free style was more appreciated. She took her inspiration from the illustrations she saw on Greek vases and dressed in flowing, diaphonous garments, leaving little - if anything - to the imagination. The well heeled of London engaged her to perform in their drawing rooms and from there, she travelled to Paris, creating new dance techniques and opening up a dance school. This gave her the opportunity to further her philosophy of dancing as an art form and said, 'let them come forth with great strides, leaps and bounds, with lifted forehead and far-spread arms, to dance.'
Her emphasis was on freedom of expression and natural body movement, including skipping, rather than adherence to ballet technique and, while enjoying mixed critical success, she inspired a number of famous artists such as Auguste Rodin.

She transferred her school to New York when she returned there in 1914. Her radical ideas and way of life attracted many admirers of both sexes, although her Communist political leanings made her enemies.

Isadora also had to endure the tragic loss of both her children in an accident in Paris in 1913. Her grief led her to spend months recuperating in Corfu and eventually to Viareggio in northern Tuscany, where she stayed with actress Eleonora Duse. Eleonora had just ended a tempestuous relationship with the outspoken feminist, Lina Polletti and there was much speculation as to the actual nature of her relationship with Isadora, who was known to be bisexual.

Scandal was never far from Isadora's door. In an age when nudity was shunned, she bared her breast on stage and her private life was the stuff of tabloids. She bore two children out of wedlock and had a number of affairs, although she did marry in 1922. Her husband was eighteen years her junior - one of Russia's most celebrated lyrical poets of the day, Sergei Yesenin, who left her a year later and committed suicide in 1925 at the age of thirty.

Lonely and desperate to have another child, Isadora persuaded sculptor Romano Romanelli - someone she barely knew - to sleep with her and get her pregnant. He agreed and she bore him a son. Sadly, the baby lived just a few hours and died before she had even thought of a name for him.

More affairs followed and included both men and women, but Isadora's star was on the wane. Never one to concern herself about money, she built up debts in hotels in Paris and the Mediterranean. Her performing career had dwindled to virtually nothing and she sought solace in drink - resulting in all too frequent bouts of public drunkenness. But she clung fast to her unconventional beliefs and eccentric dress, loving long flowing scarves in particular - little knowing that one of them would eventually kill her.
When the debts started to catch up with her and she could no longer afford to stay in hotels, she curbed her extravagances somewhat by living in a succession of apartments rented for her by friends. Sadly though, her outrageous behaviour had ensured that many friends and supporters had drifted away, preferrring not to be associated with her in her downward spiral.
On September 14th, 1927, in Nice, fifty year old Isadora got into an open car with a handsome young Italian racing driver, Benoit Falchetto. Refusing to wear a coat, even though the drive would be chilly, she opted instead for a flowing, hand painted silk scarf. Bidding goodbye to friends as she set off, she said, 'Je vais à l'amour' ('I am off to love'), but she would never arrive at her destination. The scarf blew about in the slipstream and wound itself around the open spoked wheels and rear axle of the Amilcar. Unable to free herself, she was strangled and her neck broken.

Isadora was cremated and her ashes buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, but her legacy continues. While her schools of dance didn't last very long, her inspirations, based on classical Greek art, folk dances and natural athleticism, gave rise to the contemporary dance movement and, in 1987, her importance was recognised by her induction into the National Museum of Dance's Mr and Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt Hall of Fame.


  1. How fabulous to see her lifted up in this post! She's one of my long time heroines.

  2. Antonia, I so look forward to your wonderful posts. What a tragic story - I can't think of a more horrible death. :-( But I always admire women who, in times which were much less tolerant than today, were brave enough to be themselves. Thanks for this great story. Loved it.