Free spirit, self-proclaimed pagan who considered the Art of the Dance her religion (and yes that is “Art” with a capital “A”), Duncan is generally cited as one of the founders — if not the mother — of modern dance. Eighty-seven years after it first came out, Isadora Duncan’s autobiography My Life is being republished in a new restored edition.
Born 1887 in San Francisco, California — “by the sea,” she is quick to point out, “under the star of Aphrodite,” Duncan claims almost to have been born dancing from the womb. Certainly she had a sense of her own importance from early on, her mission was to restore Dance back to the highest pantheon of the Arts by choreographing and dancing to the best classical music composed, both past and contemporary.
She disliked ballet, which she thought artificial and stiff, and looked to the music to inspire her movements. Before the age of 12 she had started her own school. Her disillusioned Catholic mother may have raised her children as atheists, and Isadora proclaims the beauty and wisdom of scientific thought, but in reality she is a pagan, going so far as starting to build a temple to the ancient Greek gods on a hillside near Athens with the help of her brother Raymond, much to the amusement of the local Greeks who sold her family the land.
The family fortunes cycled from poor to rich and then back again, but Art is always the driving force, and certainly Isadora’s family believes in her. Mother, two brothers and a sister, follow her from California through Chicago and onto New York, as she dances in rich women’s drawing rooms and onstage. Classical Greece is in fashion and Isadora in her white Greek tunic is popular and her artistry admired.
The family decamps to London, where they pretty much live in the British Museum, inspired by the paintings and sculpture on display. Isadora is soon taken up by an impresario, and she becomes an artistic — and financial — success in England, and then all of Europe.
She performs, there is adulation, there is money, and then she gets distracted — a temple to build, a school to start — until there is no money and she has to perform again. She is beautiful and talented, romantic and passionate, an original. With, however, some bluntly progressive ideas:
“Any intelligent woman who reads the marriage contract and then goes into it, deserves all the consequences. Personally I think the woman’s movement cannot ever call itself the woman’s independent movement, until they swear once and all to abolish marriage.”
As to be expected, her independent feminist views stirred controversy, especially when insisting on lecturing audiences about it while unmarried and pregnant.
And Duncan is certainly unromantic when it comes to being pregnant and giving birth without anesthetics: “It is unheard of, uncivilized barbarism that any woman should still be forced to bear such monstrous torture. . . It is simply absurd that, with our modern science, painless childbirth does not exist as a matter of course. . . What I think of what I endured, and what many women victims endure, through the unspeakable egotism and blindness of men of science who permit such atrocities when they can be remedied.”
Despite her words, she is neither anti-men nor an indifferent mother — she adored the fathers of her children and quickly falls in love with her daughter “Oh women, what is the good of us learning to become lawyers, painters or sculptors when this miracle exists?”
Not that she was ever tempted to leave her art for child or man. “My work,” roars Gordon Craig, one of the big loves of her life and the father of her daughter.
“My school,” replies Isadora.
Founding a school to teach children — not necessarily to be dancers, but to have an artistic creative life — is a life-long passion. “If I had only visioned the dance as a solo, my way would have been quite simple. Already famous, sought after in every country, I had only to pursue a triumphal career,” she says immodestly, but truthfully. “But, alas! I was possessed by the idea of a school.”
From childhood in San Francisco, to New York, Germany, France and Russia, up until the end of her life, Isadora established schools and, with her sister, attempted to teach her vision of dance and the creative life.
There is much to be amused at in these recollections, often having to do with outsize artistic egos. Isadora’s first physical love affair is with a dashing young Hungarian actor playing Shakespeare’s Romeo. His passion becomes somewhat less when the production ends and he begins his new role of Marc Antony, much to her chagrin.
Then there is Isadora’s account of being the interpreter between Craig, the English theater director-designer and theorist credited as one of the major influences on modern theater in the 20th century and the Italian actress Eleanora Duse, considered one of the greatest artists of her day.
Neither could speak the other’s language, both demanded complete agreement, so Isadora completely lied to them to their faces when translating one’s words to the other, assuring each that they were in total agreement when in fact they had opposite views.
Fortunately, the result was a complete artistic triumph, with Duse declaring that all her future performances would be in collaboration with Craig. Unfortunately later on when there was a problem and Isadora was not there to translate, and Craig and Duse never spoke again.
And there is tragedy. Her two children die in a freak accident with their nanny, when the emergency brake of the car they are waiting in fails, and the car roles into the Seine and they drown. A third child dies soon after being born. It is a grief that she never recovers from. Lovers leave, schools fail, money runs out — and World War I sends the whole world into mayhem and grief. Isadora grows older, heavier, less beautiful and critics and audiences are not always kind to her performances.
I asked a friend, a former dancer whose daughter now takes ballet, if anyone even knew who Isadora Duncan was anymore. “Of course,” was her response, and went on to talk about Duncan’s importance to modern dance and anyone who choreographs today.
None of Duncan’s performances were preserved on film — by her own request, as she felt that she must have a rapport with the audience in order to dance and thought that filming would interfere — and despite all the dance schools she founded, there has never been a company dedicated to performing her dances, unlike Balanchine or Ailey.
Nevertheless, her life and her art remain an important inspiration. I wish this edition of the book had included more photographs than just the one on the cover and the frontispiece; there is a strong desire to at least see the still images, even if the movement cannot be recovered.