On September 14, 1927 Isadora Duncan, the American born mother of modern dance and an avant-garde icon died in Nice, France when her signature long flowing scarf became entangled in a spoked wheel of the car in which she was riding. She broke her neck and died instantly. She was only 50 years old. Her legions of admirers thought her end fitting and symbolic.
Duncan was born on May 26, 1877 in San Francisco, the youngest of four children. Her father, Joseph Charles Duncan, was a successful mining engineer turned banker and a local patron of the arts and her mother came from an influential California political family. Despite the promising beginning, Joseph Duncan was disgraced in a banking scandal shortly after Isadora’s birth and her mother divorced him and relocated the family to Oakland where the family lived in dire, if genteel, poverty.
Isadora was wild and rebellious and dropped out of school. She and her sisters were consumed with dance and they helped support the family by giving lessons in their home. By the age of 18 in 1895 she found herself in Augustin Daly’s prestigious New York City theatrical troop as a dancer. Daly had fostered the careers of many stage notables including Sarah Orne Jewett, John Drew, Jr., Maurice Barrymore, Fanny Davenport, Maude Adams, and Tyrone Power, Sr. and was noted for his unorthodox setting of Shakespearian cannon such as casting Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a woman.
Despite the seemingly ideal situation for a young dancer, Duncan became disillusioned by the restrictions of conventional theatrical performance and went to London in 1899 in search of artistic purity. Within a year she was in Paris, then the undisputed cultural capital of Europe and brimming with energy and innovation. She tried immersing herself in the thriving bohemian life of the Montparnasse but found the poverty of the artist’s life depressing. But she was young, extremely attractive, and entirely unconventional in her sexual life. It was not too hard for her to find lovers and supporters who helped her move in 1909 to a large and comfortable apartment at 5 rue Danton where she also maintained a second floor dance studio.
It was there that she and her adoring pupils began to discard the conventions of classical ballet, which she described as “ugly and against nature.” Despite her contemptuous aversion to “commercial exhibition” in the pursuit of “pure art” the private recitals she put on with her students made her famous almost overnight. Within a couple of years artists and sculptors were using her and her flowing movements as a model. She was immortalized in a bas relief over the entrance to the new Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913 and painted as one of the Muses in an interior mural.
She danced barefoot and her performances were loosely choreographed to allow her to capture the moment of the music. She said that she used images from Grecian pottery she found in museums as an inspiration for both her on-stage look and the fluidity of her lines.
Despite her distaste for public performances, economic circumstances often made it essential that she tour, although she was often careless of dates and commitments. She appeared across Europe, and Latin America, and returned to America for a controversial tour in 1916.
By that time, Duncan’s private life was attracting as much attention as her dance. She was always open about her devotion to the idea of Free Love and was openly bi-sexual. She had two children out of wedlock—Deirdre, born in 1906 and fathered by theatre designer Gordon Craig, and Patrick, born May 1, 1910 by Paris Singer, a son of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer. The children and their nanny were killed in a freak accident in April of 1913 when the car in which they were riding rolled into the Seine when the chauffer got out to re-start the engine with a hand crank.
Devastated, Duncan spent months on the island of Corfu with her siblings recovering from an apparent break down. Soon after she spent weeks at a seaside resort with another avant-garde icon, actress Eleonora Duse, nearly 20 years her senior and with whom she may—or may not—have had a lesbian relationship.
Duncan remained a committed teacher. In cooperation with her sisters she founded a famous school in Grunewald, Germany, where the Isadorables, her most celebrated troupe of pupils, were formed. They had started training with her and her sister Elizabeth Duncan as children in 1909, but Duncan later “adopted” the six girls in New York in 1916. There after performed using her last name. With Duncan frequently absent, however, Elizabeth took the troop in a direction from which Isadora disagreed and, worse, allowed them to perform in “commercial” venues. Eventually this caused a rift with Elizabeth and with her brother, who arranged independent performances by the girls in the United States. Five of the girls remained in the US and performed together as the Isadorables for some years rising to considerable fame despite their original mentor’s disdain.
Duncan was an outspoken political radical as well as an artistic one. In 1922 she went to the Soviet Union to establish a new, revolutionary school in the homeland of the classical ballet. She was aided by the most loyal of the former Isadorbables, Irma Duncan. While in Russia she met, fell in love with, and actually married poet Sergei Yesenin, eighteen years her junior despite her knowing only six or seven words of Russian and he no English at all. Duncan soon became disillusioned when the elaborate promises of support for her school by the State failed to materialize. By 1923 she was back in Paris with Yesenin in tow and Irma left in charge of the Moscow academy.
Duncan resumed touring to support herself. But Yesenin went into frequent alcoholic rages and destroyed the contents of several hotel rooms, although he was never known to harm Isadora herself. The public scandal overshadowed her performances. Within a year Yesenin went back to Russia, where he continued his dissolute ways, took another wife without divorcing Duncan, and died of drink in 1925 at the age of 30.
In 1925, her reputation as a performer damaged by her own drinking and sexual escapades, Duncan made a final tour of the United States. In Boston, of all places, she came to the stage swathed only in a red banner. She exposed her breasts and proclaimed. “This is red, and so am I.” In Hollywood she became one of the many lovers of playwright Mercedes de Acosta, who reprinted passionate love letters in her scandalous autobiography Here Lies the Heart, published in 1960.
Duncan’s final years were plagued with financial woes as her erratic behavior and advancing age cut into her performance opportunities and her public drunkenness alienated many friends. She split her time between Paris and the Riviera, often leaving un-paid hotel bills in her wake. Friends, including F. Scott Fitzgerald who she met in Paris, tried to encourage her to finish the autobiography she had been working on for some years in the hope that the income might bring her some stability. The book, My Life was published in 1927.
Unfortunately, Duncan did not live to earn an income from the book. On September 14, 1927 she climbed into an open Amilcar roadster with handsome French-Italian mechanic Benoît Falchetto at the wheel. Her friend Mary Desti later told the press that Duncan’s final words were “Good bye, friends, I’m off to glory!” Much later she would admit that she censored Duncan’s actual words which were, “I’m off to love!” apparently for a night with Falchetto. As they sped away, Duncan’s scarf became enmeshed in the rear wheel. She was nearly decapitated by the force and yanked from the car. She died instantly.
Duncan’s creative legacy lives on in almost all modern dance. The last and most famous of the Isadorables, Maria-Theresa Duncan preserved mush of Isadora’s most famous choreography which is still performed by troops around the world. In 1977 Maria-Theresa co-founded the Isadora Duncan International Institute which continues to preserve her legacy.
The story of Duncan’s life and death has inspired writers and artists to this day. Carl Sandburg in his poem Isadora Duncan wrote:
The wind? I am the wind.
The sea and the moon? I am the sea and the moon.
Tears, pain, love, bird-flights? I am all of them.
I dance what I am.
Sin, prayer, flight, the light that never was on land or sea?
I dance what I am.