Monday, September 14, 2020

Isadora Duncan—Free Spirit Maven of Modern Dance

Movie icon Grace Kelly became Princes Grace of Monaco.

On September 14, 1982 the former Grace Kelly, Princes of Monaco, died of injuries sustained in an automobile crash in the Principality.  That was 55 years to the day that dancer Isadora Duncan died in a bizarre open car accident not far away on the Riviera in Nice.  They were nearly the same age at death—the Princes was 53, Duncan 50.  Both were cultural icons.

Aside from being American performing artists of striking personal beauty living in Europe, however, the two could hardly have been more different.

Princess Grace was raised in Philadelphia high society, into which her wealthy Irish Catholic family had managed to crash.  She had a fabulously successful, if brief movie career in which she was tagged as an “ice princess” for her cool blonde beauty.  She remained a devoted Catholic and consented to marry into one of the oldest royal families in Europe despite hardly having met the groom, Prince Rainier.


Princess Grace's wrecked Land Rover at the bottom of a mountain hairpin turn.

Duncan, on the other hand, had been a wild bohemian and had rejected every constraint of conventionality the Princess embraced.  She publicly took lovers of both sexes.  It must be noted, however, that despite Grace Kelly’s aloof reputation in Hollywood, she apparently took most of her leading men as lovers.  But she was chaste and discrete compared to the dancer. 

Of the two, however, Isadora Duncan was by far the more interesting.

Isadora Duncan in one of her Greek inspired dance costumes.

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 spokes of wheel on the open automobile 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--already a wild child.

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 settings 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.

Although they were never dance partners, Isadora was paired with Russian ballet super star 
                    Vaslav Nijinsky in a bas relief adorning a new Paris theater in 1913.

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.

Duncan 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.

Isadora's grace and fluidity of line and motion were captured in this photograph.

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 wedlockDeirdre, born in 1906 and fathered by theater 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

Twenty years older than Isadora the great Italian actress Eleonara Duce offered her solace--and perhaps a love affair--when the dancer was grieving the death of her children. 

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. Thereafter they 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.

Isadora with her students, adopted daughters, and performance troupe, the Isadorables.

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.

Isadora with her abusive and alcoholic husband, the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin.

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 which 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.

An illustrated newspaper account of Isadora's death had all of the celebrity gossip of a breathless Access Hollywood Report.

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 much 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.

Vanessa Redgrave as Isadora

In 1968 her life was celebrated in a dazzling wide screen color epic, Isadora starring Vanessa Redgrave for which she won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.  Both Duncan’s and Redgrave’s personal radicalism prevented similar honors from the Motion Picture Academy.  In fact, the whole production was so “drenched in Red” in the words of one critic that the cast included a rare screen appearance of Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers in a small role.  Depite being a hit and stirring a revival of Art Nouveau and modern dance that influenced the wider culture through the‘70’s, the film almost vanished and has seldom been seen since.

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.


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