The Impact of Isadora Duncan

There is something Messiah-like about the advent of Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). She emerged seemingly out of nowhere, was so completely transformative, and touched so many people. And there is even a spiritual dimension to her art. (There are those who literally maintain her philosophy and her legacy. Check out the Isadora Duncan Foundation’s website here). Most moderately well educated people know a few things about her: she is considered the Mother of Modern Dance, her life intersected with some of the most significant people of her day, and she died in a spectacular, horrible fashion. But while Duncan inevitably influenced popular culture as well as the rarified world of high art, and while she played a role in the lives of many we have written about on this blog, we’ve taken our sweet time in paying her tribute. Unlike, say, Ruth St. Denis or Martha Graham, she never trod American vaudeville stages, our original bailiwick. And then there is the difficulty of wrapping your arms around something so ephemeral as dance. One sees her legacy all the time, it’s like the air we breathe, and we have these vague ideas about what she’s all about, but it is so hard to trust the written WORD about a thing that must be WITNESSED. It’s like saying that humankind evolved from the ape. Yes! Makes perfect sense, of course. But I’d like to have been a God so that I could SEE it.

What’s particularly maddening about Duncan is that she appears to be a completely original American genius. Normally when you write about an artist, you can point to her predecessor. A torch is passed. You can say where they came from, if only partially. Duncan’s influences however are elusive. Home schooled by a single mother in San Francisco and Oakland, she was apparently cultivated in art appreciation and free-thinking. Her mother was a piano teacher, and Duncan did take some ballet classes, but didn’t like them. Her mother read to her and her siblings from the works of great authors, the most significant of whom I think in this context is Walt Whitman. The moral and aesthetic ideas embodied in Whitman’s writing seem to me to be the most concrete thing you can put your finger on which might inspire the revolution Duncan brought to the world of dance, and culture in general. The attachment to nature as a kind of wellspring, the rejection of the formal and the regimented. The SELF and not some “authority” as the originator of the artistic impulse. The other remarkable fact is that she TAUGHT dance from the very beginning. She taught it to neighborhood children before she had even studied it herself. This , too, is a kind of key. She was born with an instinct, and with a natural authority. Art flowed out of her. She was not afflicted by any doubts about its legitimacy.

And so the hallmarks of her art were there from the cradle, innately. It was about organic expression, originating from the gut (or the solar plexus, her preferred term), with each movement leading logically to the next. It was opposed to rigidness and repetition and hidebound tradition. It was freeform and flowing and not tethered to a particular “school” (until it became one itself of course). As time went on she found inspiration in folk dance, the sacred art and ritual of Classical Greece, and America’s burgeoning physical fitness culture. I am interested to note that her ideas largely PRECEDE Henri Bergson’s 1907 Creative Evolution. It was Bergson who coined and popularized the notion of the élan vital. Her work is so much about being an expression of the life force.

At the dawn of her professional career circumstances (obscurity, modest means) compelled Duncan to submit to more conventional methods. For a time in the 1890s she was a member of Augustin Daly’s stock company, and studied ballet with Marie Bonfanti, who had been prima ballerina in The Black Crook at Niblo’s Garden and later danced with the Metropolitan Opera. After these brief apprenticeships she moved to London in 1898, where she began demonstrating her original dances in salons and at society parties. She was often ridiculed for her unconventional movement and scandalous dress (bare limbed in Greek inspired fashion, which still had the power to shock in her day). But this only brought her more attention. In Paris in 1902, she danced with Loïe Fuller, which opened even more doors. Here she became fast friends with Mary Dempsey (a.k.a. Mary D’Este or Desti), better known to posterity as Preston Sturges’s mother. (Later, through Desti, she would meet Aleister Crowley, who would include her as a character in his novel Moonchild). That same year for the first time she debuted her own choreography on the professional stage with a successful run in Budapest. In 1905 she opened the first of her dance schools in Berlin, training a group of proteges who became known as the “Isadorables”. Duncan would also teach in Paris: her pupils there would include a young Elsa Lanchester, and Paul Swan. Swan did this terrific portrait of her at around that time:

Not surprisingly, Duncan was not only an advocate of Free Love, but a practitioner. She had two children out of wedlock, one fathered by theatre designer Gordon Craig in 1906, one fathered by Paris Singer (of the sewing machine family) in 1910. In 1913 the children and their nanny were tragically killed when their automobile went into the Seine. This was not the last of Duncan’s bad luck with automobiles. Following the accident, she spent some time recovering at the seaside home of Eleanora Duse. 

With the Great War looming, Duncan moved her operations to New York in 1914, where Otto Kahn provided her with the use of the Century Theatre for her performances. From 1916 through 1920 she toured extensively, first through America and then Europe. Among her many acolytes in the U.S., I think is Charlie Chaplin. I refer you to his 1919 film Sunnyside, and the nervous breakdown segment in Modern Times. Those faun-like, sprite-like movements — I think of those as being characteristically Isadora Duncan. Something else just clicked for me. Harold Clurman saw Duncan dance in 1921, later calling her “a seminal force. Watching her I experienced something close to fear and exaltation.” I have read much of Clurman’s writing on the theatre (and watched his rants on film) and long been frustrated with his vague gibberish about “life” and “art”, which never seem to be rooted in specifics. Ah! But put in THIS light, seen in this context, I begin to have a frame of reference for why he even talked that way. Stanislawski should have been the explanation, and was the ostensible one, but I had a hard time making it scan with the fact that stage drama tends to be such a verbal art. Dance isn’t. Clurman was always looking for a spark, and frustrated by its absence. That is a very Isadora Duncan concept.

In 1921, swept up by revolutionary fervor, Duncan moved to the Soviet Union and established a dance school. The following year she married poet Sergei Yesenin. The liaison lasted only about a year. Yesenin took his own life in 1925. Two years later, Duncan herself was dead, after her long, flowing scarf became entangled in the rear axle of the open air automobile in which she was riding. “Affectations,” quipped Gertrude Stein in reaction to the news, “can be dangerous.”

We mentioned the ephemeral nature of dance at the top of this post. But that isn’t absolute. Motion picture art is a boon in this particular case. Go to Youtube. Not only is there some (rare, brief) footage of Duncan dancing herself, but oceans of footage of dancers performing her works or in her style. It will illuminate far more than any written essay could. That said, there is also Duncan’s autobiography My Life, published the year of her death.