Dancing to Greet the New Dawn

  • Isadora: the Sensational Life of Isadora Duncan
    by Peter Kurth, Little Brown & Company, 2002, 704pp.

Although she lived well into the era of silent movies, there are no filmed images of Isadora Duncan in motion. Because she was camera-shy, there are very few photographs of her either, and those that exist invariably show her draped in togas, striking dramatic poses. To imagine how the original modern dancer actually danced, we must therefore rely on words–and her own aren’t much help. When asked, Isadora claimed to be influenced by ‘the opening of flowers’ and the ‘flight of bees’ and the ‘free, glad gold of the oranges and the California poppy’. Dance, she once wrote, “it is the rhythm of all that dies in order to live again; it is the eternal rising of the sun.” Most of the time, though, she preferred not to explain it at all:

The people who are in sympathy with me understand what I am trying to do better than myself, the people who are not in sympathy understand better than I why they are not.

Unfortunately, the people who were in sympathy — the critics and writers who admired Isadora in her lifetime — often tended to write as vaguely as the great diva herself. One called her rendition of Death and the Maiden “the eternal mystery of death in all its anguished sympathy”. After another performance, another said that “she moves through the air as though it were the finer ether; the impression, though the eyes do see, is that she is as incorporeal as the sylphs, as fairy-footed as the elves”.

The people who were not in sympathy with Isadora, on the other hand, tended to mock:

All she did was stand, taking at times a few steps from one side to the other, or stoop, while she looked up and raised her arms above her head.

We do know that she loathed the classical ballet, which she rejected utterly, considering it stiff and pompous, and that she had no training in any kind of dancing technique. We know that if she rejected high culture, she hated low culture too, particularly the popular jazz and ragtime dances of her era. She called them “animal dances”, and said they reminded her of the “tottering, ape-like convulsions of the South African Negro — wriggling from the waist downwards”. Alas, like many progressive thinkers, Isadora Duncan was a racist.

As Peter Kurth makes clear in this eminently readable, lavishly detailed biography, we also know that at the height of her fame, in the years preceding the first world war, Isadora Duncan was far more than a mere ballerina or an entertainer. Dancing barefoot, dressed in deliberately eccentric, attention-getting tunics and flowing silks, the mother of two illegitimate children and the lover of many, many men, she came to symbolise emancipation: female emancipation, artistic emancipation, even intellectual anticipation of a sort. Freed of the bonds of tradition, she danced as she pleased. Freed of the dull obligations of bourgeois life, she lived as she pleased. Sometimes she performed; sometimes she was drunk. Sometimes she was impoverished, and sometimes, particularly when she’d found a rich man to support her, she wallowed in silks and yachts and expensive food.

Unfortunately, once Isadora had emancipated herself, leaving behind the bourgeois, the puritan, the stuffy, the vulgar and the common, she seemed not to know where to go. Captivated by the views of the Acropolis from Mount Hymettos outside Athens, she purchased a patch of barren land from some mystified Greek shepherds and proceeded to construct a temple. Intending to “greet the rising sun with joyous songs and dances”, to dedicate herself to “teaching the inhabitants to dance and sing”, she quickly grew bored. She left Greece draped in the national flag, to the strains of the national anthem, and moved on to other things.

Later, she threw herself with equal enthusiasm into the founding of a school for girls, an ‘enterprise dedicated to the promotion of health and beauty in mankind’. Once it had got under way, however, she left the day-to-day running of the school to her sister Elizabeth, who bullied the little girls mercilessly. At one exceptionally low point, Elizabeth disappeared from the school’s premises. Isadora’s young pupils were expelled from their residence and left to scramble for food.

Later still, when she was no longer quite so admired, Isadora developed a passion for the Russian revolution. Europe, she declared, had become passé: “It is too hopelessly bourgeois ever to understand what I am really after.” Hoping to start a new school, Isadora came to Moscow. She wanted, she said, to take 500 children of the working class under her wing, and enthusiastically imagined them waving red flags, dancing to welcome the dawn of the proletarian era. Inevitably, she wound up choreographing some of the earliest social-realist propaganda pageants, teaching her pupils to enact ‘victory and sacrifice’, or else ‘the endurance of the proletariat’.

She was also unaware that many pupils clamoured to enter her school largely as a way of ensuring themselves three meals a day. But then she was unaware of many other things as well: the violence all around her, the growing police presence, the cynicism. As her delightfully ironic biographer puts it, Isadora

had no difficulty becoming a communist, untroubled as she was by any consideration of politics, theory, economics, Russian history, or the working of government.

In the end, though, the revolution too was replaced in her affections by a new passion. Now well into her forties, she fell madly in love with the Russian poet Sergei Esenin, who was 15 years her junior. She spoke almost no Russian and Esenin, on principle, refused to speak any language except Russian. Nevertheless, they married — something Isadora had said she would never do — and embarked on a disastrous, drunken, extravagant honeymoon. In Paris, Esenin wrecked their suite at the Crillon, and would have done more damage had six policemen not dragged him to jail. In Berlin, he wrecked a whole set of rooms at the Palace Hotel, this time together with half a dozen Russian friends. After crossing the Atlantic, the couple nearly weren’t admitted to the United States. Isadora had given up her US citizenship and was travelling on Soviet documents. It hadn’t occurred to her that US immigration authorities might object.

Chased by creditors, they returned to Europe. Esenin abandoned Isadora for a younger woman. A year later he killed himself. Isadora herself, too overweight to earn her living by dancing, was reduced to writing what she hoped would be a best-selling autobiography, in an attempt to earn money. “At last I have learned, and am beginning to realise that money is the most important thing in the world,” said Isadora to a friend, her communism abandoned as easily as it had been acquired.

She died before her book was completed, in a freak accident that sealed her public image for ever. So bizarre were the circumstances of her death, in fact, that it reminded me of the equally bizarre death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The Princess died in a car accident, while being hounded by the journalists she had teased and taunted. The dancer also died in a car accident. Her long, pretentious, extravagant scarf –intended, like all of her clothes, to attract attention to her ‘originality’ — got caught in the wheels, and she strangled. Both died as they had lived, in other words — and both are symbols of modernity, gone badly awry.