Isadora Duncan was an American dancer and innovative educator known for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural projects, and a hectic marriage to the famous Russian poet Sergei Esenin.
She was born Isador ‘Dora’ Angela Duncan on May 26, 1877, in San Francisco, California. Her father, Joseph Duncan, was a cultured man, a poet and an art connoisseur, who worked for the Bank of California. Her mother, an amateur pianist, after divorcing her father, lived a high-principled Victorian lady’s life with four children an very little money. Young Isadora was raised in Oakland, California. She was obsessed with dancing from an early age. Although she was not exposed to rigorous classical ballet practice, she achieved recognition in San-Francisco. There, she started teaching a dance class for children when she was just 14 years old.
She began her professional career in Chicago in 1896, under producer and playwright Augustin Daly. He cast Duncan as Titania in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and she traveled with his company to Europe. Back in the USA, Duncan performed solo dances at the homes of wealthy patrons. She called her program The Dance and Philosophy and performed it to the waltzes of Johann Strauss. In 1899, she left America with her mother and siblings to settle in London. There she met Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the idol of the London stage, who introduced Duncan to London society.
From 1899-1907, Duncan lived in London, Paris and Berlin. She began using the music of Frédéric Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven for her dance. In 1903 she moved to Berlin. There Duncan was introduced to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. She formulated her own philosophy of The Dance of the Future modeled after the ancient Greeks: natural and free. Duncan called for abolition of ballet. She accused ballet of “deforming the beautiful woman’s body” and depriving it of human naturalness. “The Dance of the Future will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks. For art which is not religious is not art, it is mere merchandise” – stated Duncan. Her school of dance in a suburb of Berlin was the start of her famous dance group, later known as the Isadorables.
Duncan made several tours of Russia and met with directors Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko at the Moscow Art Theatre. In St. Petersburg, she also attracted the attention of Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina among other leading ballerinas of the Mariinsky Ballet. Having established good connections with Russian intellectuals, she Returning to the US, her performances were poorly received by critics, who bashed Duncan for her “physical interpretation” of music on stage. She left America in 1909, after less than a year, and never lived there again, returning only for tours.
From 1909 to 1913, Duncan lived in Palais Biron in Paris, where her neighbors were artist Henri Matisse, writer Jean Cocteau, and sculptor Auguste Rodin. Eventually she established three schools in France, Germany, and Russia, and gained tremendous popularity across Europe. Her personal life was marked with as much freedom as was her dancing. Duncan had a child by designer Gordon Craig, and another child by Paris Singer, the heir to the sewing machine fortune. Her both children drowned in an accident on the Seine River in 1913. By that time, she was an acclaimed performer in Europe. She danced to the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. Her face was carved in the bas-relief by sculptor Antoine Bourdelle in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, and was painted in the murals by artist Maurice Denis.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Duncan moved to Moscow. There she married the popular poet Sergei Esenin who was 17 years her younger. This was her one and only official marriage. She took Esenin on tour to the US in 1922-1923. At that time her appearances were marked by baring her breasts on stage and shouting, “This is red! So am I!” The following year, Esenin left Duncan and returned to Moscow, where he suffered a mental breakdown and sought psychiatric help. Meanwhile, her apprentice, Irma Duncan, remained in the Soviet Union and ran the Duncan Dancing School there. At that time, Duncan evolved as a follower of Friedrich Nietzsche and remained anti-religious for the rest of her life.
Duncan’s ex-husband Esenin was found dead in a hotel in St. Petersburg, on December 28, 1925. His mysterious death was never completely explained. Isadora Duncan died on September 14, 1927, in Nice, France. She was killed by her long neck scarf caught in the wheel of an open automobile in which she was a passenger. She was pulled from the car and dragged before the driver could stop. Duncan was cremated and her ashes were laid in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.
Her highly popular Russian school was closed in 1939, under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, and many of her Russian partners were repressed and exiled.
Isadora Duncan was portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave in the 1968 film Isadora (1968).