9/02/2008

Woman of the week - Isadora Duncan


Name: Isadora Duncan
Born: May 26, 1877, San Fransisco, USA
Dead: September 14, 1927, Nice, France
Married to: Sergei Esenin, 1922-1925
Children: Deidre, Patrick and unnamed son
Occupation: Dancer

This woman was very much at the heart of the inventing of modern dance - but she is perhaps most famous today for her tragic death.

She was born in San Fransisco as the youngest of four children to the banker Joseph Charles Duncan and the senator's daughter Mary Dora Gray. She had a sister and two brothers. It was long believed that she was born in 1878, but in 1976 her baptismal certificate was found and that stated that she was 1877. Her upbringing was one in poverty, her father went bankrupt when she was very young and after that her parents divorced, in 1880, and her mother took the children with her to Oakland where she worked as a music teacher. Isadora had an obvious talent for dancing and one way for her to earn money was for her and her sister to give dancing lessons to the local children.

In 1895 she and her family moved to New York to help her further her dancing career. She was not an immediate success, but she did a lot of work for the Augustin Daly Theater company and toured with them. She was not happy with the restricted form of classical ballet that was pretty much the opposite of everything she believed in - both as a dancer and as a person. Instead she went with her mother, sister and one of her brothers to England, in 1899 and a year later they moved on to Paris where she would be a great success.

Her revolutionary view on dancing was that the classical ballet was restricted and had nothing to do with the natural movement of the body that was what dancing must be striving to achieve and capture. She studied classical Greek sculptures and was inspired to dance barefoot and dressed as nymph - nothing like what had been seen before, and it was an immediate success. She moved on to not just performing, touring all over, but also to teach others and founded schools - In Germany, USA and Russia, though none survived for long.

But her private life caused even more sensation than her dancing - she lived as she wished and did not care about social conventions. She did not believe in marriage and had children out of wedlock. Her daughter Deidre was born in 1906 was the daughter of Gordon Craig, son of actress Ellen Terry and theatre designer, and her son Patrick, born 1910 - the son of Paris Singer, son of Isaac Singer. On April 19, 1913, a disaster would struck her from which she never really recovered. The children and their Scottish nurse were sitting in a car that rolled into the Seine and all three drowned. Duncan was devastated by this and it clearly influenced both her dancing and choreography. She became pregnant again soon after this, as a form of consolation - but the baby boy died withing an hour after birth and was never given a name.

She was a great fan of the Soviet Union which to her sounded like a land of promise, and when she was there - among other things starting up another school with governmental aid - she met the poet Sergey Aleksandrovich Yesenin (born in 1895) and married him in 1922. She still did not really approve of marriage, but she wanted to take him with her when traveling in the US and that was the only way. But there was a great skepticism towards Russians and possible communists and they were both viewed with great resentment. This enraged Duncan who swore never to return to America - and she didn't. But she was also disoultioned by Russia where the authorities failed to give her the promised aid to her school and her husband became mentally ill which in the end led to his returning to Soviet Union on his own. He died, possible from suicide, in 1925.

Her last years were spent in Nice and at the French Riviera where she came across as a rather pathetic figure, growing older, being a bit too fond of the bottle, having financial trouble and having indiscreet love-affairs with young men. She died when she was riding in a car with a potential lover - she had a long scarf around her neck but it was caught in the wheels of the car and strangled. She was cremated and buried next to her children in Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris. She was then still an Soviet citizen.

Her autobiography My Life was published in 1927 and reissued in 1972.

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