Isadora Duncan is known as the “mother of modern dance.” She revolutionized dance at the turn of the 20th Century, taking the three “Bs” of dance at that time – Ballet, Ballroom and Burlesque – and creating an entirely new, more expressive dance form on a higher plane of artistic integrity and acceptance.
Born in Oakland, California on May 26, 1877, Isadora was raised in an unconventional household. She grew up with an artistically-driven, divorced, atheist mother, a notorious and famous, but absent father, and spirited siblings. Together, the Duncan family contemplated the writings of Shakespeare, the music of Beethoven, the art of ancient Greece and the Renaissance, the poetry of Whitman. Isadora's days were often unstructured, spent dancing on the beaches of the California coasts. It was from these beginnings that Isadora's ideas of dance were born.
She took these ideas with her to find her fortunes across America. Unfortunately, America wasn't ready for Isadora's big ideas about dance. Despite limited exposure in Augustine Daly's touring productions, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, and as a novelty act at society luncheons, it wasn't until Isadora took a cattle boat to Europe that she found true success as an artist and understanding of her artistic ideals in London and especially Paris.
Isadora Duncan revolutionized dance in several ways. First, she danced to the music of the great masters – Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Scriabin and Wagner – music that was considered “above” dance. But in doing so, Isadora elevated dance to a level of artistic appreciation it had not received since the days of the ancient Greeks. Isadora also danced about the human condition, politics, and more abstract themes than the mimed storylines prevalent in ballets of the day. She also stripped the staging of dance down to a bare, curtained space, and the costuming down to simple, flowing tunics, letting the movements and the music be the focal point of the artistic statement.
In her years touring and living in Europe, Isadora also opened a school of dance in Grunewald, Germany. Isadora hoped to inspire an entire generation of free-thinking, intelligent, living children through dance and learning. At her school, dancing was integrated with all types of learning, and education was joyful. Her students were taken from the poor classes and given free room, board and lessons. It was out of this school that Isadora's main pupils, dubbed “The Isadorables,” developed.
But Isadora continued to tour to support her school and to further her art. She had tumultuous love affairs with Gordon Craig, the famed stage designer, Paris Singer, the millionaire, and had children out-of-wedlock with both men. She had many other affairs with men, and believed women should be free to love and bear children outside the “bonds” of marriage.
Isadora also started a school in Moscow, Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, hoping that the Soviet Union would embrace her vision to educate children with art, dance and learning. However, that hope was quickly disillusioned when the Soviet government halted funding, forcing Isadora to leave the school in the hands of her pupil Irma Duncan, and tour once again to make money.
Isadora was profoundly impacted by the tragic deaths of her children in 1914 in Paris, when they and their governess were drowned in the Seine River during a car accident. Isadora left dancing for a while, and her later choreography became more dramatic, somber and politically charged.
In Isadora's later years, she married a Russian poet, Sergei Esenin, which caused great uproar in the devoutly anti-Communist America. Isadora caused great controversy in the American press and audiences when she arrived for a tour in America in the early 1920s with her Russian husband, red hair, red costumes and bare flesh.
Isadora spent her final years in France and Europe, where she felt most at home, filled with some dancing (mostly slow and profound), drinking, traveling and some sadness. Her life was dramatically ended in 1927 when she was strangled and dragged to death when her scarf tangled in the wheel of a convertible sportscar. Thousands marched through the streets of Paris to mark her funeral.
My Life by Isadora Duncan
A Sensational Life by Peter Kurth
Isadora by Frederika Blair