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Angela Isadora Duncan

Birthdate:
Birthplace: San Francisco, San Francisco County, California, United States
Death: Died in Nice, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France
Cause of death: Neck famously broken when her shawl caught on the spoke of the car she was riding in.
Place of Burial: Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris, Île-de-France, France
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Joseph Charles Duncan and Dora Duncan (Gray)
Ex-wife of Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin
Mother of Deirdre Craig and Patrick Augustus Duncan
Sister of Augustin Duncan; Raymond Duncan and Elizabeth Duncan

Occupation: dancer
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Angela Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan (May 26, 1877 - September 14, 1927) was a dancer, considered by many to be the creator of modern dance. Born in the United States, she lived in Europe and the Soviet Union from the age of 22 until her death at age 50. In the United States, she was popular only in New York, and then only later in her life. She performed to acclaim throughout Europe.

Both in her professional and private lives, Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality. She was bisexual, which was not uncommon in early Hollywood circles. She alluded to her Communism during her last United States tour, in 1922-23; Duncan waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, "This is red! So am I!".

Duncan's fondness for flowing scarves was the cause of her death in a freak automobile accident in Nice, France. Duncan's large silk scarf, while still draped around her neck, became entangled around one of the vehicle's open-spoked wheels and rear axle, breaking her neck.

Early life

Angela Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco, California, the youngest of the four children of Joseph Charles Duncan (1819–1898), a banker, mining engineer and connoisseur of the arts, and Mary Isadora Gray (1849–1922), youngest daughter of Thomas Gray, a California state senator, and his wife Mary Gorman. The other children were Elizabeth, Augustin, and Raymond. She was of Irish and French ancestry.

Her father was the son of Joseph Moulder Duncan and Harriett Bioren. Soon after Isadora's birth, Joseph Duncan lost the bank and was publicly disgraced. Her parents were divorced by 1880 (the papers were lost in the San Francisco earthquake), and her mother Dora moved with her family to Oakland. She worked there as a pianist and music teacher. In her early years, Duncan did attend school but, finding it to be constricting to her individuality, she dropped out. As her family was very poor, both she and her sister gave dance classes to local children to earn extra money.

In 1895 Duncan became part of Augustin Daly's theater company in New York. She soon became disillusioned with the form. In 1899 she decided to move to Europe, first to London and then a year later, to Paris. Within two years she achieved both notoriety and success.

Her father, along with his third wife and their daughter, died in the 1898 sinking of the British passenger steamer SS Mohegan.

Career

Montparnasse's developing Bohemian environment did not suit her. In 1909 Duncan moved to two large apartments at 5 rue Danton, where she lived on the ground floor and used the first floor for her dance school. She rejected traditional ballet steps to stress improvisation, emotion and the human form. Duncan believed that classical ballet, with its strict rules of posture and formation, was "ugly and against nature"; she gained a wide following that allowed her to set up a school to teach.

Duncan became so famous that she inspired artists and authors to create sculpture, jewelry, poetry, novels, photographs, watercolors, prints and paintings of her. When the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was built in 1913, her likeness was carved in its bas-relief over the entrance by sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and included in painted murals of the nine muses by Maurice Denis in the auditorium.

In 1916 Duncan traveled to Brazil and performed at Rio de Janeiro's Theatro Municipal in August and at São Paulo's Teatro Municipal on September 2, 3 and 5 with pianist Maurice Dumesnil. Writer and journalist Paulo Barreto, known as João do Rio, claimed to have seen her dance "naked" in the forest of Tijuca, in front of Rio's most famous waterfall.

In 1922 she acted on her sympathy for the social and political revolution in the new Soviet Union and moved to Moscow. She cut a striking figure in the increasingly austere post-revolution capital, but her international prominence brought welcome attention to the new regime's artistic and cultural ferment. The Russian government's failure to follow through on extravagant promises of support for Duncan's work, combined with the country's spartan living conditions, sent her back to the West in 1924.

Throughout her career Duncan did not like the commercial aspects of public performance, regarding touring, contracts and other practicalities as distractions from her real mission: the creation of beauty and the education of the young. A gifted, if unconventional pedagogue, she was the founder of three schools dedicated to teaching her dance philosophy to groups of young girls (a brief effort to include boys was unsuccessful). The first, in Grunewald, Germany, gave rise to her most celebrated troupe of pupils, dubbed the Isadorables, who took her surname and subsequently performed both with Duncan and independently. The second school was short lived prior to World War I at a château outside Paris. She founded the third while in Moscow in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

Duncan's teaching and her pupils caused her both pride and anguish. Her sister, Elizabeth Duncan, took over the German school and adapted it to the Teutonic philosophy of her German husband. The Isadorables were subject to ongoing hectoring from Duncan over their willingness to perform commercially; Lisa Duncan was permanently ostracized for performing in nightclubs. The most notable of the group, Irma Duncan, remained in the Soviet Union after Isadora Duncan's departure. She ran the school there, angering her mentor Duncan by allowing students to perform in public and commercial venues.

Personal life

Both in her professional and private lives, Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality. She was bisexual, which was not uncommon in early Hollywood circles. She alluded to her Communism during her last United States tour, in 1922-23; Duncan waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, "This is red! So am I!".

Duncan bore two children, both out of wedlock—the first, Deirdre (born September 24, 1906), by theatre designer Gordon Craig, and the second, Patrick (born May 1, 1910),[1] by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer. Both children died in an accident on the Seine River on April 19, 1913. The children were in the car with their nurse, returning home after lunch with Isadora and Paris Singer. The driver stalled the car while attempting to avoid a collision. He got out to hand-crank the engine, but forgot to set the parking brake. The car rolled across the Boulevard Bourdon, down the embankment and into the river. The children and the nanny drowned.[1]

Following the accident, Duncan spent several months recuperating in Corfu with her brother and sister. After this, she spent several weeks at the Viareggio seaside resort with actress Eleonora Duse. The fact that Duse was just coming out of a relationship with rebellious young lesbian feminist Lina Poletti fueled speculation as to the nature of Duncan and Duse's relationship, but there has never been definite proof that the two were involved romantically.[2] In her autobiography, Duncan relates that she begged a young Italian stranger—the sculptor Romano Romanelli[3]—to sleep with her because of her desperation to have another baby. She did indeed become pregnant right after the deaths of her children. She gave birth to a son, who lived only a few hours and was never named.

In 1922 she married the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who was 18 years her junior. Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe; his alcoholism resulted in drunken rages, with repeated destruction of furniture and interiors of their hotel rooms, bringing Duncan much negative publicity. The following year he left Duncan and returned to Moscow, where he soon suffered a mental breakdown and was placed in a mental institution. Released from hospital, he allegedly committed suicide on December 28, 1925, at the age of 30.

She had a lengthy and passionate affair with poet Mercedes de Acosta.[4] Duncan and de Acosta wrote regularly in often revealing letters of correspondence. In one from 1927, Duncan wrote: (quoted by Hugo Vickers in "Loving Garbo") "...A slender body, hands soft and white, for the service of my delight, two sprouting breasts round and sweet, invite my hungry mouth to eat, from whence two nipples firm and pink, persuade my thirsty soul to drink, and lower still a secret place where I'd fain hide my loving face...."[5] In another letter to de Acosta she wrote: "Mercedes, lead me with your little strong hands and I will follow you—to the top of a mountain. To the end of the world. Wherever you wish." Isadora, June 28, 1926.[5] De Acosta had once proclaimed that from the moment she first saw Isadora Duncan, she looked upon her as a great genius, and was taken by her completely.[5]

Later life

By the end of her life Duncan's performing career had dwindled and she became as notorious for her financial woes, scandalous love life and all-too-frequent public drunkenness as for her contributions to the arts. She spent her final years moving between Paris and the Mediterranean, running up debts at hotels. She spent short periods in apartments rented on her behalf by an ever-decreasing number of friends and supporters, many of whom attempted to assist her in writing an autobiography. They hoped it might be sufficiently successful to support her. In a reminiscent sketch, Zelda Fitzgerald recalled how she and F. Scott sat in a Paris cafe watching a somewhat drunk Duncan. He would speak of how memorable it was, but what Zelda recalled was that while all eyes were watching Duncan, Zelda was able to steal the salt and pepper shakers from the table.

In her book Isadora, an Intimate Portrait, Sewell Stokes, who met Duncan in the last years of her life, describes her extravagant waywardness. Duncan's autobiography My Life was published in 1927. Composer Percy Grainger called Isadora's autobiography a "life-enriching masterpiece." [6]

Death

Duncan's fondness for flowing scarves was the cause of her death in a freak automobile accident in Nice, France, on the night of September 14, 1927, at the age of 50. The scarf was hand-painted silk from the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov. The accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein's mordant remark that "affectations can be dangerous."

Duncan was a passenger in the Amilcar[7] automobile of a handsome French-Italian mechanic Benoît Falchetto, whom she had nicknamed "Buggatti" (sic). Before getting into the car, she reportedly said to her friend Mary Desti and some companions, "Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!" (Goodbye, my friends, I am off to glory!). However, according to American novelist Glenway Wescott, who was in Nice at the time and visited Duncan's body in the morgue, Desti admitted that she had lied about Duncan's last words. Instead, she told Wescott, Duncan said, "Je vais à l'amour" (I am off to love). Desti considered this too embarrassing to be recorded as the dance legend's last words, especially as it suggested that Duncan hoped that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a sexual assignation.

When Falchetto drove off, Duncan's large silk scarf, a gift from Desti, and draped around her neck, became entangled around one of the vehicle's open-spoked wheels and rear axle. As The New York Times noted in its obituary: "Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice, Miss Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement."[8] Other sources described her death as resulting from strangulation, noting that she was almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her neck.[9]

Isadora Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed next to those of her beloved children[10] in the columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Ironically, the headstone of her grave contains the inscription in French: "The Paris Opera Ballet School."

At her death, she was a Soviet citizen. Her will was the first of a Soviet citizen to be probated in the U.S.

Legacy

Duncan's insistence on more natural movement than that performed in ballet, along with the use of unrestricted costumes and utilization of emotional expression were highly influential on other dancers. While her schools in Europe did not survive for long, her work had impact in the art and her style is still danced by a new generation of loyal followers based on the instruction of Maria-Theresa Duncan, the last of the Isadorables. Maria-Theresa co-founded the Isadora Duncan International Institute (IDII) in New York in 1977. She personally passed on the original choreography to one of her pupils, Jeanne Bresciani, who is now the artistic director and director of education of the Institute. Although Maria-Theresa died in 1987, IDII continues to educate and instruct in the original choreography, style and techniques of Isadora Duncan through the tutelage of Bresciani. Graduates of the IDII certification programs also perform Duncan's choreography and hold classes in the Duncan technique.

The famous poet and writer Carl Sandburg in his poem Isadora Duncan: wrote: "The wind? I am the wind. The sea and the moon? I am the sea and the moon. Tears, pain, love, bird-flights? I am all of them. I dance what I am. Sin, prayer, flight, the light that never was on land or sea? I dance what I am."

Duncan was inducted into the National Museum of Dance C.V. Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987.

In popular culture

Documentary

Isadora Duncan dances under Brams music

Sergey Esenin and Isadora Duncan

Film

Isadora Duncan's life has been portrayed most notably in the 1968 film, Isadora, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Vivian Pickles played her in Ken Russell's 1966 biopic for the BBC, which was subtitled 'The Biggest Dancer in the World' and introduced by Duncan's biographer, Sewell Stokes.

In other films, screenplays have included references to Duncan as an inspiration.

As a sub-plot in the movie Four Friends (1981), main character Georgia (played by Jodi Thelen) keeps referring to Isadora Duncan as being her kindred spirit.

In the animated film Anastasia (1997), an Isadora Duncan-character makes a cameo during the "Paris Hold the Key to her Heart" number.

In Bull Durham, Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon) mentions worshipping "Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan," in her "Church of Baseball" opening monologue.

In Serpico, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) mentions reading Duncan's "My Life".

In the Disney cartoon The Weekenders, Tish goes into a discount costume shop looking for a Duncan costume.

The romantic comedy film How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days features a diamond necklace named after Isadora Duncan.

In the deleted scene "Rose's Dreams" from Titanic (1997), Rose tells Jack her dream is to become a dancer like Isadora Duncan.

In outtake footage from the Beatles' documentary film Let It Be (1970), John Lennon's between-songs banter includes him jokingly singing, "Isadora Duncan worked for Telefunken..."

[edit] Television

In the television series Maude, the theme song includes references to several rebellious women of history, by way of introducing the refrain, "And then there's Maude." One of the references is as follows: "Isadora was the first bra burner, ain't ya glad she showed up."

Dance and theater

Most notably, Duncan was the subject of a ballet, Isadora, written and choreographed in 1981 by the Royal Ballet's Kenneth MacMillan, and performed at Covent Garden.[11]

When She Danced, a stage play about Duncan's later years by Martin Sherman, won the 1991 Evening Standard Award (best actress) for Vanessa Redgrave. A Hungarian musical based on this play was produced in Budapest in 2008.

Music

Robert Calvert recorded a song about Duncan on his Revenge LP. The song is called "Isadora".

Salsa diva Celia Cruz sang a song titled "Isadora" in Duncan's honor.

Duncan is the "poor dancing girl" alluded to in The Libertines' song "Radio America".

Finnish musician Juice Leskinen recorded a song called "Isadora Duncan".

The Magnetic Fields sang "Like Isadora Duncan II, in impossibly long white scarves" in their song "Jeremy".

Vic Chesnutt recorded a song called "Isadora Duncan" on his first album, Little. He called it "the breakthrough song" for his songwriting.[citation needed]

Talking Heads sang "Je me lance vers la gloire", her (supposed) last words, in their song "Psycho Killer".

Elliott Murphy wrote a song called "Isadora's Dancers" on his 1976 album Night Lights. *Russian singer Alexander Malinin recorded a song about the death of Isadora Duncan.

Russian band Leningrad have a song about her on their Pulya (Bullet) album.

The Constantines sang "Collect the body of Isadora Duncan" in their song "The Long Distance Four", from the album Constantines.

Pete Doherty's solo song "Salome" contains the lyric, "as she dances and demands the head of Isadora Duncan on a plate".

"Isadora Duncan" is a song by Post-Hardcore band Burden of a Day. It is track 7 on their album OneOneThousand.

Literature

Isadora Duncan is referenced in the 1926 modernist Scots poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid: "Whaur's Isadora Duncan dancin noo?" (ll.30-2)

John Dos Passos devotes a section of his panoramic 1936 novel The Big Money to Duncan, called "Art and Isadora".

In Mikhail Bulgakov's story Heart of a Dog Professor Preobrazhensky compares his life with Duncan's in Moscow

Isadora Duncan is the subject of David Weiss' biographical novel, The Spirit and the Flesh, a Mass Market paperback, pub. 1959

Isadora Duncan is referenced in Sylvia Plath's poem Fever 103.

Passage by Connie Willis uses Isadora's last words as the chapter 15.

In Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, two triplets are named Isadora and Duncan after the dancer.

In Jean Anouilh's 1940 play "A Time Remembered", a prince is gripped by the past, a love affair of 3 days with the larger than life Leocadia who meets her death by scarf, in the manner of Isadora Duncan.

In Ray Loriga's novel, Héroes, published in 1993, the narrator compares the holes in his street being sketched with such conviction to "un Bugatti en la línea de la mano de Isadora Duncan".

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Isadora Duncan's Timeline

1877
May 27, 1877
San Francisco, San Francisco County, California, United States
1906
September 24, 1906
Age 29
1910
May 1, 1910
Age 32
1927
September 14, 1927
Age 50
Nice, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France
????
????
????
Paris, Île-de-France, France