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The Ecstasy of a Modern Romantic

In her youth Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) more or less created what we now call American modern dance, and she soon became famous for it. She was also a beauty, leaving behind her a trail of glamorous lovers. But by 1927, when she was fifty, all that was over. Duncan was living in a rented studio in Nice. She was barely performing any longer, and years of hard living—above all, heavy drinking—had coarsened her looks. Her most recent and thorough biographer, Peter Kurth, quotes Nicolas Nabokov to the effect that, already in the early 1920s, “her baggy face was glistening and red.” Her hair was patchily hennaed; her body, heavy now, was draped in tatty shawls. She had no money. She went to parties in order to eat the canapés.

Partly, no doubt, to improve her financial situation, she decided to do something that she had talked about for years: write her memoirs. In early 1927 she signed a contract with the Liveright Publishing Corporation, in New York. For six months she worked on the book, dictating, as a rule, and usually after a number of drinks. It is reported that her first typist could be heard saying, “Miss Duncan, you don’t mean to say this…you simply cannot.” In August or September, she sent the typescript, entitled My Life, to Liveright. It was brought out that same year. This year, it will be republished, with some changes.

At least during Duncan’s early career, most concert dance, in both the United States and Western Europe, was a frivolous business, given over to the simplest entertainment values: spectacle, good cheer, thighs. This was the case, preeminently, with classical ballet, which, until Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes arrived in Paris in 1909, was scorned by people of taste. As for modern dance, it didn’t exist yet. A few imaginative soloists were at work in the seedbed, notably Loie Fuller and Ruth St. Denis. There were side matters, too. At the end of the nineteenth century, a Swiss music teacher, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, had developed a system, “rhythmic gymnastics” (widely known as eurhythmics), that, later, would come to seem an antecedent of Duncan’s Greek-nymph look. In fact, Duncan had developed her style by the time she saw any Dalcroze demonstrations. If anything, Dalcroze took from her.

More important for Duncan was something that, today, seems more quaint, the Delsarte System of Expression, invented by François Delsarte, a French teacher of acting and singing, in the late nineteenth century and popular in the United States during Duncan’s youth. Here the performers, dressed, like Dalcroze’s students, in Greek tunics, struck poses modeled on ancient sculpture and thereby represented human emotions. One is reminded of Emma Hamilton’s “attitudes.”

Of the personal qualities that Duncan brought to her art, the most powerful was a species of Platonism, a vision of dance as an exalted and abstract entity that her own creations merely, but nobly, aspired to. Writing about her mid-career collaboration with the pianist Walter Rummel (who was also her lover—she called him her Archangel) she says:

As sound and gesture flowed up to the Infinite, another answer echoed from above…. Often a curious psychosis existed in the theater such as I had not known before. If my Archangel and I had pursued these studies further, I have no doubt that we might have arrived at the spontaneous creation of movements of such spiritual force as to bring a new revelation to mankind.

To disseminate the revelation she established several schools, where, she said, her purpose was not so much to create dancers as to breed souls. She told her students, “You are walking slowly towards the light.” She spoke constantly of her “Idea,” without specifying what it was. Her good friend Max Eastman, editor of The Masses, wrote of the “admirable force of character with which Isadora insisted on being half-baked.”

From childhood, Duncan saw herself as a liberator, opposed but never vanquished by philistines. In My Life she recalls that in elementary school she gave an impromptu lecture in front of the class on how there was no Santa Claus, whereupon she was sent home by an angry teacher. This was not the last of what, with pride, she called her “famous speeches.” When she became a professional, she routinely ended her concerts by coming out in front of the curtain and describing to the audience, at length, how profound her way of dancing was, as opposed to the triviality of other ways—she called ballet “an expression of degeneration, of living death”—and on how, therefore, they should contribute to the expenses of her school. (This declamatory bent was probably the least attractive aspect of Duncan’s personality, as it is of My Life, and some reviewers had a lot of fun with it.) What appeared to her most vile about ballet was its unnaturalness: the rigid back, the studied positions, the relentless daintiness. Duncan was an exemplary bohemian—a quality that was partly rooted, no doubt, in the fact that she was from California. (She was born in San Francisco and raised, mostly, in Oakland.) That region has a history of breeding idealists, animists, nonconformists.

In keeping with her lofty aims, Duncan claimed that the source of movement was not the pelvis—as was, and is, said by most dance teachers—but the solar plexus, between the two wings of the ribcage. High and in front, it lifted the body up, up, toward the au-delà. The high-held chest can be seen in most photographs of the mature Duncan. Unfortunately there are no films. She thought film was unnatural.

In most of her concerts Duncan, no doubt inspired by Delsarte, dressed in what she called her “little white tunic,” cinched below each breast, as well as at the waist, and usually descending to about mid-calf. She wore no stockings, no shoes, and, it seems, no bra. She did wear underpants; some say it was more than underpants—a sort of teddy. In any case, there wasn’t much between her and her tunic. At that time, such a costume was scandalous, and to make it more so, she often wore it in public as well as onstage. She wanted to shock or, in any case, to teach: the beauty of the naked body, its holy innocence. The great critic André Levinson speculated that she would have danced nude but for the likelihood of “police interference.” (In this utopianism, and in other respects, Duncan was of course a harbinger of the 1960s.) Some reviewers said that she projected no eroticism. “Pure and sexless,” Carl Van Vechten called her. At least on stage, eroticism does not accord well with claims of wholesomeness.

Related to her willed naiveté was Duncan’s adoration of children. Like Rousseau, a hero of hers, she claimed that children, not adults, were wise. As they grew, civilization corrupted them, by depriving them of spontaneity and imagination. In My Life, Duncan’s students—plus her own two children, Deirdre and Patrick, born in 1906 and 1910, respectively—are always gamboling about sweetly in little tunics matching hers. They never have fights or scabby knees.

Another of her campaigns was for the liberation of women. She deplored marriage, said that it was servitude. She also defended a woman’s right to bear and raise children outside of marriage, and she did so with both her own. The father of her son, Patrick, was Paris Singer, an American and an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. According to Peter Kurth, Singer had an income of more than a million dollars a month (in today’s dollars). They never married, but he supported Duncan and her children in royal style for years. Deirdre, her daughter, was fathered by the experimental producer and set designer Edward Gordon Craig, and though at the time Duncan needed help, he gave her none. This is not a surprise, since he had—apart from Duncan and additional mistresses—a wife, a common-law wife, and five children. Indeed, for quite a while Duncan supported him. Craig was a cad.

Duncan’s sexual initiation came much later than she wanted (at age twenty-four), but she caught up. Indeed, she became notorious for making sexual overtures to any man who caught her fancy. When she met with a refusal, she explained to herself—or at least to the readers of My Life—that she suffered from men’s regarding her with too much reverence. Peter Kurth characterizes her as something close to a nymphomaniac, but I would say that she just liked sex very much, not merely as a physical experience and a proof of her allure, but also as a spur to thoughts of the infinite. She speaks of it that way.

An adjunct of Duncan’s idealism was her Hellenism, her worship of the white-marble purity, combined with the ecstasy, of ancient Greek art—notably, Greek sculptures of dance. (In this, as with the tunic, she was no doubt influenced by Delsarte.) Already in her teens, she longed to leave the United States, which, to the end of her days, she considered philistine. The Duncan family got to Europe in 1899. In London Isadora and her brother Raymond spent whole days studying Attic sculptures and vases in the British Museum, and then, when they moved to Paris the following year, in the Louvre. Isadora took these figures as models. In Paris, she and Raymond went to the park every morning and improvised dances on the lawn.

In 1903 the family at last made it to Greece. After gasping over the Acropolis, they journeyed out to a nearby hill, to find a piece of land where they might build a temple of their own. Isadora describes how, as the cart bumped up the dirt road, she and Raymond ran in front of it, hopping and skipping and weeping and singing songs of joy. One wonders whether the fifty-four-year-old Mrs. Duncan enjoyed the ride. In her early years, Isadora, the youngest child in her family, tried to take all of them—her two brothers, her sister, and her mother—with her wherever she went, and paid everyone’s expenses. Togetherness was part of the family’s creed. They called themselves the Clan Duncan. When brother Augustin had the nerve to get married, they treated him like a traitor. Isadora received similar treatment when she had her first love affair.

Outside Athens, the family eventually found a plot they liked, named Kopanos, and they set to work, drawing plans, ordering marble, and creating a daily schedule for themselves:

It was decreed to rise at sunrise. We were to greet the rising sun with joyous songs and dances. Afterwards we were to refresh ourselves with a modest bowl of goat’s milk. The mornings were to be devoted to teaching the inhabitants to dance and sing. They must be made to celebrate the Greek gods and give up their terrible modern costumes…. The afternoons were to be spent in meditation, and the evenings given over to pagan ceremonies with appropriate music.

That passage, in a few sentences, says much about Isadora and Raymond, and not only about their Hellenism, but also their solipsism. Teach the Greek goatherds to dance and sing in the Greek manner, and in more authentic clothes? As for greeting sunrise with joyous celebration, Isadora, like many other theater artists, rarely got going before noon. Even more striking is the impracticality of Isadora and Raymond’s plan. When they bought Kopanos they did not notice—or perhaps they didn’t care—that it had no source of water. Later, they tried to dig a well, to no avail. So they went back to Athens and prayed in the Acropolis, by moonlight, for water, but this didn’t work either.

Finally, they ran out of money, so Isadora left for Vienna, to perform, but she did not abandon Greek theater. She staged Attic tragedies, and for her choruses she had brought with her ten Greek boy-sopranos. The boys hated Western Europe. They didn’t understand why the restaurants served such peculiar food. Duncan says that they threw beefsteaks at the waiters and, at night, snuck out of the hotel to go to disreputable establishments. Worse, their voices broke, at which point she sent them back home.

What is amazing, and touching, about the Duncans is how seldom they were discouraged by such setbacks. Raymond stayed on at Kopanos and continued building the temple until Isadora stopped sending checks. Eventually, he moved back to Paris, and, living until 1966, four decades past Isadora, became a cherished local attraction, strolling down the Champs-Élysées in a Greek tunic, like his sister’s, and with a fillet around his shoulder-length white hair. Tour guides pointed him out. First in Paris, then in London, he established a school called the Akademia, where, he said, students could learn a complete system for living. He also made handcrafted sandals that were much in demand. Of Isadora’s siblings, Raymond, unsurprisingly, was her soulmate.

Isadora danced in seemingly simple ways: running, hopping, jumping—sometimes, just walking. And she did so in a very plain setting, with velvet curtains (usually blue), and only that, behind her. At the same time, she used grade-A concert music—Bach, Gluck, Chopin, Beethoven, Wagner—partly just because she had good taste but also, I believe, to present her dances in a setting of grandeur and thus to legitimize them. This use of concert music in conjunction with dance was rare in the West at the time, and very controversial. When Duncan made a dance to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and another to the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, it was not the dance but the music—or the impropriety of using it to accompany dance—that many of the reviews were about.

It is sometimes said that Duncan’s work, coming at the end of a period of narrative ballet, was the first abstract dance to be created in the modern period in the West. André Levinson said the opposite, and he was right. Many of the numbers in nineteenth-century story ballets (think of the “Kingdom of the Shades” scene in La Bayadère or the Rose Adagio in The Sleeping Beauty) are fundamentally abstract, while Duncan’s creations, as Levinson put it, were always “figurative.” Even if they didn’t contain an explicit narrative—which they sometimes did—they were concerned with an obvious, if generalized, emotion. In her youth, this was often ecstasy.

In 1913, she acquired another subject, forcibly. One day, in Paris, Deirdre and Patrick, aged seven and three, respectively, were being driven home, with their governess. The car stalled near the Seine. The chauffeur got out to crank the engine. When the car started, it shot across the street and into the river. Both the children and their nurse were dead before the police were able to raise the car. It is hard to imagine a worse catastrophe for a parent. It is also hard to imagine anyone’s making a greater display of her grief than Duncan did. In My Life it is a leading topic even of the introduction. But people were less fearful of sentimentality in those days.

However unique she seems, Duncan was an exemplary product of nineteenth-century Romanticism. When she spoke of her intellectual ancestors, the names that came up most often were Nietzsche and Walt Whitman. (Though she quit school at age ten, she was a great reader.) But she was also in full sympathy with the extreme forms that Romanticism assumed by the turn of the century, her own time. Her world was the one that preceded modernism, and that, in the visual arts, has been called Symbolism. The idealism of the period (for example, in the art of Puvis de Chavannes, Eugène Carrière, and Rodin, who used her as a model and, by her account, tried very hard to get her into bed); the spiritualism (theosophy, Madame Blavatsky, Yeats); the primitivism (nudity, nature worship); the turn, in theater, from representation to symbol (Adolphe Appia, Max Reinhardt, Gordon Craig); the utopian politics (communism); the feminism (dress reform, free love): Duncan was a child of her time, to say the least. She was also an heir of Wagner, the most influential artist of the late nineteenth century. Her melding of dance with high-quality music was no doubt inspired by his project of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the unification of the theatrical arts.

In one art, though—her own—Duncan acknowledged no antecedents, or peers. In her book she does not refer to Ruth St. Denis, and she handles Loie Fuller with tongs. Fuller hired Duncan to join her company on a tour, but Duncan soon decamped. She claimed that Fuller’s companion had chased her down a hotel corridor. She saw Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and praised the company, but she seems to have been unaffected by the experience.

If, however, she had few predecessors, she soon had many imitators. In the early twentieth century, not just professional dancers, but also girls on college lawns across America were skipping around in white tunics to express their emotions. This may have been due more to Dalcroze than to Duncan, but the philosophy was Duncan’s. In the claims of naturalness, of truth, made by early modern dance, Duncan was the leader, the ladder. After her, it was taken for granted that female modern dance soloists were dealing with serious matters of the heart and soul. Martha Graham, though she was a pupil of St. Denis, is unimaginable without Duncan. The same might be said of much modern dance today. Duncan was crucial in shielding the art’s idealism, and its aspiration to beauty, from the iconoclastic force of modernism.

In My Life Duncan says little about her legacy, probably because she died before she could see much of it. She left her mark not just on modern dance, however, but also on ballet, which she so despised. If she was not affected by the Ballets Russes, the Ballets Russes was affected by her. Michel Fokine, Diaghilev’s first house choreographer, was permanently changed by his encounter with her style, above all by the upper-body freedom. Great choreographers who came later—Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton—saw her, if at all, only in her late days and sometimes said unkind things about her, but they too were influenced by her, or by those whom she influenced. It took a while for these connections to be noticed, however. By the 1920s, when My Life was published, Duncan was a back number. This was the time of cocktails and jazz and postwar cynicism—indeed, modernism. She hated them all, except cocktails.

My Life is like its author: entertaining, vivid—at times, piercing—and also self-dramatizing and inaccurate. The book is less a chronicle than a song. Duncan’s story of arriving in St. Petersburg in 1905 in time to see, out of her cab window, the funeral procession of the victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre, in which the imperial police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration, is demonstrably false. Likewise her account of the conception of her third child (she is lying on a beach, weeping over her lost children; a handsome man materializes; “Is there nothing I can do for you?” he asks; “Give me a child,” she answers; he obliges) should be taken as an adaptation of the actual circumstances. She needed such stories to make sense of her life (the third child, too, died, at birth), and, with her large, generous nature, she wasn’t fussy about facts.

Furthermore, her urge toward drama is responsible for many of her book’s most remarkable qualities, notably its candid, or at least heated, reports on her sex life. Here is her account of Paris Singer’s lovemaking: “Like a flock of wild goats cropping the herbage of the soft hillside so he comes gloating over my body, and, like the earth itself, I felt a thousand mouths devouring me.” She didn’t mind telling the reader about masturbating, either: “I…often lay awake all night; my lithe, feverish hands, travelling over my body, which seemed to be possessed by thousands of demons, tried in vain to subdue or find some outlet for this suffering.” Outside pornography, this sort of thing was rarely written about in 1927.

Several such passages were deleted before the book went to press. Duncan told friends that she put in a lot of sex talk because that’s what the publisher wanted. This seems unlikely, since it appears to have been the publisher who suppressed the material. (Or maybe it’s true, and the editors just got more than they bargained for.) Other things, too, were cut—unambiguous indications of Loie Fuller’s lesbianism, a description of Gordon Craig raping Duncan’s secretary—mostly, it seems, in the service of saving reputations or avoiding lawsuits. Names were dropped or disguised. In the new edition that Liveright will publish in May, all the deleted material of interest has been restored. This book is the first unexpurgated English-language edition of My Life.

As for factual errors, they are too many to correct. Furthermore, the real truth, even if she’s not telling it, is not always easy to discover. So it was for her. “The truth runs away and hides from me,” she wrote. Finally, the book is carelessly written. The last two paragraphs of Duncan’s introduction—the description of her first reaction to the death of her children—are repeated almost word for word later on. Nor did she have the chance to correct galleys, if, indeed, she would have.

The most important omission—and one that cannot be repaired, since she never wrote it—is any account of the six years that preceded her writing of the book. During this period she, like so many intellectuals of the time, became a fervent partisan of Russian communism. She danced in the new Soviet Union and founded a school there. She also, in 1922, married the Russian poet Sergei Esenin, who was twenty-six—that is, seventeen years younger than she—and who had no language in common with her. Esenin was already a well-known artist. In addition, he was an alcoholic and a thug, and, it seems, deranged. He repeatedly beat Duncan up, and insulted her in public. (“Woman very old!”) He trashed hotel rooms in which they stayed while she was on tour. Once he threw himself through a plate-glass window. Duncan paid the bills, as she always did for her family. She left Esenin after a year. Two years later, in the Hotel Angleterre in Leningrad, he slit his wrist, wrote a farewell poem in his blood, and then hanged himself from a heating pipe.

Why did Duncan omit this? She may have been ashamed of the Russian period—ashamed of letting herself be kicked around by Esenin and also, after so much praise when she was young, of the insults she now often received from reviewers. In the early 1920s, she still put on some powerful performances. The young Frederick Ashton attended a concert of hers in 1921. Long afterward, he recalled that though she was blowsy by that time, she captivated him:

I got an impression of enormous grace, and enormous power in her dancing. She had a wonderful way of running, in which she what I call “left herself behind,” and you felt the breeze running through her hair and everything else…. She wasn’t really the old camp that everyone makes her out now, she was very serious, and held the audience and held them completely.

A half-century after seeing her, he made a piece in her honor, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan.

But her performances became increasingly fraught. George Balanchine, as a young graduate of the Petrograd Theater School, saw her just a year after Ashton. In an interview long afterward, he said that what he remembered was “a drunken, fat woman who for hours was rolling around like a pig.” In the late years she repeatedly had oopses, occasions on which a strap of her costume slipped or broke, exposing a breast. Kurth describes a scene that took place during her last (and unsuccessful) tour of the United States: she actually ripped her tunic open over her bosom and yelled at the audience, “You don’t know what beauty is! This—this is beauty!” Sometimes she sat down onstage and didn’t get up for a while.

Her legend was still great. Janet Flanner, the Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, wrote in 1927 that Duncan was more widely known in Continental Europe than any other American of the time except Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. But things were very hard for her. Partly to save herself, she began her memoir.

Soon afterward, she suffered her famous death. On September 14, 1927, just after the typescript of My Life had been sent to New York, Duncan went out for a drive with a young man, a garage mechanic, whom she had her eye on. She wore a red shawl—a gift from Mary Desti, her best friend (the mother of Preston Sturges)—that she liked very much. It had eighteen-inch fringes. As Duncan tossed the scarf over her shoulders, one of the fringes caught in the spokes of a wheel. The car had not gone more than a few feet when the shawl broke her neck. Desti, who was standing there as it happened, wrote to her son, “This, the jerk of the winding, had broken her spinal column instantly, before she could say, ‘Oh!’… For years she has wanted to die, but feared suffering. So she got her dearest wish.”

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